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

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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