Transcript, Episode 72: Headlines Galore, Reentering Our Bodies, and the “Bend and Snap”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Lydia Murray:
And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, doing a duet rather than a trio this week. In today’s episode, we will break down an unusually large number of dance headlines—it was a very busy week in dance news, and much of it was major news. We will talk about critic Gia Kourlas’ essay on how dance can help us all figure out how to reenter our own bodies as we start, at least in the United States, to emerge from pandemic restrictions. And then, since this week marked the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Legally Blonde, we will spend a delightful few minutes discussing just how much Toni Basil’s choreography contributes to that movie, first of all, and also the origins of the “bend and snap,” because that is a story that is very much worth telling.

But first, just a little housekeeping—which this week is a reminder that before we had a podcast, we had a newsletter. And, in fact, we still do. The Dance Edit newsletter goes out every weekday. It’s a quick and handy and often rather fun way to catch up on all the dance stories of note, of which there have been a whole lot recently. You can subscribe to the newsletter for free at thedanceedit.com. And thedanceedit.com is also where you can learn more about The Dance Edit Extra, the new premium audio interview series that we’ve been talking about nonstop, and which we are so very close to launching. Stay tuned.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which just might end up being the bulk of our episode this week. There’s so much going on.

Lydia Murray:
So much news. So, after 29 years, the beloved dance hub EDGE Performing Arts Center has announced its permanent closure due to business difficulties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s devastating. I mean, they’ve obviously had a difficult rollercoaster of a year and a half, but I really thought they were going to pull through.

Lydia Murray:
I hoped so too. It’s just heartbreaking. I mean, there were such a pillar of the dance community, so it’s very sad to see them go.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. End of an era. Taking a turn into happier news: Jennifer Lopez and her Nuyorican production company are going to help develop a whole slate of contemporary adaptations of classic musicals for TV and film. This is a collaboration with the production company Skydance and the music company Concord. And Concord holds the rights to the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog, so those musicals could all be in play for adaptation. Lopez also has an option to star in at least one of the projects. So, I don’t know—should we do some dreamcasting? Which Rodgers and Hammerstein role do you want to see J.Lo in?

Lydia Murray:
Oh my gosh, too many options. I’m such a J.Lo stand. I have to admit.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh totally. I mean, I’m really just asking so I can talk about the idea I’m currently fixated on, which is, let’s give The Sound of Music another go, maybe as a series, and have J.Lo as the ultimate Baroness Von Schraeder.

Lydia Murray:
Definitely so here for that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Or if there’s room for yet another Cinderella, she could do a pretty killer fairy godmother, too.

Lydia Murray:
I want J.Lo as the fairy godmother. Please, please let that happen. Oh my goodness.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Let’s do all of it!

Lydia Murray:
Agreed. Speaking of dance and music—well, we’re always speaking of dance and music, but BTS has released a new song titled “Permission to Dance” accompanied by a very dance-filled video. The band’s label, Big Hit Music, says that the song is “dedicated to anyone who is having a bad day or is discouraged in the face of reality.” The choreography for the song’s bridge includes the international sign language for dance, fun, and peace, which reflects the inclusivity of the track’s message. It’s just so much fun—the song, the video, I feel like it definitely does its job of uplifting and helping to brighten your day.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that’s exactly what we needed right now. And I feel like we always end up discussing BTS on the weeks when you’re not on the pod, Lydia. I got very excited when I realized we’d be able to give this video a little shout with the help of our resident BTS fan.

Lydia Murray:
Yes!

Margaret Fuhrer:
The 2021 Emmy Award nominations were announced on Tuesday—with the Television Academy, first of all, giving its regards to Broadway. The list includes several nods each for the Disney+ recording of Hamilton and the HBO recording of American Utopia. And Broadway icon Billy Porter is also up for best lead actor in a drama series for his work on “Pose.” Speaking of “Pose” stars, Mj Rodriguez made history as the first transgender performer to be nominated in any of the major Emmy acting categories. She’s up for best lead actress in a drama series. Congratulations. That’s huge.

Lydia Murray:
I’m clapping right now, even though you can’t see it. It is about time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
About time. And then finally, the two choreography categories, which are outstanding choreography for variety or reality programming and outstanding choreography for scripted programming, they are both absolutely stacked. I mean, they are pretty much every year, but especially this year. We’ve got Parris Goebel nominated for the Savage x Fenty Show, multiple “Dancing with the Stars” nominations, both Mandy Moore and Luther Brown up for “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” and none other than Debbie Allen for Dolly Parton’s “Christmas on the Square” special, which—did you know she choreographed that? I was so out of that loop, I had no idea! And now all I can do is just ‘ship the heck out of Debbie and Dolly, because I have to assume they’re best friends, and that is absolutely correct, for them to be best friends. [laughter]

Lydia Murray:
I hope that is a thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Anyway, the primetime Emmy Award ceremony will air September 19th on CBS, and the Creative Arts Emmys, which is where the choreography awards are handed out, will be happening September 18th.

