You Can Thank Bob Fosse For Your Jazz Hands

Photo: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images.
A very specific segment of the population — namely, musical theater fanatics – has been holding its breath for the arrival of the FX mini-series Fosse/Verdon. The wait is over. The show, which looks into the marriage of musical theater legends Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse, premieres on Tuesday, April 9.
Fosse/Verdon assumes its viewers know quite a bit about Verdon, Fosse, and their staggering impact on modern musical theater as we know it. But what about those of us who didn’t audition for high school musicals or wait in line for Broadway lottery tickets on a regular basis? How are we to proceed? Fear not: We’ll get you acquainted with Fosse and Verdon’s legacies. You already know more than you think.
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Bob Fosse was a dancer and choreographer who, with his distinct style, reshaped the aesthetics of modern musical theater. When you see a Fosse dance move, you know it’s a Fosse move. Think curved shoulders, turned-in knees, bowler hats, punctuated hand movements, finger snaps, sideways shuffling — and, yes, jazz hands.
Fosse's style was characterized by its slow, angular sensuality. The style ended up being inextricably linked to the multiple Broadway musicals he choreographed, including The Pajama Game (1955), Damn Yankees (1956), Sweet Charity (1966), Pippin (1973), Chicago (1975). When Pippin was revived in 2013, it featured Fosse's original choreography.
Though Fosse got his start in live theater, his moves are visible all over cinema, too. Fosse directed five feature films. The first was Sweet Charity (1969), a movie adaptation of the theater version that starred Fosse's wife, Gwen Verdon. Fosse/Verdon focuses especially on Fosse's next movie, Cabaret (1972), which starred Liza Minnelli in her Oscar-winning role. Though he died before he could adapt Chicago for a film, his jazz choreography features heavily in the 2002 Oscar-winning movie.
Even if you've never seen Cabaret or Chicago, you've likely come across mention of Fosse's signature move: Jazz hands. For example, in the seventh season of The Office, Jim (John Krasinski) does “jazz hands” every time Dwight (Rainn Wilson) sneezes to drive his work nemesis just a bit crazier. While Fosse didn’t invent jazz hands, he brought the move to the mainstream — the show Pippin, which he directed, begins with a sea of jazz hands on a dark stage.
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Given their ubiquity, Fosse's moves have also been satirized. Take this SNL skit, in which Christina Applegate (who herself starred in a Broadway revival of Sweet Charity in 2005) plays a high school dance instructor trying to teach her students to emulate Fosse. It goes way over their heads.
Frequently, the word "Fosse" will be used to encapsulate a dance move. So, in The Birdcage, Armand (Robin Williams) shouted out "Fosse" as a directive. A similar thing happens in the current Broadway show Tootsie, and it's played for major gags.
Verdon, the other essential half of Fosse/Verdon (and Fosse's life), was an acclaimed dancer and performer in her own right. Verdon won four Tony Awards for dancing and was nominated for three Emmys. She met Fosse during rehearsals for Damn Yankees; they collaborated for the theater version of Sweet Charity, too.
Until now, Verdon's legacy was often overshadowed by Fosse's, despite her tremendous contributions. "She was in the shadow of my father for a long time," Nicole Fosse, the couple's daughter, told ET. "She was not the director, she was not the choreographer, although she contributed behind the scenes an incredible amount. So, I'm very happy that she's really being brought forth into the public eye."
Fosse/Verdon showcases Verdon's role in shaping musical theater as much as it does Fosse's.
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