"The Rich Man's Frug" by Bob Fosse: A Short Dance History Lesson

"The Rich Man's Frug" from the Broadway musical Sweet Charity is my favorite Fosse number (Beyonce's too- she did a tribute to it in her "Get Me Bodied" music video). A quick crash course in Fosse's dance style: Fosse is known for his creative use of hats + gloves, funky body positioning, and small isolated movements. His style was hugely influenced by his formative experiences dancing in burlesque clubs when he was a child, and he professed that his choreography often relied on "the oldest stripper tricks in the book." He spent countless nights conducting research at strip clubs, fascinated by bringing that movement quality to Broadway (and also because he was a serial sexual harasser/assaulter of women- I will be addressing this in a longer second post). 

Fosse loved to focus on the story told through dance. Each movement had a story behind it, and he would often ask his dancer's to say this story out loud as an exercise to get them to infuse their motions with emotions. Something that set him apart from many other choreographers was that he gave each dancer a character; no one was ever just part of the chorus. 

He made people's physical shortcomings a feature of his style, rather than a hindrance. He started using hats because he was going bald; he is naturally round shouldered so he exaggerated that; and he was self conscious about his lack of turn out, so he turned his feet in. He took his inspiration from his dancer's imperfections, too- the lead role in Sweet Charity was played by Gwen Verdon, who suffered from a severe case of rickets as a child that left her knock-kneed. You can see this in the unique body positioning in Fosse's choreography for Charity.

“The Rich Man’s Frug” showcases Fosse's unique style in three different interpretations of the Frug, an American dance craze during the mid 1960s that evolved out of the Twist and the Chicken: "The Aloof," "The Heavyweight," and "The Big Finish." This piece starts with Charity taking off her coat and looking around in a very relaxed, natural way. All the rich patrons around her remain completely still, and snap their heads to look at her, whispering "who is it?" to their neighbors. It's immediately apparent to the audience that she doesn't fit in here.

In "The Aloof," we meet Suzanne Charny, the mesmerizing lead female dancer in this number.  She enters with her pelvis thrust forward so that she is nearly in a backbend, flanked by two male dancers who lead with their chests puffed forward, holding a cigarette extended in one hand in a way that makes them look like old school butlers. Charny dances a tamed down version of the Frug, with demure wrist circles accented by her white gloves and a very small swing of the hips. All the dancers remain totally expressionless. This part of the dance really showcases Fosse's use of small isolations- like when three of the female dancers are in a figure four stance with one leg crossed over their knee and are only circling their right wrist and ankle.

There’s something amazing about the beginning of his ‘Rich Man’s Frug.’ Really, all they’re doing is walking, but the way they’re walking is telling you everything you need to know about the characters. It relies on such tiny details. And you have no tricks to hide behind, so you have to get them all exactly right.
— Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Velma in the most recent revival of Chicago).

With Fosse, less was more, and indeed the biggest challenge for his dancers was executing precise, small movements timed impeccably with the music. As noted in the quote above, dancers couldn't rely on big tricks to wow the audience, who would be comparing it with shows like Carousel and Guys and Dolls on Broadway- shows that had huge flashy musical numbers in the traditional Broadway style. Remarkably, Fosse found a flick of the wrist could capture the audience when there was no other movement to distract them. This is particularly true in "The Heavyweight" section, where the dancers switch to an entertaining Battle of the Sexes version of the Frug. They circle up with groups of three doing accentuated punching, head bobs, and chest pops to a boxing bell, and end with an impressive knockout conga line. 

"The Big Finish" starts with a red background and the dancers silhouetted, a classic Fosse motif (think Chicago's "Cell Block Tango"). In this version of the Frug, everyone in the group finally lets loose, alternating between controlled group movement and erratic solo showmanship. Ben Vereen truly steals the show in this one, leading the group in a call and refrain and dropping into an amazing split, and Charny lets go with some whiplash inducing hair whips. The fake ponytail she wears was actually so heavy that it gave her a pull burn, resulting in an infected scalp.  In addition, Fosse insisted she wear shoes a half size too small. When interviewed about the performance, she said "between my head and my feet, I was in agony! But it is better to look marvelous than to be comfortable." 

The Rich Man's Frug exemplifies many qualities that make a piece a "Fosse" piece: the white gloves, the isolated movements, the pelvis-forward walks, the theatricalization. What stands out to you in the "Rich Man's Frug"? Who are some other classic choreographers you wish you knew more about? Let me know in the comments!

Val Oliphant15 Comments