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`That's Dancing' -- even better on the printed page

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That's Dancing, by Tony Thomas. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 272 pp. $35. Besides traveling to movie theaters everywhere, ``That's Dancing!'' has also set up shop at bookstores -- in a handsome volume that actually outdoes the film version in offering a lively montage of Hollywood's highest-kicking achievements.

Written by movie scholar Tony Thomas, the book edition of ``That's Dancing!'' is a gorgeously produced guided tour of screen terpsichory from its beginnings in the early talkie period through more recent phenomena like the disco-throbbing ``Saturday Night Fever'' and the odd shenanigans of ``Pennies From Heaven.''

The first section, an overview called ``Dancing -- Frame by Frame,'' is followed by hefty chapters on individual giants of the genre, beginning (fittingly as well as alphabetically) with Fred Astaire.

Naturally, no book can reproduce the choreographic and cinematic movement that is at the heart of movie dance. What makes this volume a fuller experience than the ``That's Dancing!'' film is its thoughtfulness and thoroughness. Carefully considered essays on styles, trends, and personalities replace the plodding punch lines and platitudes of the movie's narration. The author doesn't shy away from sensitive subjects -- noting, for example, the racism that made seven-year-old Shirley Temple the only white female whom the black star Bill (Bojangles) Robinson ever danced with on screen. He also provides information the movie overlooks -- as when he quotes Ray Bolger's frank explanation (``It interrupted the flow'') of why a major Scarecrow dance was trimmed from ``The Wizard of Oz'' in 1939.

And the photos -- most of them in black and white, like the movies themselves -- are gems that deserve the perusal a book can offer. The screen is still a natural home for archival projects like ``That's Dancing!'' and its ``That's Entertainment!'' sires, but for luxuriating in selected images, there's nothing like a printed page. Thomas's book is recommended for the movie maven and the casual skimmer alike.


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