Lydia Murray:
And moving on to New York City Center’s upcoming 2021–2022 season. It is set to include a Fall for Dance Festival with four commissions, plus the launch of two annual dance series, and an 80th birthday celebration for choreographer Twyla Tharp. The commissions include works by Ayodele Casel, Lar Lubovitch and Justin Peck, in addition to three dances reconstructed by the Verdon Fosse Legacy, which is an institution dedicated to preserving the work of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Tons of dance stuff in their season to get excited about, as usual. Idaho’s Ballet Sun Valley Festival has returned after a pandemic hiatus—and, in fact, it’s newly expanded. We’re a little bit late to this news because the first part of the festival’s two parts this year actually concluded on Tuesday—that featured mixed programs starring dancers from several different companies. But up next, on August 22nd and 23rd, BalletX will take to the outdoor stage at the Sun Valley Pavilion. They’ll perform Matthew Neenan’s full-length contemporary ballet Sunset, o639 Hours, and also a mixed-rep gala performance. You can find out more about the festival and get tickets at balletsunvalley.org.

Lydia Murray:
The immersive show Sleep No More is scheduled to reopen in New York city this October after closing due to the pandemic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The return of immersive shows where performers might actually physically interact with you—that feels like a major post-shutdown milestone.

Lydia Murray:
Very exciting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And it employs so many dancers, so that’s great news for them too.

New York’s Park Avenue Armory has announced that the long-delayed premiere of Bill T. Jones’ work Deep Blue Sea will happen at last this fall. The work features a cast of more than 100 performers, including Jones himself; this will be the first time in a long time that he’s danced with the company. It was originally scheduled to premiere in April, 2020, and was among the first productions to be canceled during those terrible first few weeks of pandemic shutdowns. So this feels like a full-circle moment, a bit of closure. Deep Blue Sea will run at the Armory from September 28th to October 9th.

Lydia Murray:
And “wax on, wax off”—I had to do it—a musical adaptation of the hit film The Karate Kid will have a pre-Broadway tryout next spring, featuring choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Keone and Mari continuing to be literally everywhere. And you’re right, the inevitable “wax on, wax off” number—I’m excited just thinking about what they can do with that.

Lydia Murray:
Oh, same here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Lots of Broadway or Broadway-adjacent news happening this week. There is a new Guys and Dolls movie in the works—or actually, it’s officially been in the works since 2019, but the project has gained some new steam now because Bill Condon has signed on to direct. He’s probably best known for directing the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, but he also co-wrote the film version of Chicago. No word yet on the timing for this new movie or on its choreographer. Stay tuned.

Lydia Murray:
Dance/USA has released a new study showing COVID’s profound impact on the dance field. A few grim but not surprising facts: Most dance company respondents reported a decline in ticket sales of more than 74%, and approximately 80% of individual respondents reported that they were unemployed during the pandemic, while 50% of individual respondents are still not back to work yet. According to Broadway World, Dance/USA’s objective in administering this survey and analysis is to be able to make the necessary connections between individuals and organizations in the field, to provide access to needed resources, and continue to advocate on behalf of the field for much needed relief.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. As you said, few big surprises in the report, but a lot of important information. We’ll link to the full study in the show notes.

On Friday, “So You Think You Can Dance” producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a ceremony that had been postponed because of COVID. Lythgoe’s friend Priscilla Presley and his two sons acted as presenters. And Lionel Richie and “So You Think” judge Mary Murphy were also in attendance, so I’m sure he made the hot tamale train. Congrats to Nigel. Fun fact: His star is the 2,697th star on the Walk of Fame.

Lydia Murray:
And the dance world recently lost two deeply influential figures, Suzzanne Douglas and Ayesha K. Faines. Douglas was an incredibly accomplished stage and screen actress and dancer who starred in Tap and appeared in the television series “The Parent ‘Hood.” She was 64. Faines was a broadcast and print journalist who graduated from Yale University and was part of the website Grapevine TV. Her commentary and work had appeared on MTV, Essence, “Entertainment Tonight,” and Hot97 to name a few. And she was the founder of Women Love Power, a platform dedicated to empowering women. She was also a multi talented dancer who was a competitive salsa dancer. Faines was 35.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So young, oh my gosh. And if you have not seen Suzzanne Douglas and Gregory Hines dancing to “Cheek to Cheek” in the movie Tap, please go watch it immediately. They’re so incredibly charismatic together. And the dancing is unsurprisingly fabulous. It’s out there on YouTube.

