It’s Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday today and it seemed like a good time to write a post that has been bouncing around in my head for a long time now. Lots of media outlets are already talking about Gene in eloquent glowing terms, so I’ll forgo that in favor of talking about one of the things that I believe made Gene an iconic dancer, his orientation to the ground.
Every one of us falls naturally somewhere on a sliding scale of orienting more to the moving up or moving down. Some of this is natural orientation, some influenced by culture, some influenced by training. You can particularly see it in yourself and others in how which direction we resource in a moment of stress. When suddenly forced to avoid someone on the street, do you tend more to duck (down) or jump (up). We all have some ability to access both but in almost all cases, we have a preferred orientation that we use more than the other.
I think at first, the concept of how up and down preference affects movement can be difficult to discern, so I’d like to present one of my favorite bits of contrasting film for this. “The Babbitt and the Bromide” from the film Ziegfield Follies features the film icons of up and down orientation, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, dancing together. Dancing side by side, you can start to see how they use the ground differently or rise differently. They even tend to shake hands in different ways (Fred reaching over top, Gene reaching from closer to the waist). I recommend watching this at least once before reading on to form your own impressions first.
Obviously both men are incredible dancers, but if you look for it, you can begin to see how their up or down orientation leadsthem to look better performing certain motions or moving in certain ways. Fred tends to float through the top of his leaps where Gene may not float as much but seems to land more solidly. Towards the end when they perform the ballroom and lindy-ish sections you can see each out of his element contrasted to the other in his. Gene doesn’t float through a waltz the way Fred can and Fred does’t achieve the athletic look that Gene does in the next section. Gene’s legs hold him up and drive him around the floor where Fred’s almost seem to hang from his body at times.
This is not to say that one or the other is correct, but rather to illustrate that both orientations have their uses, their pluses and minuses. As dancers I believe a great goal is to develop the use of both, to be “human being suspended between earth and sky” in the words of Hubert Godard. Fred and Gene are both incredible dancers because they can use both up and down in their dancing, but at the same time, their preferences to use one more than the other helps to make them unique, intriguing, and iconic.