If you’re a musical theatre maven of any kind, then the name Fosse is probably as familiar to you as your morning cup of joe. And even if you’re not, chances are you’ve happened across his work, or influence, quite possibly without even realising it. The Bob Fosse dance style is unlike anything that has been before or since him, and many modern day bigwigs have drawn on his aesthetics in creating their unique style that we all know so well. Those iconic Jackson moves? He actually drew lavishly on Fosse’s use of movement when creating the signatures of the movement. That Beyoncé single ladies dance that we all bust out with the video? It’s actually hugely derivative of Fosse’s work- check out this clip below:
Whether you’re already in the industry, or just aspiring to be- intimately acquainting yourself with the technique and style of Fosse is going to go a long way when it comes to career. So let’s get stuck in, because let’s face it- just like ballet, Fosse is not something you can blag. You have to get it in your BONES.
Who Was Bob Fosse?
Bob Fosse was an American dancer, actor and film director; however he is most well-known as a choreographer (for which he won 8 Tony’s) and this is definitely his legacy. Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1927, Fosse started performing professionally at the age of 13 as one half of The Riff Brothers with Charles Grass. He also worked in strip clubs during his teen years, an experience which no doubt coloured his later work, much of which has a darker undercurrent referencing the more sordid aspects of the industry, and human nature.
Fosse’s big break came when working as a dancer on the film Kiss Me Kate, when he was granted the opportunity to choreograph a short dance sequence which then piqued the interest of Broadway producers George Abbot and Jerome Robbins. He then went on to choreograph a plethora of work, the first musical of which was The Pajama Game, however he is perhaps best known for Chicago and Sweet Charity. It is through these works that he created the Bob Fosse dance style that we all know and love (also know as the Fosse Amoeba.)
Later on, Fosse’s third wife- Gwen Verdon’s career would also become very fused with his own. Interestingly, they only ever had one film appearance together which was ‘whose got the pain?’ Whilst Verdon’s film career was minor compared to her theatre accolades, they nevertheless worked together a huge amount, with Fosse choreographing and directing her in Sweet Charity, and later on Chicago. He also directed Pippin, which he won a Tony for.
What Is Fosse?
Although Fosse directed 5 films, he was not your typical dancing golden boy- he had poor turnout and posture, and was known to slouch. Talk about not fitting the mold! His real stroke of genius lay in embracing these qualities- and creating a brand new style suited to him. This is perhaps the biggest signature of artistic genius- if you don’t fit inside the box, build a box that fits you! Perhaps this is the biggest lesson we can learn as performers.
Garnering Astaire as one of his key influences, Fosse used props in the form of canes, bowler hats and chairs. A lot of trademarks were actually made up of Fosse’s insecurities, such as the use of gloves (he didn’t like his hands,) and the use of hats (because of his baldness.) These became some of the biggest Fosse trademarks.
Drawing on many styles- burlesque, ballet, jazz, traditional music hall, gypsy dance, African dance and vaudeville- the Bob Fosse dance style is ultimately an amalgamation of all these different things. He was also incredibly story driven, which is why he always referred to his dancers as actors. Whilst Fosse is the epitome of class, his work often depicts darker undertones, no doubt influenced by his work in strip clubs as a teen. This is in fact what prompted his foray into directing, as he was sick of his choreography being subverted or watered down; it’s lude undercurrent and themes would make other directors uncomfortable as they often viewed it as improper.
Bob Fosse Dance Style And Moves
To get an idea of Fosse’s style, check out these moves that have been coined from a production of Chicago. These include: Crunchy Granola, Erte and The Pippin.
As you can see, Fosse is very much about the art of detail. Every hand, elbow, knee, even eye line has a place. Some other features of his work include:
- Turned in legs
- Cupped hands (like your holding a soft-boiled egg)
- Floppy hands to hips, with elbows tucked in and back
- Very articulated hand movements
- Hip isolations
- Hinging back so your body is a diagonal line
- Clicks with the snap of the wrists, particularly whilst keeping the rest of the arm still.
