Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Greatest Dancer Who Ever Lived

by James Scott Bell

Tis the Season of Joy, and since this is the final post at Kill Zone for a couple of weeks, I thought I'd leave you with some of the purest joy I know. It comes from the world of dance.

If you ask the question, who is the greatest dancer who ever lived, you'll get several responses. No doubt Fred Astaire will get a huge number of votes. Maybe Gene Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, Nijinsky, Margot Fonteyn, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a few others.

But there's one name you're probably not all that familiar with that deserves to head the list. I'm talking about Eleanor Powell.

I met Miss Powell in the mid-70's when I was in film school. In the days before DVDs and TCM, we had to find our films at revival houses. One night I went with some buddies to see Born to Dance, the 1936 musical starring Powell and James Stewart. And she was there. She spoke, and afterwards we went up and met her. She couldn't have been classier.

I wrote her a thank you letter and she wrote back and we started corresponding. At some point I invited her to come speak to a film class, and she readily agreed. So I drove my Ford Pinto into Beverly Hills, picked up her and her secretary, and drove us up to Santa Barbara. She gave a lecture and then, to demonstrate a point, she stepped out from behind the podium and started to tap. She was around 64 at the time. And she was still poetry in motion.

Ellie retired fairly early, after marrying Glenn Ford (a matrimonial misstep as it turned out). After her divorce from Ford she mounted a successful night club act, and was rediscovered by millions via the That's Entertainment series. A quietly devout woman, she spent her latter years working with young people, inspiring them to a higher vision. "Who we are is God's gift to us," she used to say. "What we become is our gift to God."

Why do I call her the greatest dancer of all? Because not only was she the equal of Astaire in tap (he was in awe of her, and that's saying something); she was also a ballet dancer, a gymnast (she could kick to perpendicular, bend herself completely backward, and spin like a top) and, if modern dance had been in vogue, she would have been the equal of Cyd Charisse or Gwen Verdon.

In other words, she could do it all, and she does it all in the one film she made with Astaire, Broadway Melody of 1940. Here she dances ballet on point, taps, ballrooms, bends and spins, all with her singular grace. This film has what is, IMO, the greatest tap dance ever recorded, Begin the Beguine. You can watch the full number here. Give yourself nine minutes. You will not regret it. At about the 1:30 mark Ellie comes on and does some of her signature kicks and moves, then at 2:30 Fred joins her for an elegant tap-ballroom number. Then there's a short interlude (I love the old swing sound, a la the Andrews Sisters), and then, at about 6:10, comes the greatest tap number you'll ever see. Just look at how much fun they seem to be having. That's another mark of their greatness, because they rehearsed this number for weeks, to the point of exhaustion. It was worth it. It is, without question, my favorite three minutes of film of any kind.

There's also another great tap number from the film, the "Juke Box Dance." It's the first one they worked on together. So sit back and enjoy the two greatest dancers of all time, just diggin' it. A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

UPDATE: Since the current state of dance has been brought up, you might want to take a look at the Juke Box Dance as if it were done with a little more up-to-date beat. I find this to be rather cool, and shows again how these two transcend time.


  1. When something is made to look that easy, it must be hard as hell for us mere mortals. Thanks for sharing, Jim, and Merry Christmas.

  2. It does look easy, doesn't it? And yet we know how hard both of them worked to make it seem so. I think that's how the best writers are, too. Stephen King makes it look easy, but he has diligently written at least 1500 words a day for decades, starting well before he was published.

    Raymond Chandler used to write on one quarter pages, so he could go over each word and paragraph more attentively.

    Here's to more work in 2010!

  3. I wonder what she would have thought of those two TV dance shows, Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? There are a lot of differents types of dance happening there, for sure. I personally don't care for some of them, but there are so great folks that have a lot of potential and full careers ahead of them.

  4. Jim, You continue to amaze me as you share tidbits from your past. Wish I could have met this amazing woman. I agree--that's probably the greatest tap number I've ever seen.
    I'm thinking, this film clip was made almost seven decades ago, and it's still touching people. It would be nice to achieve that with our writing, as well. Thanks for sharing.
    Merry Christmas.

  5. Thanks for this, Jim. I have a lot of personal favorites. Back in 1991 when I was working at a dance festival in the Berkshires, I was lucky enough to see Carmen de Lavallade dance a tribute to Billie Holiday. She was sixty-one years old at the time, and she still blew the audience away.