So in our first discussion segment today, we’re going to talk about dance critic Gia Kourlas’ latest magnum opus in The New York Times, which talks about how bizarre it is for those of us in the US to be allowed to take up space again, after more than a year of making ourselves smaller in accordance with pandemic regulations. Gia explores the idea of retaining the sense of slow, conscious attention to one’s body—which many of us felt so acutely during shutdowns—as we come back into the world, and as we return to watching dance and dancing with each other again.

There’s a lot in this essay, and much of it touches on subjects that we’ve discussed at some length on the podcast previously. But the context here is different in that Gia is looking at things like our relationship to public space and our relationship to our own bodies through the lens of some recent performances that reflect the in-betweeness of our current moment.

Lydia Murray:
One event Gia mentions is the 2021 River to River Festival, which was created in association with Movement Research and presented three processions led by Miguel Gutierrez, Okwui Okpokwasili, and the Illustrious Blacks. And it seemed to deal with the idea of, as Gia put it, what it means to inhabit our bodies and the city as individuals and as a group. And she mentions that in a procession led by Gutierrez, he chanted “Healing is not a space of forgetting.” That was just one part of this piece that struck me, because, as it goes on to say, it does feel like a lot of people have shoved the last year and a half out of their minds. And this is a concept that I hope the dance world at large takes to heart as it emerges from the darker days of the pandemic.

That kind of connects to something that, as Margaret pointed out, we’ve discussed in previous episodes, the idea of taking care of ourselves mentally and physically as we try to navigate this time. And that challenge will continue even as the conditions improve.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, Miguel Gutierrez always getting it right. Always.

I’m an Edwin Denby obsessive, so I loved the references that she made in the piece to his essay “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets.” Denby writes about the power of deep looking—about how looking at something and really seeing it is actually an art form in itself. That was his whole MO as a dance critic and a writer. And I think that’s a skill that we have all honed during quarantine, mostly because we’ve had no choice but to slow down and study our very limited surroundings and also our own bodies, because they’re put at the forefront in a way that they aren’t usually—the idea of protecting and taking care of our bodies in the face of a pandemic. And we can and should bring that new awareness back to theaters, back to dance performances, and back into our own movement practice as things start to reopen.

I also liked her observation that a lot of dance performances, like the one at the River to River Festival that you were mentioning, Lydia, are now taking the form of processions, which feels so right in this current moment, for multiple reasons. I mean, first of all, just logistically they make sense. They’re outdoors and not confined to enclosed spaces, so they’re a low risk activity. But they’re also actually embodying this feeling of being in a liminal moment where we’re neither back to normal nor fully shut down.

So we’ll link to the full piece in the show notes. It’s worth a read. There’s a lot, a lot in it.

All right, we took a turn for the philosophical there, but now to close out the episode, we’re going to lighten things up a little bit and celebrate the 20th birthday of the cult classic movie Legally Blonde by pointing out just how important dance was to the success of that film—because it really, truly was. Last week, the Times ran an oral history of the creation of the movie, talking to a bunch of cast and crew members—not Reese, but a bunch of cast and crew members, including choreographer Toni Basil, about what made this sort of unlikely film work. And there were all kinds of gems in the reporting—more than a few of them from Basil, who is entertainment industry royalty and deserves much more recognition than she’s typically given.

Lydia Murray:
There were just so many gems in this piece. The New York Times story revealed that the original script was raunchier, for one thing. It was more in the vein of movies like American Pie. And we learned some of the other names that had been floated for the character of Elle. In addition to actresses like Christina Applegate, one was Britney Spears. And since dance is so deeply associated with the movie, but kind of in a more understated way, mainly because of the “bend and snap,” I couldn’t help but wonder what the dancing might have looked like had she been cast.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What a “what if”!

Lydia Murray:
I know, my gosh. And then how that would have later affected its transition to the stage, even though of course the dancing in the musical was already so robust and intense. And the adaptation still seemed to be so seamless, even though there were such different forms of dance between the movie and the play.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, let’s talk about the fact that this movie spawned a huge Broadway show. Because there’ve been so many movie-to-Broadway adaptations that have felt aggressively shoehorned—like, this movie didn’t really want to be a musical, but we’re going to make it sing and dance! But Legally Blonde, I mean, the idea of that film as a stage show makes complete sense. First of all, because yeah, it already has music and dance in it, obviously. Actually—I love the reveal, in the oral history, that they filmed an alternate ending for the movie with a big musical number on the courtroom steps. And that footage is in the universe somewhere! Can someone leak that, please?

