You dance joy. You dance love. You dance dreams. —Gene Kelly
I must have been 11 or 12 the first time I saw him, on a video rented from the library. I remember a dazzling smile, and dancing like nothing I’d ever seen before, and an energy that seemed electric enough to let him burst right through the screen in front of my wide eyes.
And I remember walking around afterwards in something of a daze, as if the afternoon—a perfectly ordinary afternoon—had been transformed into something wonderful.
Gene Kelly, born 100 years ago today, tends to have that effect on people. That film in which I first saw him, “Singin’ in the Rain,” “runs on happy juice,” as film reviewer Austin Takahashi puts it. As for the man who was the star, co-director, and choreographer of that film, Takahashi writes, “At one point . . . I thought to myself: ‘Wow. Whatever made this guy feel that way, I want it too.’”
After more than two decades of watching and loving Gene Kelly’s movies, I know that feeling well. Whatever emotion Kelly’s character feels, he can’t contain it—it explodes from him in a flurry of movement and music, sweeping up everyone around him. And joy is the emotion he does best. He can take something as personal and private as falling in love—something that a lot of movies try to teach us should narrow our field of view to just ourselves and the beloved one—and pull the whole world into his excitement and happiness.
Watch him in this number from It’s Always Fair Weather, for instance, after a new love has turned his life upside down. There’s a moment when he suddenly remembers that he has roller skates on (only in the movies!), and realizes that people are watching him . . . and then he shrugs off the self-consciousness and gives them the show of their lives.
But Kelly didn’t just save his emotion for romantic dances. Any dancer could do that; many dancers had done that. The dancer to whom he’s most often compared, Fred Astaire, had reached the breathtaking pinnacle of that particular art form. It took Gene Kelly to come along and transcend it altogether, not just by moving film dance away from formal sets and stages and out into the streets, but by dancing with everyone, and dancing about everything.
He did away with the hundreds of clone-like chorus members who populated earlier film musicals, and he danced not just with love interests, but also with buddies, with children, with elderly ladies—with anyone who could keep up, and with many who couldn’t but had fun trying. And he could be inspired by anything: by a desire to liven up a dull speech lesson, or a career suddenly saved from disaster, or something as simple as a squeaky board and a newspaper. Sarah Crompton in the Telegraph speaks of “the way dance sprang from circumstance and looked as normal as breathing” in his movies. Romance, friendship, work, and play were all reasons for a Kelly character to dance. It was his gift to elevate the ordinary, by finding and sharing the joy hidden in it.
In a delightful article for the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture, the Rev. Dean Miller identifies this tendency by examining the opening sequence of “An American in Paris”:
We see Kelly begin his day with a beautifully choreographed dance around his very cramped space; opening his eyes, pulling up his bed, yawning, grabbing his towel and kicking away his chair, pulling out his table, setting the table, eating his breakfast. There is not a wasted motion.
It took me a while before I realized what was happening, but being forced to watch it over and over again was a gift. The scene became more beautiful, not less, with each viewing and I finally caught on that Kelly was not waking up, he was dancing. And in this dancing he was bringing amazing dignity to the everyday movements required of each of us, bringing beauty and imagination and creativity to his world and work. The small acts of awakening suddenly took on elegance.
Of course, celebrating the ordinary hardly means settling for mediocrity. Kelly’s perfectionism was legendary: His friend and three-time co-star Frank Sinatra called him “my wild Irish slavedriver,” and Debbie Reynolds and others have told vivid stories about how hard he worked his dancers. But without that constant push for perfection, he never could have been as generous as he was to his co-stars—he polished them until he was able to stand back and let them shine onscreen. And without pushing himself even harder than he pushed others, he never could have created so many moments of beauty.
Watch him perform “Almost Like Being in Love” from “Brigadoon”; he may be dancing on dirt, but he’d never use that as an excuse to get sloppy. Every movement is exquisitely finished, from the tipping of his hat to the pointing of his toes. His character is dancing only for a few farm animals and a bewildered Van Johnson, but he’s giving them an unparalleled moment of grace.
I use the word in more than one sense. Kelly was a lapsed Catholic, but I can’t help thinking that the faith in which he was raised had given him something that, whether he knew it or not, helped inspire his creative gift. I think that what we Christians call the “common grace” of God, His showering of gifts upon believers and nonbelievers alike, allowed Gene Kelly to find grace in the common things of life. Something in his dancing brings “the stab, the pain, the inconsolable longing” that make up C. S. Lewis’s definition of joy.
As Miller reflects on that sequence from “An American in Paris,” “The clip of Kelly became a visual reminder, a balletic Brother Lawrence reminding me that even the smallest movement can take on grace and give God glory as we dance as he does.” If it’s true for Gene Kelly, it’s true for all of us with whom he shared his priceless gift: that each moment of our lives—yes, even the rainy days—can give us reason to dance.
Image copyright Turner Entertainment Co.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.