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



President Barack Obama presents Dancer/Choreographer Bill T. Jones with 2013 National Medal of Arts

I don’t really remember how I came to be introduced to famed dancer, prolific choreographer, ‘Socrates of the dance world’ Bill T. Jones. I have the feeling that it was one of those moments where someone more knowledgable than I said something akin to, “you mean you DON’T know who this famous, respected influential person is? Can I come visit the rock under which you’ve been living?‘ And I probably pretended to know ALL about him.

Here is a man whose accomplishments are so far-reaching and diverse in the realms of dance, humanities, and art that it’s hard to keep track, even for someone whose brain catalogue is pretty limited to ‘keeping track of awesome dance folk in the world’. Here are a few highlights from the list:

  • 1994 MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient
  • 2010 Kennedy Center Honors
  • 2009 inducted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Tony Award for Best Choreography for Fela! (my interview with Fela dancer, Hettie Barnhill) in 2010/ for Spring Awakening in 2007
  • 140+ Dance works created within Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company since it’s founding in 1982 and recieving grants from the National Endowment for th Arts for these projects in 80,81, and 82
  • Featured in 2010 on HBO’s documentary series MASTERCLASS
  • Feaured as one of 22 prominent black Americans in 2008 on HBO’s The Black List
  • His piece, D-Man in the Waters’ was showcased  on the Emmy-award winning PBS special ‘Free to Dance’
  • Published a memoir, ‘Last Night on Earth’ through Pantheon in 1995

This is just the tip of the iceberg. You get the gist. And now he can add….

2013 Recipient of the National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama

The National Medal of Arts is the highest award presented to artists and art patrons by the United States Government and is awarded to individuals or groups who “are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, support, growth , and availability of the arts in the United States”. Nominations are made annually by the American public and selected by the President.

I am amazed by several things here;

  1. The longevity of his career. Think for a moment that I was not even born, and wouldn’t be born for another four years after he began the company that has produced over 140 works, and is still going strong today, more than 30 years later. That is committment.
  2.  The relevance of his career. When Alvin Ailey graced St. Louis last spring, they performed D-Man int he Waters. Top companies are still restaging his pieces even as he’s creating new ones. I thought it was a wonderful piece, by the way.
  3. The scope of companies he has worked with, schools he has visited, interesting ways he has included media with movement, and found a home for his dance know-how within the realm of Broadway, television, and in collaboration with artists across many genres.

To say ‘well deserved’ is to scrape at the tip of the iceberg.

His is one of my favorite interviews in ‘Masters of Movement’ -my favorite book of interviews/photography by my not-so-favorite anymore writer and photographer, Rose Eichenbaum.(Here is why she is not on top of my list any longer)  What seems to come back again and again is an assured sense of action and creation but never of answers- he seems more curious with questions, especially this one posed by Eichenbaum:

“How do you know if your work makes a difference?”

“I don’t. We’re never really sure if we are moving forward, sideways, or backward. Everything is moving, so we don’t know about out progress if we are moving in relation to something else. You will never know if what you do is valid. You will never know the truth about anything. You will only know the doing. That is a daunting but liberating idea. You will only know the doing”.

More “MoM’ references: Shouting at Julie Andrews with a Bullhorn / Pilobolus Preview and Flashback / The first ever interview on this here site with Tommy Lewey

I remember when I was a senior in college, I went to New York City with a few friends for some auditions. My friend John auditioned for his company and we were all oh-so-jealous. I’m pretty sure that John said you had to SING in his audition. While improvising. As if dancing set choreography isn’t nerve-wracking enough in an audition.

I’m not sure what it takes for a person to realize that they’re truly impacted the country with a vision and committment to art. How many tv specials, golden statues, beautiful works, highest honors before a person can know with certainty their work has merit? I think one must truly know they’ve MADE IT as a contributor when you can convince people to sing and dance spontaneously for you. That truly is making the world a better place- as long as it isn’t me doing the singing.





On Principle

The theme of the day is ‘desperately clinging to my youth’.


Once the work day is done, I have plans to bake the cookie dough that is resting in my fridge and watch ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, preferably under a homemade blanket fort.

Of course, I had to test the batter before I could serve them up tonight- which means that I ‘test baked’ two this morning…and ate them for breakfast. Completely against my moral fiber- I might as well use sparkling props to teach dance to children, set dance in odd places, and stop joking about how fat and old I am. (I am trying to do all of these things) I know, I know, I’m a MONSTER!

It seems that I’m losing all sense of youth, beauty, and principle. What will I do next? I’ll tell you soon.

This seems like solid advice. Also good for anyone trying to do partnered pirouettes with me..‘hold on! She’s not AT ALL centered!’

tod1226 alina somova 6cd45192de6b23d574bfce54a96c2c0e dick and julie 059f1f26fd48ccffe257dbb17dc3ccb3

If anyone can name the famous couple in the photo with the umbrella, then you, like me, are probably stuck in your childhood. And I like you all the more for it.


How Do You Solve A Problem like Jessica?

