Gene’s Way, Gene’s Steps, Gene’s Style: How Debbie Reynolds Learned to Dance in Three Months for Singin’ in the Rain

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Arguably the greatest movie musical ever made, Singin’ in the Rain is celebrated as much for its songs and dances as its behind-the-scenes lore: Gene Kelly’s 101-degree fever while filming the title number; Donald O’Connor taking to his bed with exhaustion after filming “Make ’Em Laugh”—only to have to reshoot it days later due to a camera malfunction; Debbie Reynolds rehearsing until her feet bled. But of all the “making of” stories, the most impressive is that Reynolds, only 19 at the time, learned to dance in just three months to play leading lady Kathy Selden.

A novice dancer with a gymnastics background, Reynolds entered a period of intense rehearsal in April 1951 to reach the level of Kelly and O’Connor, dancers who had been performing professionally for years. For eight to 10 hours a day, Kelly rehearsed with choreographic assistants Jeanne Coyne and Carol Haney and tap teacher Ernie Flatt—with Kelly popping in occasionally to check on her progress. Intimidated by Kelly’s notorious short temper (“When it breaks,” Reynolds said, “it’s like a giant explosion and all hell is let loose”), Reynolds routinely faltered. She lost confidence and often burst into tears of frustration and exhaustion. A stern taskmaster, Kelly wouldn’t allow Reynolds to leave until she was “step perfect.”

As co-director, choreographer and star of the film, Kelly’s artistic vision and style—a unique amalgamation of ballet, tap and jazz—drove the production. Even Cyd Charisse, a classical ballet dancer, and O’Connor, a self-proclaimed hoofer who had been performing since childhood, had to adjust to Kelly’s standard. As Reynolds later recalled, it was “Gene’s way, Gene’s steps, Gene’s style.”

Reynolds, in her first leading role, had a lot to learn in a very short period of time. To dance with both Kelly and O’Connor in “Good Morning,” a number featuring incredibly intricate footwork and precise unison, Reynolds needed to “be equal to them.” Dancing alone, any mistake or subtle deviation might not be noticeable. In unison, every error becomes magnified. Ever a perfectionist, Kelly demanded the same impeccability from his dancers, and, for Reynolds—young and inexperienced as she was—the pressure of the situation overwhelmed her.

“[Gene] taught me how to be a perfectionist….But at the time I could have done without his perfection.”

After one particularly rough rehearsal, Reynolds was found sobbing underneath a piano by another dancer who happened to be walking by. Asked why she was crying, Reynolds blubbered that the whole process was killing her. The man assured her that death was not imminent and learning to dance was always hard—but necessarily so. “If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right,” he said. The dancer turned out to be Fred Astaire, who was working in the rehearsal room next door on his film The Belle of New York.

“He invited me in to watch him rehearse,” Reynolds recalled. “Nobody got to watch him dance, and he let me watch him until he was just red in the face, and it showed me, even the greats find it hard to be really excellent, but you have to keep striving.” Astaire encouraged Reynolds not to give up, but rather embrace the challenge.

What Reynolds had witnessed was a lifting of the dancer’s mask. Astaire and Kelly did what all great dancers do: make the difficult look effortless. Such ability belies the hard work, precision and skill that go into the creation of each number. If a dancer were to communicate the difficulty of the act to an audience, its essence would disappear—the narrative quality, the emotional communication, the expressive capacity of the dance would shatter. You might as well watch someone working out at the gym.

Through the hours of rehearsals and filming (40 takes alone were shot of “Good Morning”—another day that left her with bloody feet), Reynolds achieved something truly remarkable: She danced beautifully. Years later, Kelly praised her hard work and determination: “Debbie was strong as an ox, and…could work for hours. Also she was a great copier, and could pick up the most complicated routines without too much difficulty.” For her part, Reynolds was forever grateful to Kelly. “Gene taught me discipline….He taught me how to be a perfectionist….But at the time I could have done without his perfection.”

In one of the last scenes of Singin’ in the Rain, Lina Lamont, the shallow film star whose niggling voice demands overdubbing from Reynolds’s character, addresses “her public” after the premiere of The Dancing Cavalier: “If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as if our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothing.” Singin’ in the Rain has brought joy into our humdrum lives now for 64 years. And no, Debbie, your hard work ain’t been in vain for nothing.

Photo: Everett Collection