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How dance breeds romance in Broadway's Dames at Sea
Sometimes a parody becomes the very thing it's going after.
Take Dames at Sea -- the splashy 1968 musical that's about a splashy musical -- which is currently enjoying its Broadway premiere in a production directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner. Like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, Dames at Sea follows a fresh-off-the-bus, brand-new-to-the-Big-Apple chorus girl who steps into a Broadway role and becomes a star.
"It's a tribute to and a celebration of those large-style 1930s movie musicals," says Dames assistant director and choreographer Emily Morgan. "Ruby comes to New York City with a pair of tap shoes and big hopes. She gets cast in a Broadway musical the same day she arrives!"
At that, Morgan quips, "That's just how it works in musicals."
Naturally, Ruby also meets a love interest – a sailor, no less – and meanwhile, the theatre she's meant to perform in is slated to be demolished. So Ruby's plucky paramour helps get the production moved to a battleship. "The show within the show is called Dames at Sea and Ruby has to save the day," Morgan says.
As is to be expected, Dames boasts plenty of zippy tunes – the score is by Jim Wise, George Haimsohn, and Robin Miller – and a whole lot of dance. Often, these elements become a catalyst for romance. "It's You", for instance, is a ballroom number between Ruby and her fella, and by the end the two have fallen in love, seduced by the romantic power of dancing cheek to cheek.
The types of dance in this production are just as notable as the way dance serves the story. Swing, for instance, makes an historically resonant appearance. "Swing really took off in the 1930s," Morgan explains. "So it's like we're seeing the beginning of this new style as it takes off."
But tap is arguably the star here, featured in no fewer than four numbers. "Each time we see tap it's very different," Morgan says.
On one hand, a song called "Wall Street," which appears at the top of the show, uses traditional tap. "It's a bit grittier and involves hoofing" Morgan says, but it still exists within the usual norms of what we consider tap dancing. "Choo Choo Honeymoon," though, starts off as a soft shoe and expands into a complicated partner dance. "There is a rhythm tap section and a double time section," says Morgan. "It's really musical." Joan and Lucky, the actress and sailor (respectively) who perform the routine, are a perfect match, and one sees in their exchange the nuances and layers of their relationship. "There's a sweetness in the quality of how they joke and challenge each other," says Morgan.
Group numbers also take flight. "The final one is our 'bring home the bacon' number," Morgan says. "There's a lot of turning involved and intricate footwork. It's our biggest number, with five people tapping, but it also features a lot of solo footwork too."
While the style of tap dance in the production suits the show's time period, Skinner and his team don't let the work feel musty. "Contemporary tap is also totally valid, but the tap in Dames has a lot of partnering, which is very hard to do," Morgan says.
Technique and tap style aside, Morgan observes, "There is something so refreshing about the innocence of making pure sound. You are both floating on air and making music with your feet. There's something beautiful about that, and we hope we can bring this style back to the forefront and get people interested in it again."
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Eliza Bent is a Brooklyn-based playwright and reporter who writes regularly for TDF Stages. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.Photos by Jeremy Daniel. Top photo: Eloise Kropp and Cary Tedder as Ruby and her fella.