Debra McWaters is living a musical theater lover's dream. She went from being a fan of Bob Fosse, the great Broadway director-choreographer, to becoming one of the leading experts in his work and an associate and confidant of famous performers like Ann Reinking, Ben Vereen and Gwen Verdon. She has traveled the world supervising the choreography in Fosse shows and is author of a new book on his dance technique.
But 30 years ago, McWaters couldn't have been farther removed from Fosse. The first time she saw his choreography was as a member of the audience for Pippin, when the musical was on tour in Lakeland.
"I was just gobsmacked by it,'' said McWaters, who had been a dancer since age 4 but was then a grad student in math at the University of South Florida. "I remember telling my husband, I've never seen anything like this, and I don't even know what to say, it's so amazing.''
A year or two later, McWaters, by then a computer analyst with GTE in Tampa, was in New York on a business trip and went to see her first musical on Broadway. It was Chicago, directed and choreographed by Fosse, starring Reinking.
"I just fell in love with that quirky look of his choreography,'' she said. "I've always had kind of a cockeyed view of things. That kind of oddness, just slightly offbeat, grabs me.''
Flash forward to 1996. McWaters was on Broadway herself with the same show and the same star. She was assistant choreographer under Reinking (who also was playing Roxy) for a revival of Chicago that would go on to be a blockbuster hit, spawning many tours and still doing brisk business today on Broadway.
"I have to pinch myself sometimes,'' McWaters, 55, said. "It's almost surreal the way things worked out.''
The finger snaps. The jazz hands. The slouched shoulders. The thrusting pelvis. The cocked hip. The feathery arm. The turned-in feet.
They were all there — the characteristic Fosse movements — in a class McWaters taught one morning at the Broadway Theatre Project, the musical theater training program held every July at USF.
"Undulate with your body and initiate the move with the ball of your right foot,'' she told the black-clad dancers. "Now we do a percussive-sounding step. Now do a squeege with your foot. Now you're scooping the ice cream.''
McWaters was teaching a Fosse dance known as the Charles Manson Trio, a number from Pippin that became famous for being used in the first TV commercial for a Broadway show in 1972.
"It's a very odd little dance, isn't it?'' she said. "It's very internal. You're not slamming it out at the audience like 42nd Street with big grins. There's a slyness to it, an 'I know something you don't know' feeling.''
McWaters helped Reinking to found the project in 1991 when the dancer was living in Tampa while married to an executive of the Florida Aquarium. McWaters was then an academic with a strong interest in dance, a dean at Tampa Preparatory School and former interim chair of the USF dance department. Soon she was devoting all her time to the project, which has grown to have 200 students (they are called apprentices) this year. She has been artistic director since Reinking stepped down in 2005.
Reinking and other Fosse stars like Verdon and Vereen made his dance technique a trademark of the project. McWaters never met Fosse, who died in 1987, but she paid attention to those who had worked with him.
"I listened carefully and felt so fortunate to be able to work with Annie, and then Gwen and Ben,'' she said. "I kept copious notes.''
The project was a virtual Broadway audition for dancers when both Chicago and the revue Fosse were at the peak of their popularity. "I remember one year we sent six kids directly from the project out either to a tour or to Broadway,'' McWaters said.
Young performers who want to learn the Fosse style flock to the project. "It's an experience that is difficult to grasp,'' said Nathan Keen, 20, a musical theater performance major at Otterbein College in Ohio spending his fourth July in Tampa. "She's (McWaters) this god when it comes to doing Fosse work. She's so knowledgeable and well-versed in it. It's a dream to see her in her element doing this. This is the core of Fosse now.''
Subtlety and energy
McWaters poured what she learned from Reinking, Verdon, Vereen and other Broadway legends into The Fosse Style, an instructional book on the choreographer's steps, with hundreds of photographs, published this year by the University Press of Florida. She sees it as a useful corrective to the often parodied Fosse movements, brilliantly sent up by Robin Williams in The Birdcage.
"I get audition tapes from kids doing All That Jazz in dance competitions, and you see such a distorted version of what they were told Fosse was,'' she said. "A frequent misconception is that it is overtly sexual, when it really is much more subtle than that.''
Of course, plenty of Fosse numbers like I Gotcha from Liza with a Z, the 1972 Liza Minnelli TV special, are pure sex. But what distinguishes much of his work is its stress on acting as well as dancing.
"There's always an image that Fosse would give to dancers as the reason to do any type of movement,'' said McWaters, who spent a lot of time working on Fosse with Verdon, who died in 2000. She was the choreographer's wife and muse, the star of his early hit Damn Yankees.
The images passed down from Fosse through Verdon and others include such phrases as "block the sun'' (raise the arm and curl the wrist), "bullet eyes'' (a mysterious facial expression) and "broken doll'' (arms slightly bent, splayed fingers).
In Big Spender, a tour de force by the dime-a-dance girls of Sweet Charity, Verdon related that Fosse would tell his cast members to think of a sewing needle going up and down constantly "because those girls had to get that next dance, had to get some money to take home,'' McWaters said. "Too often that number is danced beautifully but there's no emotion, no energy. I love that image because it makes the dancers come alive.''
Fosse was a dancer himself, and he can be seen doing a flashy back flip in the 1955 movie musical My Sister Eileen. In many ways, the distinctive Fosse choreography was an outgrowth of his own limitations.
"There is a wonderful picture of Fosse talking to Liza Minnelli onstage,'' McWaters said. "He's standing in that slouch position, his shoulders hunched, his feet tucked in, his weight on one hip, and he's slumped over. That's it. It is the example of the technique, the man, and where the movement came from.''
The irony is not lost on McWaters that she — a trained mathematician who never knew Fosse — is now one of the chief proponents of his legacy. "It's an odd, odd thing,'' she said. "I didn't work with him, but I was fortunate enough to work with people who did. All I'm doing is just repeating what was told to me.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.