This is a love letter to Bobby. No, not Bobby Kennedy, Bobby Brown or even Robby Williams…Bobby Banas. You probably don’t know his name. But you probably know his work, particularly if you are a fan of old musicals. I had a beautiful reminder yesterday morning about a huge part of my past that I rarely take the time to really hold on to and appreciate. Dance.
My friend Mimi Quillin posted a clip from the 1963 Judy Garland Show of a dance called the “Nitty Gritty.” In it you see your typical 1960’s dancers for the most part (women with beehive hairdo’s lacquered into place, flirty chiffon skirts and heels…gentlemen in skinny tuxedos.) They are performing a dance that has shades of the Frug and the Mashed Potato and they are dancing with great reserve…except for one. This one male dancer is letting his head fly about, his back slip and his hips literally wiggle (gasp!) The camera moves in for a closeup and the expression on his face says,”I could care less that I’m on national TV, I’m just dancing for me, baby”…wheeeee!
That is Bobby Banas.
Why am I writing a love letter to a 1960’s dancer? Because, quite simply, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be him. Other little boys wanted to be astronauts and policemen (it was the 60’s and 70’s) but I wanted to point my toes and stretch my legs and make beautiful shapes with my body. What’s wrong with that? According to the world at that time: everything. Officially, I was a little boy in the 70’s and despite the whole free love, peace, hippies, Black Power and any host of other liberation movements that gave rise to the age of disco…boys still didn’t have hips, and definitely wouldn’t or shouldn’t wiggle them if they did. The message was very clear that ideally, I should probably stop wiggling my hips by the time I was 10, despite the best efforts of John Travolta to change a generation. Alas, by the time I was 11, I was still wiggling.
My parents tried to embrace my wiggling by pointing me toward great black male dancers (Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey, Geoffrey Holder) but I knew that they were hoping I would outgrow this fantasy and settle into wanting to change the world as a lawyer…or at least something with a good stable income. I accepted their desire and outwardly focused my dance ambitions on the most regal and noble art of the ballet. But what they didn’t know is that my ballet fixation was a clever rouse; in my heart, I really wanted to be one of those dancer boys on TV or in the movies…like Bobby Banas. I had seen the movie Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine and the Rich Man’s Frug became my life ambition. But how does one tell one’s parents that not only do you want to be a dancer, but you really want to be that third dancer from the left who has just a little bit more spice and body English than the others.
Bobby Banas’ career is amazing. He danced with Marilyn Monroe (she kisses him at the end of the opening number of Let’s Make Love), Ann Margret and Debbie Reynolds, in movies like The Unsinkable Molly Brown and the Holy Grail of Hollywood Musicals, West Side Story. He was a Jet. He was sexy. He was strong. He was impish and Puck-like; an unpredictable beatnick in a world of dance that was careening toward the great cliff of the 1970’s when the great movie musical would go out of vogue. He wasn’t in front like Russ Tamblyn, Elliot Feld or George Chakiris, but he had just that right kind of quirky freedom that made you look, more than once. He is part of a generation of dancers who did the hard work of the movie musicals. They made the impossible choreography of Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Gene Kelly, Onna White look not only easy, but fun. I can only imagine choreographers seeing him come on to the set, looking at his elfin face and feeling his raw energy and saying, yes, yes, please make my dance look much better than I could ever have imagined.
I was very, very lucky. I had enough talent to be able to pursue the whole ballet thing and get a good foundation. It was good enough foundation for me to eventually drop ballet altogether and focus on musical theater, but not before taking class with people like Bobby Blankshine and Michael Vernon where I danced (poorly) alongside the likes of people like a retired but still magical Allegra Kent. Although I happily left 180 degree turnout and stretching my feet for a better pointe, I will always be grateful for the discipline that ballet gave me.
But why a love letter to Bobby Banas? I guess its a bit like those boys who watched Joe Namath or Doug Flutie or Willy Mays. Not only did I want to be part of that club, I learned an important lesson about my masculinity by watching dancers like him. I learned that it was good to be able to express myself physically with joy and not violence; I learned that my wiggle had nothing to do with my sexuality. I learned that I had value and uniqueness that no one could take away from me. In my pursuit of dance, I gained an appreciation for my body as an instrument that required constant and loving care, from the food I put into it to the way I trained it, to the things I asked it to do. I also gained appreciation for those who came before me and achieved much, much more than I did working with the greats. My chance encounters taking class with or meeting people like George Chakiris, Suzanne Charney, Donna McKechnie and others were moments of touching greatness that I will never forget. There is a wonderful You Tube channel out there, Dancers Over 40 (http://www.youtube.com/user/dancersover40) where you can see some of the great dancers from “back in the day” remembering their early careers and the spectacular times in which they lived and created great work. The were and still are incredible
But I write a love letter, primarily because my dancing didn’t just stay my dancing. It became life experiences on Broadway and abroad; it became a career in the fitness industry including my appearance in P90X; most importantly, as I’ve grown out of the body that could do 10 Russian splits, it became perspective on the changes that we go through in life, both physically and emotionally and has given me a foundation for my path as a minister that lets me respect the beauty that once was and the beauty that one becomes.
I can think of no greater gift than to give a little boy the freedom and encouragement to dance. Even today, boys aren’t encouraged to move their bodies in ways that aren’t goal driven. Why must a little boy run toward something, or faster than someone? Why do we ask young men to be able to push someone over, hit harder than and be strongest? Let boys move just for the sheer joy of moving. Somewhere in that boy who can bench 250 and can knock down a line of defensive linemen on the football field, there might just be a man who would rather be doing something else altogether…he might actually want to wiggle instead. And because of that wiggle, he might just turn out to be as remarkable, inspired and inspiring as someone like Bobby Banas was to me.