Eleanor Powell

Clark Gable gave her a Packard Roadster for her 23rd birthday. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson taught her his legendary stair dance. And Fred Astaire considered her the only female dancer capable of “out-dancing” him. Nicknamed “The Queen of Tap Dancing,” Eleanor Powell (1912–1982) ruled the silver screen in a slew of MGM musicals during the 1930s and ’40s, stunning audiences with her high energy and famed “machine-gun” solo footwork.

Her most celebrated number, “Begin the Beguine,” from Broadway Melody of 1940, where she hoofed alongside Astaire to Cole Porter’s tune, is considered to be one of the greatest tap sequences in film history. Today, the leggy blonde with the beatific smile is often forgotten. But when Powell, born Eleanor Torrey, put on her dancing shoes, Hollywood—and the world—took notice.

Powell studied ballet in order to overcome shyness, but surprisingly never formally studied tap dancing. Peter Ford, her only child from marriage to actor Glenn Ford, says his mother’s famous low-to-the-ground footwork was the result of “endless hours of practice, many spent wearing army surplus belts with sandbags attached to keep her close to the floor.”

At age 11, the Springfield, Massachusetts, native was discovered by producer Gus Edwards, who instantly booked her for his dinner show, the Vaudeville Kiddie revue. In 1928, 16-year-old Powell danced in clubs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, before landing in Manhattan to help work private parties with Robinson. One year later, she was cast in her first Broadway musical, Follow Thru, and continued hoofing in a handful of others, including At Home Abroad with Ethel Waters. In 1935, Powell heeded Hollywood’s call, and after performing a specialty tap number in George White’s 1935 Scandals, her celluloid star began to rise.

A precision dancer who made it look effortless, Powell choreographed her own numbers. Her first starring role was in Broadway Melody of 1936, opposite Robert Taylor, who Ford says proposed marriage to her. She then stormed the screen in a succession of films, including 1936’s Born to Dance. Starring with James Stewart, Powell tapped her way through New York City’s Central Park to Porter’s song, “Easy to Love.” In Broadway Melody of 1938, the vivacious blonde was once again paired with Taylor, and with sheer audacity, she swayed in a bra top and grass hula skirt in 1939’s Honolulu, in a routine that also showcased her high-velocity footwork.

Ford acknowledged that his mother, who once said, “I’d rather dance than eat,” was a perfectionist, often rehearsing 12 hours a day in her MGM bungalow. And while gallstone surgery slowed her down in 1941’s Lady Be Good, she upped the tap ante with her rapid-fire delivery to Gershwin’s tune, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” which was followed by Ship Ahoy, where Powell famously tapped out a Morse code message in the middle of a routine. In his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire, who affectionately called Powell Ellie, noted that “she put ’em down like a man, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.”  

The next year Powell made Thousands Cheer, after which she left MGM to concentrate on her marriage and raising a family. Starring in only three more movies, Powell made her final film performance in a 1950 cameo role in Duchess of Idaho. Then, after a divorce from Ford in 1959, at her son’s urging she launched a successful nightclub career. Charming audiences from New York to Las Vegas to Palm Springs, California, a middle-aged Powell captured a bygone era with ebullience and heart before losing her battle with cancer at age 69. “In her way, my mother was very avant-garde,” says Ford. “Many drummers come up to me and say that she was doing things with her feet that even Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich weren’t doing with their hands. There was no arm-flailing or buck-and-wing-kind of dancing.”

That’s Entertainment, released in 1974, and its two sequels, helped resurrect Powell’s reputation. Today, Turner Classic Movies continues to introduce audiences to the erstwhile tap goddess, while new generations can check her out on YouTube, where hundreds of clips are indelible proof of her brilliance. “She was an inspiration to women and young girls,” says Ford of his mother’s brief but celebrated career. “Mom was always the creative force of everything she did, and for her, it was a love of her work; it wasn’t for money or glory.” DT

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and producer of the TV show, “The Looseleaf Report.”

Additional Resources

Books:
Eleanor Powell: A Bio-Bibliography, by Margie Schultz, Greenwood Press, 1994
Eleanor Powell: First Lady of Dance, by Alice Levin, Empire Publishing, 1998
Tap!: The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900–1955, by Rusty Frank, Da Capo Press Inc., 1994

DVDs:
Broadway Melody of 1940, Warner Home Video, 1993
Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 3., Four of the nine films in this set star Eleanor Powell, including Broadway Melody of 1936, Born to Dance, Broadway Melody of 1938 and Lady Be Good, Warner Home Video, 2008
That’s Entertainment! The Complete Collection, Warner Home Video, 2004

Web:
“Eleanor Powell,” www.classicmoviefavorites.com

Ready for the quiz?

1. What type of footwork was Eleanor Powell most famous for?

2. Name the Cole Porter tune from the film Broadway Melody of 1940, in which she danced with Fred Astaire—it’s her most celebrated number.

3. True or false:  Eleanor Powell formally studied tap dancing in order to overcome shyness as a child.

4. Powell spent endless hours of practice wearing ____________ _______________ ________________ with __________________ attached to keep her feet close to the ground.

5. Who is the famous tapper she worked with at private parties in New York City? (Hint: He taught her his legendary stair dance.)

6. Who choreographed Powell’s dance routines, including her solos?

7. What was the name of the film in which she received her first star billing, playing opposite leading man Robert Taylor?

8. Name the studio where she made most of her musical films and had her own bungalow in order to rehearse routines.

9. In which film did Powell famously tap out a Morse code message in the middle of a routine?

10. What famous dancer, who affectionately called Powell Ellie, noted in his autobiography that “she put ’em down like a man…She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself”?

Answer Key

1. “Machine-gun” solo footwork or low-to-the-ground footwork 2. “Begin the Beguine” 3. False: Eleanor Powell studied ballet and was self-taught in tap dancing. 4. Army surplus belts; sandbags 5. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson 6. Powell choreographed all of her own numbers. 7. Broadway Melody of 1936
8. MGM 9. Ship Ahoy (1942) 10. Fred Astaire

*Click here to download the quiz for your students

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