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Pittsburgh Dancers: Spotlight on Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly

While there is some post-holiday downtime in the Pittsburgh dance scene, I thought I’d take the time to highlight some Pittsburgh dancers who have great historical significance for both the city and American dance as a whole. First, one of my childhood favorites, star of Singin’ in the Rain and other hit shows, Gene Kelly.

Gene Kelly was born in 1912 in Highland Park. While he was initially resistant to dance class, he eventually began to turn to talent contests and dance teaching as a source of income. In 1932, he opened his own dance studio in Squirrel Hill. Many of his students, now in their senior years have stories of his tap dance and jazz classes.

Kelly briefly left Pittsburgh to pursue dance in New York but soon returned home where he choreographed his first musicals including the Pittsburgh Playhouse production of Hold Your Hats in April of 1938. It wasn’t until November of that year that he finally made it on Broadway as a in Leave It to Me! by Cole Porter.

Known for his hard work, Kelly established himself in Hollywood in the early 1940s working with the likes of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra and then took a short hiatus to serve in the U.S. Navel Air Service as a documentary writer and director.

In 1946 he returned to Hollywood to work for MGM as a choreographer, producer, singer and actor in numerous films including those he is best-known for: my beloved Singin’ in the Rain and the popular American in Paris.

Not only does Kelly’s entrepreneurial spirit epitomize what it means to be a Pittsburgher, but he innovated dance and musical theater on film as well as contributed greatly to the fields of musical theater dance and tap choreography. He is the Kelly of the popular dance venue the Kelly Strayhorn Theater here in Pittsburgh and the yearly Gene Kelly Awards are the local awards for recognition of accomplishment in high school musicals.

If you have never seen Gene Kelly dance, check out this great clip from Singin’ in the Rain on youtube.