Eleanor Powell, Hoofing, and High Standards

There’s been a mashup going around the internet in the last few days in which some enterprising individual has cut together old clips from MGM musicals to make those faded stars look like they dance in time to Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.”  In sharing it on Facebook myself and then explaining my excitement to some of my friends, I discovered a fact that astounded me: no one remembers Eleanor Powell.

Or, perhaps, it’s not a question of remembering so much as that most people under fifty never knew who she was in the first place.  I knew because I watched the That’s Entertainment video series over and over again when I was little and because, even in that constellation of dancing stars like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell remains deeply noticeable.  She is distinctive.  If she does not quite serve as a feminist figure, the conventions of the era don’t allow it—she was still required to appear in poofy dresses, to woo Robert Taylor or Jimmy Stewart, and to occasionally show off legs toned by years of tap dancing.  But here’s the thing: when she danced with Fred Astaire, they danced side by side and did the same intensely difficult choreography.  None of that “backwards and in heels” compensation. 

My top reasons why I came to love Eleanor Powell:

1)   She wore pants.   The most superficial of my reasons, but the most noticeable.  Long before Annie Hall, Powell wore suits—occasionally a crisply tailored tux or an Uncle Sam-inspired one.  In one number, where she dances with a trained dog, she wears stylish palazzo pants.   Of course, she wore dresses and danced in more theatrical costumes, but, in situations that run the gamut from informal in-narrative dance numbers to formal end-of-film production numbers, the pants she wears communicate that mobility and her talent were more important than the sexuality inherent in showing her legs or flipping a skirt.

2)   She commanded the screen like her male counterparts.  Male dancing stars had the luxury of dancing alone and pretending they weren’t being watched.  Think of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding or Gene Kelly dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain.”  Women weren’t afforded this luxury until after Powell retired (think of Cyd Charisse), and even then, beauty became the guiding principle for viewing these dances.  Female dancers were expected to entertain, directly to the camera, so many of Powell’s dances come in the movie context of a nightclub or a staged show of some sort.  However, they’re frequently so large-scale that it feels like the entire world turns around her, and they entirely strip on-screen gazers from polluting how she is seen.  In these large production numbers, like “Fascinating Rhythm” in Lady Be Good or the one at the end of Broadway Melody of 1938, the camera follows her whole body, zooming in only on her face at moments that seem to emphasize her skill—her smile remains constant while executing difficult footwork.  When men dance around her, they become faceless accents, meant only to emphasize her acrobatic skill or to complete the kaleidoscopic effects that early musicals reveled in.

3)   Her dance routines were HARD.  There’s this thing that happens with dancing in shows or movies where the choreography is just not that complicated, perhaps because the star is more skilled as a singer or because a total effect seems more important than detailed footwork.  The choreography danced by Powell proved exactly the opposite because it alternated between micro movements of her feet and magnificent turns that only a truly skilled dancer could execute.  Because her dance routines were filmed to emphasize her movements, her crisp tap sounds percussively complement the music.  Powell described herself as a hoofer—a particular kind of tap dancer interested in the sounds the shoes make, combinations of steps, and the natural movements of the arms, as opposed to the regimented, upright tap dancing of a show like 42nd Street.  For hoofers, intense footwork and creating rhythms are more important than anything else.

4)   She worked hard and had high standards for herself.  People she worked with—stars in their own right—recounted how focused she was on getting her footwork right for the cameras.  Esther Williams, the swimming star, remembered how, when Powell made a cameo in 1950’s Duchess of Idaho, she rehearsed until her feet bled, determined to make her one routine as perfect as possible.  When the Bruno Mars mashup sent me into a YouTube spiral, I discovered this video of Powell herself speaking in 1981 about how she and Fred Astaire were such good partners because they always wanted to rehearse one more time—for “Begin the Beguine” in Broadway Melody of 1940, she says, they rehearsed only arm movements for two weeks.

She only made about 14 full-length movies (by Wikipedia’s count), retiring early to raise her son, and then returned to show business with a vengeance later in life, building a popular night club act and maintaining her ability to dazzle audiences with her dancing.   A lot of these movies are hard to find now, or in terms of plot and dialogue, they seem very antiquated.  Tap dancing, as an art form, has been under threat for years, without the same support of organizations that fund programs in ballet, jazz, and other types of dance.  The most successful tappers are the most avant-garde, working far beyond the fundamentals of hoofing to create works that build sonic landscapes or atmospheric effects.  But when I was younger—and a tap dancer—I wanted to be Eleanor Powell.  I wanted to be as good at tap dancing as she was and have the control that she seemed to have in all aspects of her persona.  Even if it’s just a matter of watching clips on YouTube, she is worth remembering.