Monday, November 5, 2012

Guest Post: Betsy Baytos on Eccentric Dance

[post 300]

Betsy on the Steve Allen Show
I have the honor of turning my 300th post (!) over to eccentric dancer Betsy Baytos, whose documentary film project, Funny Feet: The Art of Eccentric Dance (see two posts ago) draws upon this dance background and her work as an animator with Disney Studios. A twin threat! Betsy has graciously agreed to favor us with a few guest posts on eccentric dance. For starters, she'll share some of her own work with us and explain how she came to straddle the worlds of animation and eccentric dance. (And by "straddle" I mean a full split!) 

There is a good reason I have followed the unchartered path of the eccentric dancer! Early on, while working as a young animator at Disney Studios, I studied dance from an old vaudevillian, Jon Zerby, who quickly noted my extreme flexibility and lack of control at the ballet barre, concluding that I was destined for another path. He taught me my first "silly walk" and talked a great deal about the eccentric dancers he worked with on the bill. And I never looked back.

Gil Lamb
I was always searching for new opportunities to apply the eccentric movement I learned from anyone who would teach me, and was stunned to observe actual steps, a repertoire of movement and routines that every eccentric dancer performed. The unique nature of the eccentric dancer is — depending on their flexibility and individual idiosyncrasies — to add their own twist to an already comical and exaggerated position.

There are three distinct eccentric styles: traditional (Cagney, Al Norman, Hal Leroy) inspired with a Celtic flavor of loose footwork; snakehips (Snakehips Tucker, Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway), reflecting a West African looseness in the hips; and legmania (Will B. Able, Gil Lamb, Charlotte Greenwood, Melissa Mason), which is rooted in the French can-can and takes the high kick to a new level! But many eccentrics excelled in all three, and along with great character and a storyline to dictate the reason for their movement, created their own signature act.

Will B. Able
My first mentor in eccentric was the great 6' 6" tall legmania dancer Will B. Able, who hired me for his vaudeville/burlesque Show, Baggy Pants & Co., followed by Gil Lamb, who I pulled out of a poker game at Milt Larsen's wonderful Variety Arts Theater in Los Angeles. I'll never forget Gil, staring at me incredulously while holding a spread of cards, cigar jutting out of the corner of his mouth and bifocals teetering low on the bridge of his nose, finally agreeing to teach me. After working with them both, I knew these legends were pure gold! It was Milt who then generously provided me with my first films to study from the old Ed Wynn Show, where many eccentric dancers were featured.

The Muppet Show! A friend provided me with a chance of a lifetime, and I was soon auditioning for a bewildered Jim Henson at the Beverly Wilshire, in front of their fireplace mantel, demonstrating my full-bodied eccentric dancing ostrich idea. Twelve weeks later, I was working in London on the Muppet Show, and the Betsy Bird was born!


I tried everything while working the remaining two seasons, puppeteering and exploring how the costumes could be re-designed for maximum flexibility. From there came the Muppet's first live performance at the Kennedy Center, where the Betsy Bird was featured in a bird-like, whimsical pas de deux. But London proved to be the pandora's box in my quest for eccentric knowledge, and I was stunned at the vast amount of material available and the scores of eccentric dancers abiding in this unchartered territory.

I was soon spending time with the legendary Max Wall and Benny Hill, Johnny Hutch, Norman Wisdom & Lord Lew Grade, and discovered this style was rooted in an even older European tradition. And it was here that they spoke of the "art of pantomime," the commedia slapstick school, and the advent of the American minstrel show. Here that the eccentric, the early visual comics, now integrating strong character personalities and storylines, flourished for over 200 years. It was in England where eccentric took form. I realized that eccentric dance was beyond mere satire and schtick, but a universal language, and a direct reflection of our culture.

Upon returning from the Muppet Show, I was invited to appear on the Steve Allen Show, in a sketch that was based on my actual audition. Steve, a champion of my work in this field, encouraged me to continue, as did Hermes Pann, Fred Astaire's choreographer. Hermes made clear that I understood, in one emotional moment, the torch I was destined to pass along.

More determined, I was soon back at Disney and a promotional tour for the re-release of Bambi, where I talked them into allowing me to draw, then dance with Thumper, and a 6-week tour followed.

I continued to study, learning snake-hips from Buster Brown, and doing research, whenever and wherever I was while working in the basement, on a 10' x 20' mural for Disney Corporate in New York City, that a phone call changed everything. I was soon auditioning for the Broadway Show, Stardust, with an act I had been developing for 10 years. A throw-back to vaudeville, dancing with a puppet was not unique, but coming back as the puppet, and in this case, a 1920's gigolo named "Maurice" certainly was! With a desire to perform eccentric while wearing a tux, while paying tribute to Ray Bolger and Leon Erroll, I was soon featured as the physical comedienne in the show, which ran for two years, working with the great choreographer Henry Letang (Sophisticated Ladies, Cotton Club, Tap). For the first time I could pay homage to all those eccentric masters and carry the torch that much further.

I hope you enjoyed these performances. Thank you!

Visit Betsy's web site here.

And come back soon for more eccentric posts!


rtravi20 said...

This is Amazing! Betsy, would you be willing to put down a list of films here that one could watch that have really good eccentric dance in them?


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