Lydia Murray:
It has to be just a matter of time. I’m holding out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh. But beyond all of those musical tendencies in the film, its whole cast of characters seems kind of made for Broadway, in the sense that they’re all a little bit cartoonish in a stage-appropriate way, but the story is about how they defy those cartoony stereotypes in a way that I think actually lends itself really well to interesting expositional songwriting and stagecraft.

To be honest, the resulting musical…I think it’s so much fun. It’s super frothy. It’s not my all-time favorite thing, but it does really capture the same infectious zingy energy of the movie. And a lot of that is thanks to Jerry Mitchell’s choreography. And direction, he also directed, but especially his choreography. So again, credit for choreographers where credit is due.

Lydia Murray:
Yes, always. And also in the Times story, we learned that the idea for the “bend and snap” originated when the writers were at a bar. The producer Mark Platt wanted kind of a major set piece in the second act and the writers wanted to center it around Elle and Paulette, which led to Elle trying to help Paulette attract the UPS guy. And then Kristen Smith, one of the screenwriters, said, “You mean like this?” And essentially did the now-famous move. And from there, Toni Basil refined it into choreography and taught it.

And Jennifer Coolidge, who played Paulette, struggled with the choreography—but in the process, she tweaked it to make it true to the character, kind of grabbing her chest instead of doing the chicken wing move with the arms that everyone else did.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that quote so much, from Jennifer Coolidge, where she was saying she was having a really hard time picking up that move. And she tried to excuse herself a little bit by saying to Toni Basil, “Well, this is what Paulette would be like. She wouldn’t be any good at it.” And Toni Basil said, “Jennifer, you need to learn this dance number and do the absolute best you can, because even if you’re trying to do your best, you’ll still be the worst dancer on stage.” Amazing!

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, it worked so well for that character. And also at one point, Toni Basil mentioned that in interviews she’ll be asked, “Oh, you did the ‘bend and snap’?” And she’s choreographed iconic work for legendary artists like Tina Turner and David Bowie. But more people know her for this short dance number, which speaks for one to how important dance was to the movie, and to the role dance plays in making art accessible and relatable. For this film, dance kind of inadvertently worked as a branding tool, because one of the first things people think of in association with it is that “bend and snap” move. But it was also simple enough that made it participatory. People can do that step and have fun with it. And I think it deepened their connection to that piece of art.

And personally—and admittedly, this is probably just because I’m a dance person—but there’s something about dance in film, having something from a movie that you can embody in that way, that helps you to engage maybe more deeply, or just deeply in a different way, with that work. And I think there’s something magical about that. It’s not necessarily any different from, say, you’re reciting lines from a movie, but being able to say, “Oh, let me try to do that move that person just did”—it makes it enjoyable in a specific way, I think. And the “bend and snap” almost had the appeal of a TikTok dance in that sense, I think, but just many years earlier.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is so true! If this movie came out today, can’t you just imagine the “bend and snap” just being all over TikTok?

Lydia Murray:
All over, yeah. Could be in the works now! You never know, of course, since things catch on so many years later sometimes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I’m sure it’s already out there.

Lydia Murray:
And also, I just always like—kind of briefly getting back to the Britney Spears thing, this is just sort of an aside, but I always like to consider what an alternate version of a classic film would have been like whenever I find out that a strong dancer was almost cast in a starring role. Like MGM wanting Cyd Charisse to play the female lead in North by Northwest. That’s another one that I’m always like, what would have happened if that had actually happened?

And then also, Toni’s comment about being known for Legally Blonde points to how difficult it can be for choreographers to get recognized. I think even when they’re credited, not everyone in the general public will necessarily pay attention, perhaps, especially when that information was harder to access.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, for sure. And even today in the age of IMDB, it’s still so hard to access. It’s ridiculous. Yeah. I mean, first of all, yes, she should be remembered for so much beyond bend and snap—but also, that is an iconic film moment, and let’s attach her name to it permanently

Lydia Murray:
Toni was also one of the Lockers, which also speaks to the diversity of her work and the incredible impact she’s had on dance as a whole.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She’s been everywhere. She has done everything. Basically, bow down to Toni Basil. She’s the best.

Lydia Murray:
She deserves her flowers.

Margaret Fuhrer:

That’s where we should end. Toni Basil deserves her flowers, please!

Lydia Murray:
Yes! Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. That is our episode for this week. Thank you everyone for joining us. We’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.