Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Guest Post: A Thanksgiving Sampler of Eccentric Dance from Betsy Baytos

Little Tich
[post 310]

It's almost Thanksgiving. Much to lament, much that needs fixing, much that can't be fixed, but as always ever so much to be thankful for. Somewhere on that list be sure to include all the talented physical comedians who have left us such a wonderful legacy. And to that list I'm adding guest blogger Betsy Baytos, who once again is favoring us with some more insights and fantastic footage on the subject of eccentric dance.  —jt

Okay, guys....guess what I found and you know I'll want to join!  —

"Welcome to the Eccentric Club (UK), formerly known in its various incarnations as The Illustrious Society of Eccentrics, The Everlasting Society of Eccentrics, The Eccentric Society Club and, finally, The Eccentric Club."  Is this fate?

A Quick Eccentric History:
Ever since the caveman first spoke and gestured, there must have been some sort of "silly walks" around the proverbial camp fire. Unfortunately we haven't found those cave drawings yet, but we do know that it is a genre of popular theatrical dance that can be traced from early Greek and Roman entertainment, revolving around ridiculous re-enactments of life. Back then it was surely safer not to speak (bald emperor jokes were strictly forbidden), but the visual comedian had inadvertently created a universal language, as classic mime slid into comic drama. I was amazed to learn how pantomime shaped the eccentric's path early on, through the Roman pantomimists' wearing of various masks, and the reliance on body language and gesture, which were and still are expressive and important in the eccentric's vocabulary. The Eccentric's tricks are ancient, from medieval graffiti as church carvings to English hieroglyphics....hmmm, that must be where those "wild and crazy" sand dancers, Wilson & Kepple come in!

Dancing in character has been around for centuries. Asia, India and Balinese movement can be seen in the eccentric's sometimes angular and "silhouette style. According to Lincoln Kirstein (ABT, NYC Ballet), "Noverre and the 18th century ballet masters called such work "grotesque dancing" and acknowledged it as an old and definite tradition. The French still have a recognizable vocabulary in La Danse Eccentrique. In contemporary terms it immediately suggests the can-can or chahut.... The Venetian baller master, Gregorio Lambranzi, issued his New and Curious School of Theatrical Dancing (1716). One hundred and two plates suggest all manner of acrobatic and eccentric dance combinations."

But what changed everything was the French Arlequin comic dances, which led to the English Pantomime, with commedia dell'arte characters, music, and dance.

With the advent of the music hall, specialty acts, schooled in the French and commedia slapstick tradition, flourished and provided the perfect training ground for the eccentric character. Grimaldi became a star and the "joey clown" was born! Even Charles "Boz" Dickens, whose first book was Memoirs of Grimaldi, would dance the 'hornpipe', an eccentric staple, for his friends. The music hall provided a refuge for the eccentric's development, as Dan Leno, Little Tich and countless others perfected their craft.

Here's a clip of the incomparable Little Tich:

The arrival of the American minstrel show in the mid-1800's was the turning point in the eccentric's evolution. Three distinct styles of eccentric emerged:

Legmania — spun from the extreme French can-can kicks. Here's Melissa Mason, who could rotate her hips a full 360°!

Classic Eccentric — Celtic influence with frenetic "below the waist" leg flips, performed here by Al Norman (entering at the 1:10 mark):

Snakehips — with West African undulating hip swings & extreme body fluidity, performed here by Snakehips Tucker:

FYI: The word itself: So far the earliest I have found the actual term "eccentric dance" in print was 1842, in an old, little book, The Variety Stage, but I may well find earlier references when I return to the UK....I know you were all wondering....)

To me, the beauty of eccentric dance is how everything depends on the solo dancer. Their physical idiosyncracies, fexibility and comic mannerisms, make it unique to them. Add to that a character, a narrative, and a costume to accentuate or disguise the dancer's physicality, music to punctuate the routine, and you have the quintessential eccentric dancer. Eeccentrics work on the basis of deliberate caricature & parody, often bringing them in subtle conflict with classic dance, as seen in this wonderful Fanny Brice ballet parody, Be Yourself (first 2 1/2 minutes of clip):

Billy Dainty
Or spoofing any kind of "classic" dance, as seen here with the wonderful English eccentric Billy Dainty as Mr. Pastry. I love Mr. Pastry for being such a silly character, doing such a profoundly ridiculous Edwardian dance. It never fails to make me laugh!

Here's another favorite to enjoy: The Ritz Brothers in the number He Ain't Got Rhythm, from Wake Up & Live (1937)

One of my earliest research references was the first Dance Magazines (circa 1919-1934) loaned to me by the vaudeville historian, Kendall Capps, a child star in vaudeville who worked with the Marx Brothers and whose father had done an eccentric act. I was shocked at the numerous reference to eccentric dancers, documented routines & costuming ideas, sheet music and ads for Selva shoes, featuring the famous "eccentric dance" team of Fred and Adele Astaire! These magazines covered the New York Broadway stage & vaudeville houses, and boasted over 150 schools, including the Russian Ballet, which taught eccentric dance! This was a turning point and I knew this was more than just schtick!

And as they say, the rest is history! I will include another update of some of my favorite routines....but I need to say once more how wonderful it has been to meet you all! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Cheers! "Your resident Eccentric"....Betsy


Click here for Betsy's web site.
Click here for all of her guest posts to this blog.

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