The Oscar-Winning Female Choreographer: Onna White

Who watched the recent Golden Globes?

This is so fun. We are having fun. Yayyyyy

Yeah, me neither.

Who watched clips the following day of Ricky Gervais roasting all of the fancy celebrities and all of their embarrassed cringe faces?

photo via bored panda

Me too. I just love when the rich and famous are insulted while a close-up camera is right in their face. It really puts their acting skills to the test. Some of them deserve a prize for body language. I would call it, ‘best cringe choreography’.

While it’s unlikley we’ll ever see such a category, did you know that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a dance direction category for three years during the 1930’s? I’m not sure why they ended it, but ever since, the Board of Directors has only celebrated choreography through honoroary Oscars.

One such winner is Onna White, who won for her work on the best picture winning film, ‘Oliver!’ She is the only female to win. The other honorary oscars were awarded to Gene Kelly and Jerome Robbins.

photo by Rose Eichenbaum

White was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1922. Her father was a barber and her mother was a schoolteacher. She was a very sickly child, suffering from frequent fainting spells, and it was suggested to her parents that she shuld have a lot of excercise to build strength. She started with gymnastics, and began ballet when she was twelve. At seventeen, she went to take classes with the San Fransisco Ballet and was soon invted to join the company. After a few years in ballet, she wanted to do somthing other than Swan Lake, and moved to New York to pursuit Broadway. Her first audition was for Michael Kidd in the show, ‘Finian’s Rainbow’, which has a ballet combination. She got the job. She danced in many shows, and then also became Kidd’s choreography assistant before her own career began.

It seems to me like there is some effort from organizations to recognize female choreographers today, The Center for Ballet and the Arts is one. My friend and dancer, Dasha Schwartz, was recently recognized for her modern efforts to reach new audiences with her company, Cardboard Stage. It is interesting that we still seem to have to put a special spotlight on women who choreograph.

Spotlight on my girl Dasha:

When asked if it is difficult to be a woman in a male-dominated profession like choreography, White responded,

“If you prove yourself, honey, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman”

-Eichenbaum, p.39- yes, this is from my all-time favorite, Masters of Movement book which is ALL OVER this blog, but you can find more here: and here

Apparently, despite having Tony nominations and such a successful career already established, the author of Oliver didn’t want White as choreographer, first because she was a woman, and second,because she wasn’t English. Luckily, Columbia Pictures put their foot down and said she was hired. But she was tested by having to quickly choreograph the ‘Who Will Buy’ number.

photo via pinimg

The dance required 265 people, and 8 assistants to coordinate scenery changes. It was all done in one location, but made to look like an entire London neighborhood.

I suppose it really helps to have a major motion picture studio backing you, to make choices that are big and bold, to have the opportunity in the first place. But I also think it’s important for female choreographers of today to know where the pathways through the impermeable monoculture of majority in any industry have been forged before.

When asked about the challenges and pressure with work, White said,

‘I had learned my craft well. My brain was working fluently, and I was never at a loss for ideas. I just took charge. I went ahead and did my best, and it turned out pretty darn good. I’ve been lucky. Write in your book that luck has a lot to do with success.”

I don’t think they give out honorary Oscars for luck, though. Learn the craft, take charge. Keep at it, fellow female choreographers.

Oh another award? Denzel don’t care



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