Virtual Vaudeville Title

Recreating Frank Bush's Dance:
Notes from the Choreographer


Mark Wheeler
University of Georgia

My invitation to choreograph song and dance sequences for the Frank Bush segment of the Virtual Vaudeville project necessitated a practical exploration of early tap dance, using sources readily available to me: historical references to Bush's act, published texts reporting popular stage dance of the era, and excerpts from selected feature length films.

Descriptions of Frank Bush's dance style use the folk/social dance terms "polka" and "schottische," and refer to the movements of Hopi Indians, all in the context of "monkeyshines and inartistic exaggerations."  And in these sources one finds the word "eccentric": 

The gibberish matched his eccentric performance and was received with guffaws.

Bush may well have been vaudeville's first eccentric dancer.

Dance scholar Beverly Fletcher describes "eccentric dance" as "a catch-all phrase for dancers who have their own non-conforming style and personality" (26). She goes on to say that it

[e]mbraces comedic movement; odd or individual interpretation; and all styles and presentations that are of a non-conforming nature.  It may be as subtle as a Chaplin or as blatant as a circus clown.  Many times it evolves around a character or a situation and is usually performed without words.  The terms legomania and rubber legs are often coupled with this dance form. (28)

Famous examples of eccentric dancers include Ray Bolger, Charlie Chaplin, George M. Cohan, Buddy Ebsen, and Bill Robinson (28).

With this information under my belt, I went to work in the studio.

The association of "eccentric dance" to Charlie Chaplin took me to Chaplin's walk, with its characteristic side to side swaying.  And the walk led naturally into a bell kick ("bell" in Fletcher's book).  The kick of the bell kick was a natural for the prat-fall of Bush colliding with his trunk.

The association of Frank Bush with eccentric dance and the association of eccentric dance with Ray Bolger, George M. Cohan, and Buddy Ebsen invited me to visit my visual and motor memories of  Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, of Jimmy Cagney as Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, particularly in the "horsey set" satire with business on a gymnast's "horse," of Buddy Ebsen in "The Acheson, Topeka, of the Santa Fe" number in The Harvey Girls, and of the "legomania" of Donald O'Connor's performance of "Make Em Laugh" in Singing in the Rain.

My motor response to this composite image of eccentric dance was the three shuffles in succession a la a marionette which begins the dance section. And just when I was thinking that nothing "Jewish" had particularly influenced my thoughts, I realized that the deep, bent-kneed walk of Groucho Marx was part of my vision;  I see Groucho as an heir to Frank Bush's schtick.

The schottische is step, step, step, hop.  David Saltz pointed out the reference to Hopi ritual in one of the commentaries of the day, and I realized that it would be natural for Frank Bush to fuse an overly sentimental hora (complete with grapevine) with a native American "tom-tom" step (step step step hop).  (In a Spring 2004 segment of his NPR-PRI program Schickele Mix, Peter Schickele reminded me that my idea of "tom-tom" music had within it a memory of Irving Berlin's "I'm an Indian, Too" in Annie, Get Your Gun.)  The key to making this fusion work was the farcically sudden musical mode shift and tempo change from the syrupy slow hora to the frenzied "Hopi schottische" in the arrangement of Bush's song created by Virtual Vaudeville Musical Director Rachel Townes.

We decided to expand the music between some of the sections to create good transitions between singing and dancing phrases.  In the most successful of our adaptations of music the melody is changed from the major mode to the minor or Gypsy blues mode, and the meter and tempo from a moderate shuffle to: first, a slow, schmaltzy rubato, and second, a frantic polka/schottische.  For the schmaltzy rubato I drew from another Russian-eastern European folk dance figure, the "Hungarian break step," with its "cross-apart-together" action of the legs.  Adding to it an exaggerated "cross-apart-together of the elbows." I used this figure for the slow beginning of the Hora.

Bill Robinson's association with eccentric dance led me to follow his entries in Fletcher's book , and the entry for "Stair Dance," which of course observes Robinson's strong association with stair-dancing, also notes that Al Leach used them in the 1880's (Fletcher, 30).   A modified stair-dancing was possible due to Solomon Bulenrinsky's trunk that carried the feisty glass puteen's  tools of the trade.   I chose to use the stair-step capabilities of the trunk early in the routine, having Bush travel from stage R to L, moving from stage level to "up a step" and back to stage level - then back again.  And the final step of the entire number was the mazurka/Russian bottle dancer kicks from the squatting position (Jerome Robbins' choreography for Fiddler on the Roof), performed on the trunk and ending with Bulenrinsky's "bum" landing on the trunk to the sound of his glass breaking inside.

 


Reference

Fletcher, Beverly. Tapworks: A Tap Dictionary and Reference Manual, 2nd Edition. Princeton, N.J.: 2002.


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