Photo credit: Chicago cast (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Get to know Bob Fosse and his iconic Broadway dance style

The choreographer behind Chicago, Cabaret, Pippin, and more is known for sultry jazz hands and black hats, but his range spans a wide array of dance styles.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

It’s showtime, folks! Few theatre artists revolutionized Broadway the way Bob Fosse did on the dance front in the 20th century. In the unparalleled, groundbreaking work of the choreographer, every dancer's movement – from goofy, vulnerable knock knees to hypnotizing, frisky finger wags — tells an eloquent, and often provocative, story.

You might have heard it said that Chicago, the long-running musical revival on Broadway, epitomizes his style. But perhaps you don't know what "classic Fosse" looks like or why his legacy is so unforgettable.

No worries — you're in the right place to find out the basics of his dance style, the different genres of musicals his moves show up in, and all that jazz. Learn more about this Broadway superstar and his sexy fancy footwork, and then check it out at the Ambassador Theatre.

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Who is Bob Fosse?

Bob Fosse was a choreographer, director, performer, and visionary changemaker in the theatre world. Beginning in the 1950s, he reshaped Broadway dancing with his innovative and influential choreography that was as precise as it was sensual. His moves set several of musical theatre’s most famous shows in motion, and the dancing is now just as iconic as the songs and stories.

What musicals is Bob Fosse known for?

By the time of his death at age 60 in 1987, Fosse had won eight Tony Awards for The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Redhead, Little Me, Sweet Charity, Pippin, Dancin’, and Big Deal. Among his most popular and iconic dance numbers from these shows are the sultry “Steam Heat” from Pajama Game, in which he used his now-trademark bowler hats; the sexy bump-and-grinding “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity; and the mesmerizing “Magic to Do” from Pippin, with sharp jazz hands in the spotlight.

Fosse also co-wrote, directed, and choreographed John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1975 Broadway premiere of Chicago — he's a triple threat and then some. The musical's 1996 revival, which Ann Reinking meticulously choreographed in Fosse's style, is now the second-longest running show in Broadway history.

What is Fosse known for beyond Broadway?

Fosse generally gravitated to works with a sexy edge, a dark side, or both. He directed the films Sweet Charity, Lenny, All That Jazz, and Star 80. But most notably, he won an Oscar for his direction of 1972 film version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, which he also choreographed.

Fosse wasn't involved with the musical's Broadway premiere, but the film indelibly linked Fosse's name with Cabaret. A number in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, "Spring Chicken," features Fosse's choreography from that film's song "Mein Herr."

In addition, a number of film and TV projects portray Fosse's own life story — he was a fascinating character on stage and off. In the semi-autobiographical 1979 movie All That Jazz, Fosse directed Roy Scheider as his alter ego Joe Gideon, a manic moviemaker who has a fatal cardiac event. Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987; leave it to him to call the steps on his own demise.

The 2019 miniseries Fosse/Verdon focused on his personal and working relationship with Gwen Verdon, his wife and the star of multiple of his projects.

What is the Fosse dance style?

Fosse’s full-bodied signature jazz choreography created a style and a language that speaks for itself. Movements, and stillness, are meticulous. His signature jazz moves include curved shoulders, hip rolls and thrusts, turned-in knees and toes, sideways shuffling, insistent finger snaps, and the famous jazz hands. Hats, particularly bowlers, are a classic Fosse tool to make the dance more dynamic.

What dance styles has Bob Fosse choreographed in?

Fosse is best known as a jazz choreographer, but he has a much wider range. He was fluent in classical, jazz, pop, and tap, and all those styles and others are on view.

A great example of his range is Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, a revue last revived in March 2023 that features rarely seen Fosse choreography in all sorts of styles. “Percussion” is a four-part piece that showcases Fosse’s appreciation for the precision and rigor of traditional ballet, but through characters such as boxers.

“Big City Mime” is a mini-ballet set in a seedy urban sexscape. “Sing Sing Sing” – set to the Benny Goodman classic – bursts with energy as dancers leap and tap across the stage. A bit of the iconic “Manson Trio” from Pippin even gets its place at center stage.

Though that show has since closed, musicals like Chicago continue to introduce Fosse to new audiences – one hip pop at a time.

Photo credit: Chicago on Broadway. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

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