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The Best Dance Ever

Posted on July 25, 2011

One of my most favorite animation sequences ever in a Mickey Mouse cartoon is the cakewalk strut that Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow perform in “The Birthday,” from 1931. The cartoon as a whole is not particularly memorable, but this dance sequence is so fantastic! The cartoon was directed by Bert Gillette, and animator Norm Ferguson (Fergy) brought this particular sequence to realization. I love the personality and joyfulness that just exudes from these characters as they strut their stuff. The attitudes and gestures are just so perfect!  Supposedly Ferguson was an avid vaudeville fan, and this regularly fueled his approach to acting and gags in animation. I’ve watched it over and over. It takes place near the end, at about  04:20 minutes in to the short. You can find it in DVD form on “Mickey Mouse in Black and White: Volume 1” or watch it here!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrGRvIRfxvI

An historical note is that the music is known as the “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” which was a very popular song performed in the vaudeville circuit. Composer Shelton Brooks was of African America and Native American parents, and his music was popular in the dance halls. Because “Darktown” is so catchy, it even made it into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006. One explanation for the song’s inspiration is that in the 20’s – 30’s, there was a grand dress ball held for the outcasts of society, particularly for all the ladies that were “of the evening.”

Shelton Brooks

The title of Darktown is pretty direct slang for where the Blacks and “lowlife” lived in the cities. Being that Blacks were anything but appreciated or accepted by the majority White population, White performers would take these songs and perform them in the notorious “black-face” as a way to enjoy the “musicality” of Blacks, without getting to scarily close to them. This was considered much more palatable than having any actual Black person on stage. The cover for the original sheet music says it all, picturing the dandified, caricatured Blacks dancing away.

Oddly enough, my very first listening of this song came from the old tv series, Mary Tyler Moore! I recall that she, Lou and Murray were maybe a bit tipsy, and were linked arm in arm singing this song. It had probably long been disassociated with it’s history due to collective forgetfulness, so I don’t believe that they were thinking of it’s origins when they chose to include it. At any rate, it’s a really catchy tune and I have an old ukulele song sheet of it, which I was trying to learn a bit ago…