    As a former professional dancer myself, I think that So You Think You Can Dance is the best thing to happen to dance in years, despite the silly title. For one thing, what was widely perceived as a dying art a decade ago with declining ticket sales and a sense that dance was only for the elite has now found a mass audience. A whole new generation is being exposed to some of the top choreographers in the world (including the phenomenal Dwight Roden and Desmond Richardson, arguably still two of the best dancers alive today). Dance forms that originated on the street are evolving through the show- there was a piece showcased a few weeks ago that was a quantum leap forward for hip hop, giving it legitimacy as an art form for the first time (see it here):

    I know that for the dance world, that show in particular has been manna from heaven. People are signing up for classes in record numbers. Attendance at performances is up. So I suspect that Miss Powell would probably be applauding the show along with the rest of us. Anything that provides a real stage for dance is appreciated by dancers. And the variety of forms displayed on the show, everything from ballet to Bollywood to tap, is truly staggering. Miss Powell would fit right in.

    Happy holidays-


  6. Great stuff, Jim. I'll be perfectly honest and admit up front that I really dislike that style of music--something about the harmonies have always grated on me--but the dansing talent is amazing.

    I also enjoy So You Think You Can Dance, but Astair, Kelly, Powell and others set a standard for simultaneous tapping (I don't know the dance term, but the crisp sound that comes from perfect simultaneous movement) that the featured young dancers on that show (or any other) can't touch. And they look like they're having so much fun!

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but they didn't have Foley stages back then, right? So we're hearing the actual sound of their tapping.

    Amazing. Merry Christmas.


  7. I have to agree with every word Michelle said - THANK GOD for those shows. Makes dance more accessible to everyone, at every level.

    Do you tap, James? If you don't, sounds like you should. There's no other dance like it for sheer happiness.

    (And I think you mean that Powell could kick to parallel.)

  8. Michelle, in my acting days I was in an Off Broadway production of Othello. In one of the supporting roles was...Carmen De Lavallade. Very classy. I remember when her husband, Geoffrey Holder, came backstage. Talk about presence. And you are absolutely right that Ellie would have been thrilled with young people taking up the dance.

    Alex, I would love to be able to tap (and play ragtime) but I was too busy with basketball in my youth. So busy I barely made it through geometry, so you could very well be right about what I meant for Eleanor Powell's kicks. Thanks for stopping by!

    Yes, John, those were their taps. Astaire and Powell wouldn't have had it any other way.

  9. That was awesome. Merry Christmas to you, too. :)

  10. Great, Jim! Thanks for posting this wonderful tribute to Eleanor Powell. The video was sensational.

  11. Thanks for the early Christmas present, Jim. It made my day. I'm a big fan of movie musicals. No one mentioned Donald O'Connor, though. He's a favorite of mine. Going to put Anything Goes on while I hit the treadmill this morning. Just the spirit raiser needed on a snowy Monday.

  12. Heather, you're so right about Donald O'Connor. The "Moses Supposes" number from Singin' in the Rain is, IMO, the second best tap dance in film history, just after Begin the Beguine. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. Oh, I love musicals. Thanks for this post. I haven't seen Broadway Melody, I'll have to check it out.
    The dancing was supurb, I was exhausted watching it.
    Merry Christmas

  14. Wow Jim, this brings back wonderful memories. I loved watching old musicals and dance shows as a kid and teen and had at one point in my youth considered an acting/dance career.
    The acting, I did do a lot of, albeit not for pay. Looking back on it though, it was probably best that I joined the Marines instead tripping the light fantastic. I am trying but failing these days to picture myself as a broadway dancer. There probably aren't too many 5'8" 250lbs dancers out there. They would have to build special stages for guys like me.
    I'm built more for lifting small cars out of the ditch by hand than twirling tiny women overhead and probably would have been fired as soon as I shot one into the rafters.
    My gift to you all is that you do not have to watch me dance. Merry Christmas folks, and Happy New Year.

  15. Just weighing in on the parallel/perpendicular discussion. [Geometry would be the only field I'm sure-footed in. ]
    You can use either depending on the reference. I'm sure James meant both legs perpendicular to the floor.

    Terrific video!

  16. Camille, thank you for showing me that my time spent in Mr. Sharp's geometry class was not totally wasted!