Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Theatre and Performance


David Savran

Committee Members

Elizabeth L. Wollman

Peter Eckersall

Subject Categories

Acting | American Popular Culture | American Studies | Dance | Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Fine Arts | Other Theatre and Performance Studies | Performance Studies | Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre History | United States History | Women's History


Musical Theatre, Dance, Embodied Nostalgia, Broadway, Choreographer, Social Dance


In this dissertation, I claim the collective emotional connections and historical explorations characteristic of musical theatre constitute a nostalgic impulse dramaturgically inherent in the form. In my intervention in the link between nostalgia and musical theatre, I look to an area underrepresented in musical theatre scholarship: social dance. Through case studies that focus specifically on how social dance in musical theatre brings forth the dancer on stage as a site of embodied history, cultural memory, and nostalgia, I ask what social dance is doing in musical theatre and how the dancing body functions as a catalyst for nostalgic thinking for the audience. I argue that U.S. social dance styles of the first half of the twentieth century, when performed in musicals produced after that time, create a spectrum of nostalgic impulses and embodied meanings. By comparing the historical context of the musical and the time of its original production, I provide a framework for how “embodied nostalgia”—the physicalization of community memories, longings, and historical meaning—within social dance in musical theatre elucidates racial, cultural, and political consciousness.

I group social dances that occurred between 1910-1945 into three chapters: early ragtime dances, Charleston styles, and swing dances. I examine the changes in the social dance in the move to the stage and analyze what gets lost (or gained) by the theatricalization. As all the social dances in this project are from the African American milieu, I keep the African American legacy of social dance and jazz music at the center of the conversation.

In chapter one, I investigate ragtime dances that provide the roots of influence for the social dances. I examine how the Slow Drag in The Color Purple characterizes how African Americans attempted to keep some physicality of their home and culture. I then problematize the intersection between the different worlds of race and ethnicities in Ragtime and trace how a rupture of the collective parts of the Cakewalk allows for a consideration of the social dance’s history. In Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed I analyze how the embodied nostalgia in the dance styles is used to stake a claim for continued diversity and representation in musical theatre. In chapter two, I explore the transition into the social dances of the 1920s and how the dramatic structure of the musical offers differing perspectives on the era. I trace how the choreography in Thoroughly Modern Millie embodies the new rhythms of the 1920s and then investigate how nostalgia for the indulgences of the 1920s in The Wild Party is dismantled and exposes, through movement and music, the cultural theft at work then and now. I turn to The Drowsy Chaperone to investigate the dramaturgical and choreographic strategies that use parody and a cultivation of nostalgia to trouble one’s relationship to musical theatre. Finally, in chapter three, I trace how swing dances in Wonderful Town, Steel Pier, and Allegiance are used to signal historical idioms, economic survival, cultural identity, and vitalize communities that had been suppressed, deprived, or constricted.

I recover, interpret, and champion the study of dancing bodies and social dance choreography in musical theatre as a way to comprehend the essential impact the body has on nostalgic thinking and what that recognition means in the grand scheme of understanding popular performance as a gauge of cultural and social politics. By approaching musical theatre through this lens of social dance and its embodied nostalgia I develop a method to describing, discussing, and critically evaluating dance in musicals.