I teach an afterschool musical theatre class for k-3rd graders called ,‘Lullaby of Broadway’ in a beautiful cathedral. This class entails a mix of intro to various Showtunes, basic dance steps (hello chasse ball change), drawing  headshots, playing theatre games to introduce acting techniques, and weaving all of these skills into an original play for the kids to act out written by yours truly. (And yes, I did give myself a line to two in there)

I have a particularly precocious group of kiddos (except for a 5-year-old who rarely takes his thumb out of his mouth) which makes me look like a bad-@ss teacher. Emphasis on the bad-@ss , at least last week. Here’s why:

I maybe showed up to teach said kindergarteners and such in black motorcycle boots, black and white flowered skirt, glittering silver tights, one of my Dad’s old t-shirt tucked in, and a black leather jacket. (We weren’t dancing that day! And for once, I didn’t want to wear sweatpants. It’s a rare occurence, I know)

Yes I am sitting in a child’s chair and reading a Harry Potter sticker book.

I walked into this beautiful cathedral school where I’ve been teaching for a month, and a nun dressed in the typical nurse shoes, long skirt, habit thing, who I’ve never met, saw me, took two seconds to pop her eyes out of her head, pop them back in, and stop me. “What are you here for?!”

She sounded terrified! I was so tempted to say, ‘I’m recruiting for the Wiccan Fashionista Cult! Give me your children or I’m replacing all of your Bibles with Italian Vogue …the ones that DON’T mind nudity!”

You’d think the huge box of crayons would have made me less threatening. Basically what ensued was: she did not let me go my classroom( that I’ve been going to for a month, and set up the magical props, and write my ‘key words’ and other things I do before the kids arrive) until I had signed in at the office (which no other teachers do and none of the school staff that has greeted me upon my other arrivals have ever instructed me to do). Then mean gap-toothed nun yelled at my kids the instant they came in for hiding behind a stack of cubbies. “If you do that again I will send you to the dungeon gym and you’ll miss your class!” Ridiculous, they aren’t hurting themselves or touching a thing. They just like going back there when they first come in so they can jump out and yell ‘Surprise Miss Jessssss!‘ which I find charming. Then she told us to be quiet.

I made sure to emphasize ‘projection’ in the lesson plan. It’s an important part of singing anyways and they aren’t screaming. The halls are alive with the sound of music….and rebellion.

I’ll be very curious, if next time I show up in a dowdy outfit, if she’s friendlier. We shall see.

I feel just like Julie Andrews as Maria, the enthusiastic, rule-breaking spunky sister in ‘The Sound of Music’. Especially, since we’re singing Do Re Mi.

Except that for reasons beyond the headgear, I could never be a nun. So maybe I’m more like Julie Andrews as the practically-perfect-in-every-way Mary Poppins!

Except that showing up to teach at a conservative school in motorcycle boots is probably not practical, so maybe I’m Mary’s off-beat sister…Myrtle Poppins!

old sketchbook doodle- if it can’t rain men, send me a nanny on swift umbrella wings!

My favorite part of Mary Poppins now is the Chimney Sweep scene- those dancers are amazing! And the choreography is fantastic as well- done by the fabulous duo of Dee Dee Woods and Marc Breaux (who have choreographed numerous musicals, movies including the SOUnd of Music, and won the American Choreography Awards Career Achievement Award in LA). Here they are pictured from their interview by Rose Eichenbaum in my favorite book, ‘Masters of Movement’. Apparently, the director of Mary Poppins wanted to the Step in TIme number cut down to TWO minutes, but Walt Disney liked it, so in it stayed.

apparently, Rose went through 4 rolls of film and Marc was making Bunny Ears in every shot

Their whole interview is fascinating but my other favorite tidbit is from a memory of filming ‘The Sound of Music’ for the famous ‘The Hills are alive’ scene; Dee Dee says, ‘Yes Marc was in the bushes with a bullhorn and had to cue Julie when to turn. He had to scream, ‘TURN TURN TURN!’ at the top  of his lungs”.

Man oh man, do I love the idea of shouting at Julie Andrews with a  bull-horn. Or frankly, shouting at anyone with a bullhorn. I’m sorely tempted to get one to teach with but methinks someone in particular wouldn’t like that so much.

When I was a kid, my favorite scene was the dancing penguins and the horserace (everything that takes place in the make-believe drawing. Not the bank scene. Shocking Jess, preferring fantasy over money). I love love love the look of a merry-go-round, but there’s something about tethered fake horses that just makes me sad. Horses are, I think, an animal that should be free to roam.

I just want to free the horses! Or I’m really jealous of my Dad, rocking the short shorts with the beard look. me as a baby.with my Mom


I really enjoy teaching, especially when I have such a great group of students,  and the work day goes by like play. It’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down, I guess. Maybe I’ll try to look more the part next time, so mean nun isn’t afraid it’s a shotful of vodka that makes the meds go down. That’s for the weekend. Go on children, Myrtle Poppins says it’s good for you.  🙂