Dancing at Cameras: Movie stars, then and now

We often say Discotrope depicts a slice of cinematic history – people dancing “at” cameras. That might sound as enigmatic as dancing “about” architecture. So what exactly do we mean?

When we started looking at dance films for Discotrope, we noticed something. There were plenty of films made “of” people dancing. These were generally shot in narrative style – the viewer was a “fly-on-the-wall” observer of whom the dancers were seemingly unaware.  But there were others where the dancers were clearly dancing directly for/to/at the viewer. In these films, dancers typically (but not always) look directly into the camera, and cuts are sparse. They’re shot and performed more like dance performances than films, and the result is a more direct relationship between the dancer and the audience. This is what we mean by dancing “at” cameras.

We also noticed some interesting things historically. Dancing at cameras was fairly common in very old movies (i.e. Edison era). That’s not surprising, since a) movies of that vintage were largely demonstrations of cinematic technology and b) early movies were stylistically similar to their predecessors, theatrical productions. These early films were generally shot with a proscenium viewpoint; the camera was primarily positioned at the front of an invisible “stage” into the 1920’s. Even through the 1930’s and 40’s, dance sequences were often shot more as performances directly for the audience than as part of the narrative. But you don’t see direct point-of-view dance sequences much in Western cinema of recent decades; they’ve mostly been subsumed into the cinematic style and seamless character portrayal of the narrative.  (Eastern cinemas of course have their own histories. Bollywood films, for example, have much different traditions with respect to dance. And mid-20th century Middle Eastern belly dance films were big on dancing at cameras; some of these make appearances in Discotrope.)

Fast forward: With the advent of webcams and especially of YouTube, we’ve seen an explosion of people dancing – and doing just about anything else – at cameras. Direct-to-audience is back – at least from the DIY dancers on our computer screens. The big difference, of course, is that now it’s mostly self-cast and self-directed. People dance for us as they want to. Which sometimes changes things a lot – and sometimes, not so much. So, in addition to the historical stuff, you’ll also see quite a few of these newer stars in Disctrope. It’s a little like the old and new of the Discotrope contraption, where zoetropes meet disco balls meet solar energy. What comes around goes around…

We recently came across YouTube: the New Cinema of Attractions by Teresa Rizzo.  She discusses similar issues, but in more general terms of how cinema has shifted from exhibition to voyeurism and back again. We enjoyed the article and recommend giving it a read if you can.

Meanwhile, we’ve been working away at Discotrope. We’ll have a new video for you soon showing some of the old and new at-camera dancers, as well as some of the new ball and visual choreography and a preview of the generative musical score Cristyn’s been working on.

Stay tuned to this theater channel domain…