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Our World

August 25, 2012

Slate: Why they still dance like Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly, one of the biggest stars and greatest innovators from Hollywood's golden age of musicals, would have been 100 years old this week. Kelly's signature turn (and turns) in the 1952 musical "Singin' in the Rain" have inspired everything from a creepy reimagining of his iconic performance in a Volkswagen commercial to a "Greatest Number of People Simultaneously Performing an Umbrella Dance at a Single Venue" attempt in honor of his centennial.

But his influence is most pervasive in the world of dance. From Broadway to music videos, R&B concerts to the big screen, choreographers of all stripes still draw on the work of Gene Kelly.

Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler was inspired by Kelly's "low-to-the-floor" and "athletic" style while working on "In the Heights," for instance, which won him a Tony. While the show's score was influenced by Latin music and hip hop, its dance routines were shaped, in part, by Gene Kelly.

Kelly called his own style a "hybrid" of various approaches to dance, including modern, ballet and tap. His work with choreographer Robert Alton on the original production of "Pal Joey" — Alton would innovatively break up the chorus line into soloists and small groups — was a source of inspiration throughout Kelly's career, as were his brief experiences watching and working with black dancers Frank Harrington and Dancing Dotson. This eclectic mix of styles can be seen in the way Kelly moves effortlessly between hoofing, lyrical steps, acrobatics and jazz dance — as in "Good Morning" from "Singin' in the Rain," or the 16-minute ballet sequence "An American in Paris."

Kelly's legacy can also be found all over music videos. The photographer Mike Salisbury shot Michael Jackson for the cover of "Off the Wall" in the "Gene Kelly white sox [sic] and loafers" — a signature look for the movie star, which would soon become the singer's own recognizable brand (with added sparkle). Just a few years later, Jackson and Paul McCartney paid homage to Kelly and "Singin' in the Rain" co-star Donald O'Connor in their video for "Say Say Say," which features outfits almost identical to the "Singin' " number "Fit as a Fiddle." Paula Abdul, first known primarily for her dancing and choreography, referenced Kelly's famous dance with Jerry the Mouse in her kitschy video for "Opposites Attract," which includes a final tap-dance breakdown.

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