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American Dance Machine: From 1978 World Premiere to Today

You may have heard of something called a musical revue but have you ever heard of a dance revue? In my work digitizing decades of slides, images, media footage, playbills and more from the Ford’s archives, I’ve come across a 1978 production of a dance revue called The American Dance Machine.

photo of seven cast members dancing in black-and-white striped pants and skirts, white blouses. The women dance with open white parisols.
The cast of the 1978 Ford’s Theatre production of American Dance Machine, conceived and directed by Lee Theodore. Photo by Earl Robbin.

The American Dance Machine was a theatrical dance production created by Lee Theodore as a greatest hits version of Broadway’s most outstanding theatrical choreography. The show itself was known as a “living archive” of Broadway theatre and aimed to preserve many dance and choreography styles. Theodore pushed for this project to become reality because dance cannot be easily documented and shared once a show ends. She carefully chose specific numbers that she felt were worthy of being highlighted in this new production.

American Dance Machine’s world premiere performance was during a special Tenth Anniversary television broadcast on NBC from Ford’s Theatre  on January 29, 1978. The full production officially opened at Ford’s Theatre on February 2, 1978 and continued to March 5, then ran again April 4-30. The show went on to a successful Broadway performance run and national tour. Today you can find an archive of the show at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts in New York City

The sad truth of many theatrical productions, especially in the time before Broadway productions added highlights to YouTube, is that the choreography is forgotten long before any dialogue or songs are forgotten. 

two male dancers in 1900s straw hats, white shirts with bow-tiess and dark trousers flank two female dancers in white blouses, black-and-white vertically striped A-line skirts. The women carry parisols. All are in the Ford's production of "American Dance Machine"
Swen Swenson, Janet Eilber,Lee Theodore, Barry Preston in the 1978 Ford’s Theatre production of American Dance Machine, conceived and directed by Lee Theodore. Photo by Earl Robbin.

The American Dance Machine was not an easy show to cast. Dancers had to prove that they were capable of dancing the show’s diverse material and also excel at singing and acting. The American Dance Machine gave audiences a taste of tap, jazz, ballet and other various dance styles. 

World Premiere at Ford’s Theatre (1978)

The Ford’s production featured numbers from the following shows: BrigadoonBubbling Brown Sugar Cabaret, Can-Can, Carousel, Destry Rides Again, George M, Half a Sixpence, Little MeNo No Nanette and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

In referencing the Ford’s archive of show playbills, I discovered that our production featured Swen SwensonJanet Eilber, Barry Preston, Lee TheodoreHarold “stumpy” Cromer  and Bick Gross

The American Dance Machine Moving Forward

Throughout the years, The American Dance Machine has been performed anew with different numbers from multiple productions. The latest incarnation is American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, a dance company focused on musical theater dance, its preservation and presentation. The company explores classic and current musical theatre works and educates audiences as to why they are important.

eight men wearing monochrome turtlenecks and pants and black bowler hats dance on the Ford's Theatre stage.
Cast of the 1978 Ford’s Theatre production of American Dance Machine, conceived and directed by Lee Theodore. Photo by Earl Robbin.

When I came across The American Dance Machine in our archives, I was interested in knowing more because the photographs showcased such a diverse style of dance numbers. I was curious to know why one show had both ballet and jazz. The American Dance Machine is a treasure because it pulls together all types of dance to create a fun and exciting show, while also preserving the choreography for future generations. 

Emily Loomis is Communications and Marketing Intern. She can't wait to see what other bounty lives in the Ford's Theatre archives!