Learn Fosse’s ‘Sweet Charity’ choreography from master teacher Mimi Quillin

Learn Fosse’s ‘Sweet Charity’ choreography from master teacher Mimi Quillin

Want to add some razzle-dazzle to your daily quarantine routine? The Verdon Fosse Legacy, an organization dedicated to preserving the work and artistic legacy of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, is here to help with #fosseminute — a series of short online instructional videos created to get dancers and non-dancers alike inspired and performing some iconic Fosse moves in their own living rooms.

In new videos released every Monday on the Verdon Fosse Legacy Facebook and Instagram pages and YouTube channel, the organization’s master teachers — or “reconstucteurs,” as they are officially called — will demonstrate iconic choreography from some of Fosse’s most beloved dance numbers. Each instructor has worked directly with Fosse or Verdon.

Before you flash those jazz hands, meet Mimi Quillin, who teaches “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” from “Sweet Charity” as her #fosseminute video. Quillin spoke with ALL ARTS about her favorite Fosse numbers, the challenges and joys of Fosse choreography, and more.

Fosse shows I have done:

I did the “Sweet Charity” revival in 1985, which featured Debbie Allen as Charity and Bebe Neuwirth as Nickie, and opened on Broadway in 1986. I reconstructed the show with Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon with the help of Christopher Chadman. I was dance captain of the pre-Broadway and Broadway runs, and the national tours.

Favorite Fosse show, role, step or dance number:

Of the “Charity” numbers, when I was doing the show 30 years ago, I was itching to do “Something Better Than This.” As I have matured, my favorite number has changed to “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” I think it’s because I understand the humor and the acting in that second number so much better now. But the raw flight of “Something Better Than This” had its power over me as an eager, younger and more athletically-oriented dancer.

The most challenging thing about doing Fosse choreography:

From the first day of working on Fosse’s movement, the hardest thing was to find the momentum for all the quirky moves. All of a sudden in “Rich Man’s Frug” you are doing the Zonk [demonstrated in this Frug video at 3:45] out of nowhere, and it took me ages — step by step — to discover that whatever step I did before the quirky one (probably another quirky one) held the answer to the momentum for the following one.

Mimi Quillin strikes a quintessential Fosse pose — “The Slope” — for a calendar featuring Broadway dancers. Courtesy of Mimi Quillin.
Mimi Quillin strikes a quintessential Fosse pose — “The Slope” — for a calendar featuring Broadway dancers. Courtesy of Mimi Quillin.

It isn’t at all like ballet, where you practice a vocabulary daily and try to perfect it by reshuffling the same steps. In ballet technique, you are memorizing physically where your momentum comes from. Dancing Fosse is like speaking a foreign language every time you try to communicate! I learned to secretly “load” my pelvis for that next unexpected bump or torque as I transitioned from the step before, whether it had been a turn or just a simple weight change. Otherwise I was left with no power to execute the step. To put it in everyday terms: It’s like driving a stick shift car and having to be careful about popping the clutch!

The most exciting thing about doing Fosse choreography:

His movement is akin to speaking to someone who holds no punches. It goes right to the gut. And there’s no fluff or hesitation or “filler” in it. He tells the truth throughout and does so bravely. Even when he’s teasing you, he’s teasing you about something you might prefer not to admit but is intrinsic to your deepest thoughts and desires. He goes for the underbelly — and you can feel that when you dance it. It calls on the dancer to go into themselves and find those elements and then make them public — without commenting on it. Thus, there’s an awful lot of deadpan humor. It is deeply satisfying as a performer.

Advice for dancers trying to learn Fosse choreography:

Get really solid technique under you, first of all, because you are going to have to figure out things physically that don’t make sense immediately, and you have to protect your instrument. The next thing is to learn to be yourself without commenting on it. Bob had an eye for people’s true nature and that is what he would hire and bring out in his work. And that’s what makes his work so compelling to watch. The best way to do this is to get into a very good acting class. Learn to speak and think not just as a dancer but as an actor. He never called us dancers. He referred to his ensemble of performers as actors. You cannot just dance his work. You have to act it.

As a teacher, I have a very hard time teaching students to value the meaning of a lower developé of the leg or a slight move of the shoulder. Learn to value more than high kicks and multiple turns. Learn to value all the possibilities between stillness and a high kick or multiple turns. Then there is phrasing involved in the dancing instead of just tricks.

Something I learned from Bob Fosse or Gwen Verdon I’ll never forget:

Don’t try to be sexy. Just be. There’s nothing sexier.

Check out Mimi Quillin’s video here, and share your fancy Fosse moves on social media using the hashtag #fosseminute. Visit The Verdon Fosse Legacy YouTube Channel for more #fosseminute videos and other amazing content.

Top Image: Mimi Quillin (center), Allison Manson (left) and Lenora Nemetz (right) perform “Big Spender” in "Sweet Charity." Courtesy: Mimi Quillin.