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Swinging Behind the Scenes of The Notebook
By Frankie Hagan, Special Contributor

It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting in a tent at a plastic table next to a choreographer and facing a publicist. We’re flanked on all sides by dancers and scene extras, and hurriedly wolfing down excellent food from disposable plates. The publicist looks quintessentially Hollywood. His name is Peter J. Silbermann, and he’s well dressed with a very neatly kept ponytail. The young choreographer, Chad Stall, is dressed in warm clothing and looking extremely enthusiastic. I know he’s very good, because I came up with him in the dance business.

I scribble furiously as the three of us talk about the Nick Cassavetes-directed film The Notebook, the big-screen adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel that is in production as we speak. In particular, we’re discussing the dancing in the movie. Local retro fans that have caught wind of the production are already salivating over the period costumes, cars and decor that masterfully pepper this film, which is set in part in South Carolina in 1946. But it’s the dance scenes that interest me,primarily, because I’ve been hired as an extra to cut a rug myself.

Stall, who lives and works in Charleston, where filming took place, was trained in the franchised Fred Astaire Dance Studios method of partnered dancing. Diehard Lindy hoppers might scoff at the sometimes generic dancing epitomized by franchise ballroom schools, but Stall’s simple, back-to-basics teaching method is ideal for directing a large group. Three dance scenes have been worked into the production, although their impact and length will be decided during the editing process. Each of the segments seems to promise the compelling energy of life during a specific moment in time.

The vintage costumes of the 1940s and 1950s suit starlet Rachel McAdams to a tee.
The vintage costumes of the 1940s and 1950s suit starlet Rachel McAdams to a tee.
Silbermann wants me to understand the importance of the actual notebook around which the film’s plot revolves. In reference to the main characters, he explains, “Their life is the notebook. The dancing, the plantations, downtown historic Charleston, Georgetown, all contribute in capturing the periods being represented by the story. Here is a couple reflecting on the story of what brought them together.”

Stall notes that his desire in each dance segment was “to create the idea of fun, not just choreography, but to create a natural moment.” The first segment we film is set in an officer’s club. The line that directs the audience in the script refers to a reminiscence of a character named Lon who “could really cut a rug.” The dancing is high energy but grounded, with the dancers moving quickly in a tight area. We’re doing the jitterbug with a low level of complexity, and adding occasional Balboa steps to match the fast pace of the music. Muses Stall, “The audition process can really set the tone for a dance scene. The dancers we had to work with shouldn’t look like champion swing dancers in this segment, but young people. Young soldiers who are going off to war.”

Writer and lindy-hopper Frankie Hagan has a minor wardrobe malfunction while filming a dance scene.
Writer and lindy-hopper Frankie Hagan has a minor wardrobe malfunction while filming a dance scene.
The second dance scene (in order of filming) takes place in a Harlem nightclub that becomes the backdrop for a grand gesture by a wealthy suitor. “The Harlem nightclub scene is about a wedding proposal, but we’re giving it a lot of excitement with lifts and air steps and fast-paced swing,” says Stall. On set, African American and white dancers mingle together in front of an all-black big band in a moment that has a Cotton Club feel.

“Some people may not find this particular scene to be good history, considering what club this might be and whether or not the different ethnicities would be mixing in this fashion, but we’re more concerned about telling a good story,” says Silbermann. Many of the black dancers in the Harlem nightclub scene are professional performers specializing in hip-hop, tap, jazz and ballet, but not swing. In contrast, the white dancers in the segment are all swing dancers with different levels of professional or student status.

Notes Stall, “We’ve pulled from a mix of backgrounds to make this segment work, and hopefully the mix of ideas will be really true to form for the time period,when Lindy was coming out of Charleston, Breakaway, Foxtrot and other dances.”

I nod frequently as we talk and I scribble. My shoulder hurts as I write. We’ve been working on this scene most of the day, and the number of air steps is taking its toll on me. There are still hours to go.

I ask about the third scene, which as of my notes, had yet to be filmed. “It takes place at a carnival, and it’s very impromptu,” says Stall, smiling as if he knows some secret. “Dancing should always be fun and exciting. I like the surprise that dance can create in a story. I hope we can convey that and do something good for the craft.”

I ask him whom he’d like to thank for his experience as choreographer. “Todd Lewis, Jaime Emerine, and all of the talented dancers who have participated” in the film, Stall says. “The entire experience has been life-changing.”

Frankie Hagan is a certified professional dance instructor and a member of the National Dance Teacher’s Association. Though professionally independent, he is available to teach all forms of social partner dancing at the Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance Studio in Raleigh, NC.

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