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‘Broken Dolls’: Representations of Dancing Women in the Broadway Musical


From its earliest beginnings, the musical theatre has been a site of sexual titillation in the form of the female dancing body. The 1866 stage spectacle, The Black Crook (1866) with its hordes of barely dressed dancing women, established an audience for lines of girls performing drill routines in the pink hose known as ‘fleshings’.[1] In the 1920s, with her bare legs and wholesome grin, the professional chorus girl became a symbol of health, vigour, female independence and unencumbered sex, and Broadway became a prime purveyor of a patriarchal invention of female sexuality, employing hundreds of chorus girls annually in a collection of sleek modern revue productions.[2]

In 1943 with her dances for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!,Agnes de Mille re-invented the function of dance and the chorus girl on the Broadway stage by engaging in a decidedly female-centric agenda and employing dance as a narrative tool capable of enriching librettos. Her dream ballet, ‘Laurey Makes up Her Mind’ explored the suppressed sexual desires of the play’s heroine, Laurey, and featured the ‘Postcard Girls’, garishly dressed saloon dancers. The ballet changed the function of dance in the musical theater and introduced a new breed of chorus girl, the dancer-actor, to the Broadway stage.

In 1966, twenty-three years after the Broadway production of Oklahoma!, Bob Fosse created another version of the dance hall girl in the musical number ‘Big Spender’ created for Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ musical, Sweet Charity. The number depicts a group of taxi dancers at work in the Fan-Dango Ballroom, a Times Square dance hall. The movement lexicon that Fosse developed for ‘Big Spender’ defines his late career dance style and remains a pervasive influence on the presentation of the female dancing body in the commercial theater.[3]

Both de Mille and Fosse used dance to enhance their respective librettos. How they chose to present women within the dramaturgical parameters of the librettos and how dance is capable of expressing what is left unspoken in the libretto will be discussed here. In her ballet, Laurey Makes up her Mind, de Mille drew on elements from the text to construct a subconscious narrative for Laurey that afforded her the opportunity to explore Laurey’s unspoken desires through the medium of dance in a manner that surpassed that which could be addressed in song or dialogue. Alone on the prairie, miles away from the closest neighbour, Laurey and her elderly Aunt Eller are dependent on their hired hand, Jud, for their very survival.  He has become obsessed with Laurey and is determined to have her despite her disinterest. Frightened and inexperienced with men, Laurey is incapable of rejecting Jud’s aggressive advances.  Her fear is complicated by her fascination with the sexual images of women she has seen on the postcards decorating the walls of his cabin.  It was de Mille’s conceit that Laurey secretly identified with the ‘Postcard Girls’ and was as frightened of her own desires as she was of Jud.[4]

Rather than presenting the ‘Postcard Girls’ realistically in a raucous bar room performing dances appropriate to the time and place, de Mille created a surreal image of the saloon girls as seen through the lens of Laurey’s sexual naiveté.[5] Working with methodologies developed by Louis Horst, one of the primary architects of American modern dance, de Mille employed his method of modernist distortion to create a movement vocabulary. Influenced by Freudian psychology and the study of the subconscious, Horst developed the method, Introspection-Expression as a technique for discovering movement. Using Freudian analysis as his map, Horst devised a system for the choreographer to examine inner feelings, to delve into personal interior landscapes and discover ‘inward-turning’, ‘in-pointing’ movement.  Just as a psychoanalyst leads a patient back to childhood in order to discover suppressed feelings, Horst developed the method of Introspection-Expression to guide the choreographer in developing movement which originated from an essential, personal emotion. This ‘inward-turning’ abounds in the work of Martha Graham, and is one of the principle defining physical characteristics of the early American modern dance canon.[6]

Creating a modernistic deconstruction of the archetypal dance hall girl, de Mille rebuilt her construct as an extension of Laurey’s psyche. The saloon girls performed a non-emotive mechanical exhibition, aggressive in its blatant, contemptuous, and ineffectual attempt to arouse. Within the wholesome ‘Americana’ world of Oklahoma!, the ballet opened the window on a more complex reading of Laurey’s character. Broadway audiences in 1943 would not have accepted a verbal pronouncement of her sexual attraction to Jud; after all this was not romantic attraction but rather it was a woman admitting to physical desire. De Mille was able to employ the non-verbal communication of dance to express an unspoken aspect of the libretto.