- Curved shoulders
- Sideways shuffling
A lot of the movement is anchored in stillness, the parts that are not moving equally important as those that are. Whilst Fosse’s artistic flair has a clean minimalist edge, that doesn’t make it easy- in fact, it’s quite the opposite. To me, the Fosse style has always been what I call goofy sexy. It’s that paradox of interesting angles (hence the goofy part,) isolations, turned in legs, and fluidity which all combine to create that sex appeal, with a hint of awkward.
Whilst obviously he didn’t essentially have a monopoly on isolation, jazz hands or props, it is the marriage of these aspects together which created a brand new style which as a legacy screams Fosse.
1. Soft Boiled Egg Hands- this is where your hands make a loose fist, but like you’re holding a soft-boiled egg. So typically your thumb will be tucked in, but there will be a circle in the middle that you can see through (just enough space for an egg.)
2. Broken Doll Walk- think feet turned in, with hands hanging loosely on hips. To get an idea of some of the walks checks out this great video below:
3. Jazz Hands- fingers splayed, you shake your hands. Although these weren’t Fosse’s invention, he definitely brought them more to the forefront.
4. The Rake: angled torso, working leg extended in front, turned out. The upper stage hand is to the rim of your bowler hat, downstage hand hangs on the hip with elbow tucked in.
5. The Crane: one knee bent to parallel retiree, supporting leg is bent on Demi pointe, torso contracted with head tucked in creating a C shape and arms curved back.
6. The Amoeba- combination of some of his most famous moves: think pigeon-toes, finger snaps, shoulder rolls, jazz hands and hip isolations.
7. Crescent Jump- the legs are in parallel, one leg comes in to a coupe as you jump.
8. The Drip: facing sideways with front leg popped, but with the torso facing front. The elbows are tucked in to sides, with lower arms extending out. The wrists are broken so the hands hang down- the idea being that if you poured water over the dancer, it would run down their arms, and drip off.
9. Slow Burn- eye line shifting slowly from one side of the stage to the other.
10. Steam Heat: dancers stand in an inverted 2nd position (think pigeon-toed) torso is leaning forward with teacup hands on hat.
Fosse loved playing with paradox, the idea of the moves according to Reinking being both ‘elegant and broken at the same time.’
11. The Stack: an optical illusion involving several dancers. One sits on a chair in a plie in 2nd with arms in a high V. The 2nd dancer then sits in front of them, legs together. Hands are out in 2nd. The final dancer then sits on the lap of dancer number 2 with arms in a low V. Each dancer has fingers splayed. The stack can also be done standing.
12. Linkage: dancers are linked through locked arms (either up or down) and bent elbows, fingers splayed. Takes place whilst walking downstage with slight body roll.
Sadly Bob Fosse died from a heart attack when he was only 60, however his legacy has been kept alive by those he worked with- primarily Gwen Verdon and Anne Reinking. When Reinking was cast as Roxie in a revival of Chicago, she choreographed the musical in keeping with Fosse’s unique style. And then when the show Fosse was created to specifically showcase and celebrate his style, Verdon was the artistic consultant, and Reinking and Chet Walker choreographed it.
There is also a lineage of idioms throughout modern day artistic creation which are as a direct result of Bob Fosse. As well as his influence bleeding directly into the pop genre (through Jackson and Beyoncé,) he also has influenced the world of film. Prior to Fosse, it was standard practise in Hollywood to only shoot front facing or from an overhead viewpoint. However, Fosse implemented jump cuts, and shooting from other angles which would go on to change film forever and is a major influence in how music videos are shot today.
So there it is! I hope this has clarified the Bob Fosse dance style. I would always recommend where possible taking classes in the style, as at first it can feel a little unnatural and it takes time to get into the body and perfect. It is a style rooted in precision and detail.
However, I know that finding a Fosse class isn’t always easy or possible. Luckily there are some other things you can do. I would always advise watching as much footage as you can, and trying to imitate where possible. Also, reading will give you a greater understanding of the style. I was lucky enough to do one of ESC dance management’s online classes in Fosse the other day. Check out the routine I learnt below (gorgeous choreography from Scott Coldwell.)
See if you can spot some of the signatures things mentioned 🙂 This is not in a dance studio due to quarantine.
As always if you have any questions or thoughts, drop me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!