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"Hippo in a Tutu" reveals the hidden history of Disney's cartoon choreography

"Hippo in a Tutu" reveals the hidden history of Disney's cartoon choreography

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Almost from the very moment that Disney cartoons first came on the scene, Walt's characters began to dance.

I mean, look at Mickey's big screen debut in "Steamboat Willie." The very first time that moviegoers saw this character, he was tapping his foot & bouncing in place. That mouse was a natural-born hoofer.

Or -- better yet -- how about those bony Baryschnikovs who capered around that graveyard in the very first Silly Symphony, "Skeleton Dance" ?


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Walt seemed to know -- almost instinctively -- that, if his films were going to stand out from the crowd, that they had to take a much more sophisticated approach to music & dance. Which is why Disney Studios began offering after-hours classes in the early 1930s. Where Don Graham of the Chouinard Art Institute would bring in ballet dancers from the Los Angeles to model, so that Disney's artists & animators could then get a better handle of how to draw the human form in motion.

Which -- of course -- was the real key to Walt Disney Animation Studios being able to graduate from being this strictly-shorts operation to becoming the sort of Company that could then produce full-length animated features. This continual striving for quality, that constant effort to improve the pictures that the Mouse Factory was producing.

Of course, when it came to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Disney did have a secret weapon: 14 year-old Majorie Belcher. Starting in 1934, this professionally trained dancer appeared in dozens of 16 mm films that the Studios artists then blew up into photostats. Which were then traced so that the movement of this film's title character would be that much more life-like, would come across as that much more believably human.

To say that Belcher (later to achieve fame as the wife & longtime dancing partner of Broadway legend Gower Champion) worked under tough conditions is an understatement. More than 70 years later, Marge recalled her first day on that "small, not very well-equipped soundstage" at Disney's old studio on Hyperion Avenue:

"In cartoon language, the head is always larger than it is on the body of a human being, at least the way they were animating in those days. So in order for (the artists) to see ... the (proper) proportions, they had taken a football helmet and punched holes in the top and had painted Snow White's hairline around it.

I was under very strong lights. Now, with this football helmet on to make my head bigger, I was doing whatever (the animators) showed me from their storyboards. Well, these are the days before air conditioning (and) I nearly fainted under the lights ... It was a most uncomfortable day ... (That) football helmet was heavy and I was sweating like mad underneath it."

Eventually Disney ditched that football helmet. Though (as you'll see in the photo below) they did have young Miss Belcher work in a version of the Snow White dress that had boldly outlined seams. Which made this footage that much easier for the artists to work with when those individual frames of 16 mm film were then blown up into full-size photostats.


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Marge may been the first dancer to toil in secret for Disney (Says Belcher: "I was sworn to secrecy about all that I did ... The words rotoscoping and tracing ... were forbidden"), providing live-action reference for the Studio's artists and animators. But she wouldn't be the last. Ballet dancer Helene Stanley was filmed repeatedly in the 1950s ...


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

... Which is one of the main reasons that Briar Rose / Princess Aurora moves with such grace in "Sleeping Beauty."


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But so little is known about this aspect of Walt Disney Animation Studios' history (i.e. the on-going collaboration between animators & dancers to create cartoon choreography). Which is why it's so great that Mindy Aloff stepped into this breach. Writing "Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation " (Disney Editions, February 2009), a solid, scholarly study of dance in the Studios' animated shorts & features.

Ms. Aloff is the ideal author to have tackled this tome. As a former fellow of the Dance Critics Institute of the American Dance Festival, she has a keen understanding of this art form. More to the point, given the many columns that she's cranked out for "The New Yorker" and "The New York Times," Mindy has a gift for rooting out entertaining and informative anecdotes.


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Take -- for example -- the part of "Hippo in a Tutu" that touches on the "I Wan'na Be Like You" number from Disney's "The Jungle Book." Sure, Aloff talks about how jazzman Louis Prima provided both the voice and the live-action reference ...


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

... for King Louie.


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But Mindy also talks about what a troubled production "The Jungle Book" was. How Walt continually fought with the creative team behind this screen adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's work. Which eventually caused Bill Peet (who was then WDAS' only writer) to walk out of the Mouse House and never return. All because Bill favored a far darker take on this material. Whereas Walt wanted a version of "The Jungle Book" that could really get up and dance.

But where "Hippo in a Tutu" really shines is when Aloff talks about all of the behind-the-scenes effort that's involved in making Disney's characters dance. The people who labor in the shadows to make all this cartoon choreography seem so effortless and free. Take -- for example -- Esmerelda's oh-so-memorable pole dance in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame " 's "Topsy Turvey" number.


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Did that sensuous series of sketches just ooze out of some artist's pencil? Nope. Once again, we're in the land of live-action reference footage. In this case, Disney hired Naomi Goldberg to choreograph this particular moment in the motion picture. According to Mindy, Naomi recalled asking "Hunchback" 's producers how Esmerelda wound up on that pole. Disney's reply? "This is a cartoon. We can make anything happen."

Which is how Susan Castang (i.e. the dancer Goldberg selected to serve as Esmerelda's live-action reference model) wound up spinning around some street signs next to a playground "somewhere in the Valley" in 1996. As a Disney videographer stood nearby and recorded Susan's performance for the animators who were then working on this scene in "Hunchback."

Thanks to her thorough scholarship, Aloff is able to pay tribute to all sorts of unsung heroes of Disney dance. Not just folks like Goldberg & Castang (who worked on the Studio's contemporary animated features), but also the real pioneers of live-action reference footage. Talented performers like Freddie & Eugene Jackson, the "flash" tap act that provided inspiration for the artists who were animating the crows in "Dumbo." Or -- better yet -- African-American actress Hattie Noel ...


Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

... who served as the "body double" (so to speak) for "Fantasia" 's Hyacinth Hippo character. Mindy unearthed this amazing story about the lengths Disney artists would go to in order in order to make these dancers comfortable while they were shooting all of this live-action reference footage. As special-effects animator Al Holter recalled:

"As a student in the CalArts Animation program in 1979 to 1981, I had a caricature class taught by T. Hee, who directed the 'Dance of the Hours' sequence (in "Fantasia'). When I met (T.), he was a frail, thin old man who advocated vegetarianism. By contrast, when (Hee) was at Disney in the late 1930s, he was a huge guy with a lot of weight. (T.) once related how they shot live-action reference footage of a large dancer for the hippo. A lot of it was high-speed footage in order to catch the fleshy overlap of body mass. (Hee) said the dancer was very self-conscious about how the footage would be used. About whether or not it was being done in mockery. T. Hee said, 'No,no,' it was just going to be an aid to the artists. Then he peeled down to his shorts and, in his words, 'danced with all my bulk in front of the camera to show her that it was all done in a light spirit."

In essence, that's what Mindy Aloff has done too with "Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation." She's stripped away years of myth & misinformation in order to reveal the real history of cartoon choreography. Loaded with hundreds of photographs & drawings, this 176-page hardcover is a must-read for anyone who has a serious interest in Disney animation history.

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