Working in the paradigm established by de Mille, Fosse was also invested in the dramaturgical intent of his dances, and like de Mille he developed a unique movement style. In 1966, he conceived, directed and choreographed Sweet Charity, based on Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). The plot of the stage musical Sweet Charity revolves around a dance hall hostess, Charity Hope Valentine and her search for love. Fosse created the role for his wife, Gwen Verdon. Dramaturgically speaking, the number serves to present the dance hall girls at work in the Fan-Dango Ballroom, which was based on the Orpheum Palace located, until 1964, at 46th Street and Broadway. In an interview with dance critic Arthur Todd, Fosse explained that, ‘Before I started my choreography I spent a great deal of time observing what really went on in the remaining half-dozen dance halls in New York. They are as close to prostitution as anything you can find’ (Todd 298). Fosse’s depiction of the women in ‘Big Spender’ is, as Helen Gallagher who played Nickie in the original production said, ‘as close as the show got to saying we were hookers’ (Gottfried 179).[7] 

Never in the show’s dialogue or lyrics is the work of the dance hall hostesses overtly stated as prostitution. In ‘Big Spender’, lyricist Dorothy Fields allows the audience to fill in the blanks writing:

What do you say to a…

How’s about a…


I could give you some…

Are you ready for some…


How would you like a…

Let me show you a…

Good time.

It is only in Fosse’s choreography that the women’s work is stripped of its musical comedy sugar coating and a gritty, explicit exposition -- the physicalization of Charity’s admission that the Fan-Dango Ballroom is ‘not-a-nice-place’ -- is presented.[8] As New Yorker critic Joan Acocella wrote, ‘You sense that anyone who spent a little time with one of these women would have to go to the doctor afterward’.[9]

Consequently there exists a disconnection between Fosse’s remarks, which support the deliberate avoidance in the libretto of defining the dance hall girls as sex workers, and the impression his choreography makes.

In an interview with Dana Moore, a dancer in the 1986 Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, Moore explained that Fosse coached the women in the number, telling them that they were not prostitutes, but rather they were working girls out to make a living.[10] However, in Act II Scene 6, Nickie tells a new girl, ‘a cute lookin’ thing like you can always go into the ‘extra-curricular business’’ and there are several other mentions in the script of an ‘other business’, a vague allusion to prostitution.[11] It is made clear that the ‘other business’ does not occur on the premises of the Fan-Dango Ballroom, and Charity, who in Act II Scene 8 insists, ‘All I sell is my time’ remains isolated from any association with the sex trade.[12] It is dramaturgically significant that Charity, who is rarely off-stage throughout the evening long performance, does not appear in ‘Big Spender’ thereby supporting the libretto’s intent that she is different from her co-workers.[13]

Fosse’s first attempt at an overtly sexual dance was in his ‘Red Light Ballet’ created for New Girl in Town (1957) which gain featured Gwen Verdon in an explicit romp through a nineteenth century bordello. Photographs from the production feature female dancers draped on chairs with spread legs reminiscent of Fosse’s subsequent choreography for ‘Mein Herr’ in the film version of Cabaret (1972) New Girl in Town’sdirector, George Abbott, and producer, Harold Prince, objected to the ballet on the grounds that it ‘glamorized the bordello’.[14] In fact, due to the ballet’s graphic nature, the New Haven police department temporarily shut down the show during pre-Broadway tryouts.[15]

In the years between New Girl in Town and Sweet Charity societal attitudes toward sex experienced a transformation. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine encouraged men to avoid marriage and ‘enjoy the pleasures the female has to offer without becoming emotionally involved’, while Helen Gurley Brown in her bestseller Sex and the Single Girl told women to enjoy multiple sex partners, to pursue a career, and to use sex as the ‘powerful weapon’ it was.[16] Nonetheless despite changing sexual mores, prostitution retained its taboo status and Fosse felt it necessary to change Fellini’s prostitute, Cabiria, to the taxi dancer, Charity Hope Valentine. He told The New York Times, ‘There is something ugly about a prostitute in this country. It’s all right in Italy. I wanted to get the nearest thing to a prostitute, a promiscuous girl who sold something for money -- a dance, her understanding, conversation, something’.[17]

The number begins with the women posed in silhouette with their backs to the audience. They begin moving backwards, walking as if they’ve had a long day, but not necessarily on their feet. They roll over on their ankles and hang on a railing meant to separate them from potential customers. Executing extended moments of stillness they were coached by Fosse to perform with no facial expression.[18] They splay their legs over the railing in a gesture signalling that they are open for business, however its blatancy is derailed by the awkward distortion of the poses. Each woman’s legs and arms are crooked and bent into unnatural, forced positions. Dancer Elaine Cancilla described how Fosse achieved these designs by meticulously pushing the girls, ‘like puppets, into these broken doll positions’.[19] When they move from the lineup into a clump stage left they move as one, like an amoeba. Once regrouped, they begin a throbbing, undulating cross to stage right in which each woman, moving independently, becomes a component of the unified mass. There is a quality of decadence about them, however if it is decadence in relation to the morally corrupt world of the sex trade; decadence in relation to Fosse’s self-indulgence in objectifying the female body; or the decadence of irony, that the chorus girl is in fact dancing for pay, albeit from the safe distance of the stage, is unclear.

