Burch Mann (1908-1996)
First Season Choreographer
Burch Mann said she read Walt Whitman's "I Heard America Singing", and answered back in her mind, "I saw America dancing". Her lasting contribution to American dance remains the American Folk Ballet troupe and repretoire she created starting in 1960, but before then she provided choreography for the first season of the Mickey Mouse Club.
Born forty miles west of Dallas, on August 16, 1908, the great grand-daughter of early pioneers, Burch was one of four children. She grew up first in Texas, and then Tulsa, Oklahoma, where her father moved the family in 1920, to follow the oil-well boom. In Tulsa, she and her brother Michael picked up their first training in dance. After graduating from high school, Burch headed to New York City, where she studied ballet for two years under Mikhail Mordkin. Burch returned to Tulsa in 1930 where she married Joy Holtzman, who worked for a finance company. Burch's only child, a daughter named San, who later became a dancer herself, was born there. Burch taught dancing in Tulsa, but later rejoined Mikhail Mordkin's new troupe. Mordkin had disbanded his first ballet company in 1926, but in 1937 he reformed it and took it on tour. When the troupe reached Dallas, Burch's relatives came into town to see her dance. They thought it was a hoot, all those folks prancing around, and especially the men in tights. Burch decided that someday she'd create dances to draw a rancher's interest and not his laughter.
By the early 1950's Burch had retired from dancing, and the Holtzmans had settled in Los Angeles. When her brother and his wife closed their dance studio in El Monte, California, they sent their most promising students to Burch for further instruction. Burch obligingly opened her own studio in nearby Alhambra to teach them. In a short while her "University of Dance" grew so popular that she had to start using her advanced students to help with the classes. One of her former students, Darlene Gillespie, explained the appeal of Burch's methods.
"[It] was the special way she had of teaching character dancing. It was not just a lot of moving around. There is a beginning, a middle, an end. For example, Burch has a way of taking a character and a situation --- like a little country girl going to a fair --- and weaving it into a dancing story."
Burch was acquainted with Bill Walsh, who was to be the producer of the Mickey Mouse Club. When Walt Disney told him to start casting the kids, he called Burch and asked for her help. That casual phone call initiated Burch's nine month involvement with the show. At first Burch simply passed word along to other dance studios, and scouted her own students for those in the appropriate age range. When she brought her students (Darlene Gillespie and Bonni Lou Kern, among others) to the open auditions, the Disney casting folks were impressed with how the character dances they performed told little stories without words. Bill Walsh and Hal Adelquist were convinced that this was the type of choreography they wanted for the show, so they set Burch to creating some simple dances that could be performed by kids at different skill levels.
The first dance Burch created for them was the "Talent Round-Up Day" opening, a simple movement pattern for the younger kids, climaxed by a western tap routine using the more skilled dancers. From there she went on to create the opening dance segments for the other four days of the week, including the fast paced routine called "Mouseketap" for "Fun With Music Day". Burch worked well with the quiet-spoken director Dik Darley, and agreed to act as full time choreographer for the show, with Alan Currier as her assistant. From May to November 1955 she choreographed every Mouseketeer production number filmed for the first season. She also created the Mouseketeer's Disneyland debut segment, shown live on television July 17, 1955. In later years she often joked with Alan Currier about their failure to get Cubby O'Brien to move around during a "Tom Sawyer" number. In spite of all their efforts, Cubby just kept "painting" the same bit of fence over and over.
By November 1955, filming for the first season was complete, the Mouseketeers were sent to work in the Disneyland Circus for two months, and Burch resumed teaching full-time at her Alhambra studio for the hiatus. Quite a few of the Mouseketeers came to her for lessons, including Sharon Baird, Tommy Cole, John Lee Johann, and Dallas Johann. In January 1956, however, director Dik Darley was replaced by Sidney Miller, who brought along his own choreographer, Tom Mahoney. Burch and her assistant Alan Currier were probably a bit relieved by this development, as the pace of production during the first season was brutal.
Short as Burch's involvement with the Mickey Mouse Club was, it seems to have reawoken her earlier ambition to create dances that would reach out to everybody. In 1957 she provided dancers and dances for shows at Knott's Berry Farm, and in 1960, formed a troupe initially called Burch Mann's Ballet America, and later, the American Folk Ballet. The company turned professional in 1965, and began touring nationally. In 1971, after the passing of her husband, Burch relocated the company to Utah. The troupe now toured internationally and appeared on television in many countries, and is still in existance today, based out of Southern Utah University in Cedar Creek. Burch herself continued to actively teach dance students up to at least 1990. She died in Cedar City, Utah on June 25, 1996.
Much of the information on this page comes courtesy of Susan Currier Conkey