Dancer Dana Moore explained that Verdon described the explosive moments in ‘Big Spender’, in which the women pull upstage away from the railing, as meant to be out of the time frame of the number, representing a visceral release that contrasts with the ultra control of the moments on the railing. Kevin Boyd Grubb, in his analysis of ‘Big Spender’ wrote of the number that Fosse was, ‘clearly using dance as a metaphor for intercourse’.[20] By further dissecting the intercourse metaphor it is revealed that the out of time dance explosions represent the nebulous place of prostitution that exists throughout the show, and in that sense metaphorically represent intercourse, while the controlled moments metaphorically represent the hard work of making a living through physical labour. Fosse, through his structure and movement choices creates a competing narrative and addresses the balance between what can and cannot be expressed on a Broadway stage.

In dance terms Fosse’s choreography recalls Mary Wigman’s solo, ‘Witch Dance’ which as articulated by Sally Banes, is a ‘reclamation of the witch as a positive resistant female identity – that of a deliberately ‘bad woman’, a social rebel and unregenerate outcast’.[21] The dance is rife with slow deliberate movement, sudden charged outbursts, distorted limbs and is performed in a mask depicting an impassive expression. The impassive expression is also employed in de Mille’s ‘Postcard Girls’, and is significant in the early work of Martha Graham. Graham’s rejection of what dance writer Mark Franko calls ‘sexist emotivism’ in which the dancing body acknowledges its own sexuality was replaced by Graham with a non-emotive expression, which, as Franko writes, ‘purposefully avoided identification with the feminine as powerless’.[22] Fosse seems to be tapping, perhaps inadvertently, into a modernist and feminist discourse, and although it is impossible to determine if he was employing modernist methodology, as a student of Anna Sokolow, a close associate of Louis Horst, he was most certainly exposed to it.[23] The feminist connection is more remote given Fosse’s objectification of the female body, however when considered dramaturgically and in relation to the dual message he is delivering, feminism does not seem beyond his reach of expression. Caught in the chasm between the traditional values of home and family and Helen Gurley Brown’s popular dictums, Charity represents the tensions surrounding the changing roles of women in society.

It is notable that both choreographers utilize similar movement qualities to evoke women who sell their bodies: the ‘broken doll’ positions and the bored, contemptuous attitudes and non-emotive facial expressions. That both choreographers arrive at similar choreographic conclusions, despite the diametrically apposed dramaturgical intent of the dances, is meaningful and a subject for further research. The ‘Postcard Girls’ as a representation of Laurey are blank, as Laurey’s sexual experience is blank, whereas the taxi dancers in ‘Big Spender’ are emotionally disengaged as a result of the emotionally deadening effect of their profession. It is Charity’s inability to disengage emotionally that makes remaining an employee of the Fan-Dango Ballroom impossible. By excluding Charity from the number, Fosse supports the central notion of the musical: that Charity despite her questionable profession is pure of heart. De Mille presents Laurey as a complex, fully realized woman, contradictory in her sexual curiosity and chaste modesty. Both protagonists are depicted as pure while their dance hall girl alter egos share a secret revealed only in their dancing bodies.

Fosse’s ascendance as one of the musical theater’s most influential creators arrived as de Mille’s Broadway tenure was ending and the director-choreographer, modeled on Jerome Robbins, became the dominant creative force in musical theater. Over the remaining twenty years of his career Fosse developed the distorted, inverted movement lexicon that he invented for ‘Big Spender’ which has become the prevailing image of the twenty-first century dancing woman in the commercial theater, across mediums including Broadway, film, television and music video. This sensational style, which harkens back to the sexually titillating presentations of women in early twentieth century revue style productions became so fascinating to audiences that Fosse, in his post Sweet Charity shows, Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975), Dancin’ (1978) and Big Deal (1986) moved away from the de Mille paradigm of creating dances that enhanced the libretto, exploiting his definitive movement style, Fosse shaped librettos to conform to his dance vision.[24] As a result the ‘Fosse style’ came to define musical theater dance, and Fosse’s disregard during his late career for the process of developing movement out of the precepts of the libretto spawned a generation of choreographers who employ the ‘Fosse style’ as though there exists no alternative movement language for presenting the female body. A return to de Mille’s modernist methodology in collaboration with dramaturgical sensitivity has the potential to revive dance as a creative rather than an imitative art on the Broadway stage.

Bibliography [back to top]

Accocella, Joan, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007)

Banes, Sally, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (New York: Routledge, 1998)

Beddow, Margery, Bob Fosse’s Broadway (New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1996)

Charnin, Martin, Interview with author, November 24, 2009.

D’Emelio, John and E. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexulaity in America, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988)

Evans, Harvey, interview by Liza Gennaro, February 26, 2003, transcript, Oral History      Collection, Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts, New York, N.Y.

Franko, Mark, Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995)

Gottfried, Martin, All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse (Massachusetts: Da Capo, 1998)

Grubb, Kevin, Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982)

Horst, Louis, Modern Dance Forms: In Relation To The Other Modern Arts, (New York: Dance Horizons, 1961)

Mizejewski, Linda, Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999)

Moore, Dana, Interview with author, November 9, 2009.

Ruyter, Nancy Lee Chalfa. Reformers and Visionaries:  The Americanization of the Art of Dance (New York: Dance Horizons, 1979)

Simon, Neil, Sweet Charity, (New York: Random House, 1966)

Todd, Arthur, Dancing Times, London: March 1996. (298). NYPL Clipping File, Fosse, Bob.

References [back to top]

[1] Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter, Reformers and Visionaries:  The Americanization of the Art of Dance (New York: Dance Horizons, 1979), p.97.

[2] Linda Mizejewski, Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p.68.

[3] The ‘Fosse Style’ is pervasive on MTV video, Broadway shows and film. See: Beyonce’s video ‘Single Ladies’ and the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Nine for two examples of appropriation of the ‘Fosse Style.’

[4] Agnes de Mille notes for the 1954 screen version of Oklahoma! held at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Barbara Barker unprocessed research materials box 5.

[5] My analysis of ‘Laurey Make up her Mind’ is based on Oklahoma!,Video, directed by Fred Zinnemann (1954 M-G-M,CBS/Fox Company, 1999) and recreation performed by New York Theater Ballet. Florence Gould Hall: April 28, 2006.

[6] Louis Horst, Modern Dance Forms: In Relation To The Other Modern Arts, (New York: Dance Horizons, 1961), p.98.

[7] Martin Gottfried, All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse (Massachusetts: Da Capo, 1998), p.179.

[8] My analysis of ‘Big Spender’ is based on Sweet Charity,Video, directed by Bob Fosse (1968 Universal Pictures, MCA Universal Home Video, 1992)

[9] Joan Accocella, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), p.321; p.324.

[10] Interview with author in New York City on November 9, 2009.

[11] Neil Simon, Sweet Charity, (New York: Random House, 1966), p.92.

[12] Simon, p.99.

[13] In fact, Martin Charnin, who worked with Fosse on the original adaptation from screen to stage -- a little known fact due to legal arbitration between Charnin and producers, Fryer, Carr and Harris, Inc., which resulted in a settlement in Charnin’s favor with the stipulation that he not discuss the case -- told the author in an interview that the references to the work of the taxi dancers were deliberately vague. Charnin stated that Fosse’s choreography allowed audiences to, ‘imply prostitution.’ See: Library of Congress, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon Collection, ‘Sweet Charity’ [stage version] (Fosse and Verdon) http://www.loc.gov/rr/perform/special/fosse.html

[14] Kevin Grubb, Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), p.80; p.81; Martin Gottfried, All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse (Massachusetts: Da Capo, 1998), p.107.

[15] Harvey Evans, an original cast member in New Girl in Town, recounted this in an interview with the author. Interview by Liza Gennaro, February 26, 2003, transcript, Oral History Collection, Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts, New York, N.Y.

[16] John D’Emelio and E. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexulaity in America, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p.302.

[17] Grubb, p.120.

[18] Margery Beddow, Bob Fosse’s Broadway (New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1996), p.44.

[19] Gottfried, p.180.

[20] Grubb, p.134.

[21] Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (New York: Routledge, 1998), p.133.

[22] Mark Franko, Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), p.44

[23] Anna Soklow was among the second generation of American modern dancers and choreographers. She created socially relevant choreographic works and is defined as an agit-prop or revolutionary choreographer. See: Franko, Mark. Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

[24] A prime example is the musical Pippin. The show recounts the story of Prince Pippin, son of King Charlemagne, however the dances do not draw on historic 8th century dance, rather they are contemporary, rendered in the ‘Fosse Style.’

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