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Eleanor Powell (1912-1982)

By Jenai Cutcher

Despite making just thirteen films in her career, Eleanor Powell is remembered as MGM’s “Queen of Taps” and one of the most famous female dancers in movie history. Her distinctive style, coupling clear and grounded footwork with acrobatics and poise, made her MGM’s answer to Fred Astaire (who was under contract at RKO Pictures in the 1930s), and one of the few women soloists in Hollywood at the time. Her strength as a dancer, matched by the creative license afforded to her at MGM, brought forth incredibly imaginative dance production sequences; Morse code, flamenco, Western rope tricks, hula, a trained dog, and more all found their way into Powell’s choreography.

Eleanor Powell made her professional debut at age twelve in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she spent her summers with family. She was discovered while doing gymnastics on the beach and started performing at the Ambassador Hotel, then later at the Silver Slipper. With the encouragement of several entertainers who had seen her there, she moved with her mother from her hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts to New York City at age sixteen. It was 1927, and the city’s theater scene was thriving. Her first job was in bandleader Ben Bernie’s club, and in 1928 she performed her acrobatics in the British revue The Optimists. She had been taking ballet and acrobatics classes since she was a child, but because of the popularity of tap dancing at the time, Powell knew that she could not continue to get work for long without learning to tap. She signed up for ten lessons at Jack Donahue’s school for a total of $35. Her introductory experience with tap dance was a story she often recounted.

Powell despised the first class and was unable to pick up any of the steps that were taught. In order to help her understand the weighted qualities of tap dance, which one does not learn by studying ballet, Donahue strapped an Army surplus bag to her waist and attached a sandbag on each side. This helped her to stay close to the floor and feel the ways in which she needed to shift her weight. By the seventh lesson, the technique was making sense to her, and by the tenth and last session, she was demonstrating the routine for the rest of the students. That was the only formal tap training Eleanor Powell ever had.

Beyond those lessons, however, Powell continued to learn and develop. She credits Donahue with inspiring her to combine what she learned in tap class with her ballet training. Every day between performances, Powell would work out new steps to Fats Waller records in the empty theater. This is how her signature moves, like pirouettes with syncopated taps, were created. John Bubbles, of the vaudeville duo Buck and Bubbles, was also an early influence on Powell’s style. While they were on tour together, he would challenge Powell to catch his ever-changing, complex steps. She would often lie on the floor in the wings when Bubbles was onstage, in order to see as much of his footwork as possible. Powell’s work at private events with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was undoubtedly important to her development as a tap dancer. Besides the young Shirley Temple, Powell was the only other person ever to learn his famous Stair Dance directly from him, and she would later re-create it in Honolulu. Having been tap dancing for just a year, Powell was named “World’s Greatest Feminine Tap and Rhythm Dancer” by the Dance Masters of America, and she had only just begun.

In 1929, auditioning with the routine Donahue taught her, Powell was cast in her first Broadway show, Follow Thru. A succession of Broadway shows followed, included Fine and Dandy, Hot-Cha!, and George White’s Music Hall Varieties. Shortly thereafter, White included Powell’s stage act in his picture Scandals of 1935 for Twentieth Century-Fox. Powell stayed in Hollywood to shoot Broadway Melody of 1936, which led to her contract at MGM. Though she was initially set to appear in a small role, Louis B. Mayer decided to re-cast her as the lead, igniting a new era of moviemusical-making for the company, built around their new tap dancing star. 1935 was a blockbuster year for Powell: Broadway Melody of 1936 was released, Powell was back on Broadway in At Home Abroad, and she had her own weekly radio program. The New York Times declared hers “the most eloquent feet in show business” (Andre Sennwald, September 19, 1935). Powell returned to Hollywood in summer of 1936. She was immediately inserted into the star machine and began working on the first film written specifically for her, Born to Dance. In numbers like “Rap, Tap on Wood” and “Swingin’ the Jinx Away,” the moves that would define her style are all there: rapid, close-to-the-floor footwork juxtaposed with buoyant, balletic translations of rhythm, syncopated toe and heel drops, battements, backbends, toe tap turns, all backed by a legion of dancers and/or musicians.

Powell was given her own bungalow on the MGM lot where she could rehearse and choreograph, which she would often do for 12 hours a day. As the country was experiencing the Great Depression, this golden age of Hollywood movie musicals exhibited the extravagant fantasy of escape. The romances of ingénues and underdogs were set to music by Cole Porter against a backdrop of elaborate sets and precision choreography for hundreds by Busby Berkeley or Albertina Rasch. Consequently, Powell was charged with the task of originating dances that took place on giant drums (Rosalie) or inside an oversized pinball machine (Sensations of 1945) and that involved elements of the hula (Honolulu) or flamenco (Ship Ahoy). Some of her most memorable numbers include “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” in Lady Be Good, in which she dances backwards through a serpentine path of piano players in one continuous take, and her dances with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, especially “Begin the Beguine.”

In 1943, near the end of her first MGM contract, Powell married actor Glenn Ford and chose to stop dancing and raise a family. Her son, Peter, was born in 1945. Aside from a cameo in Duchess of Idaho in 1950, she did not return to dancing until 1959, when she and Ford divorced. With Peter’s encouragement, Powell launched a highly successful nightclub tour that allowed her to showcase her virtuosity, diversity, and personality in a live, intimate setting. In 1981, the first ever Ellie Award was bestowed on her by the National Film Society. Eleanor Powell died of cancer in February, 1982.

At a time when few women were featured as soloists in movies, and even fewer created their own choreography, Eleanor Powell exemplified strength in form and character. Despite the formulaic nature of Depression-era movie musicals in general, she never stopped innovating within her specific vocabulary. In addition to her many professional accomplishments, Powell’s reputation must be considered as well. Even after her nightclub comeback had ended, Powell remained accessible to fans, tap enthusiasts, and students until her death. In a field relying so heavily on oral (and aural) tradition, especially at a time when other visual resources were not as readily available, her willingness to share the dance was a treasure in and of itself.


Jenai Cutcher tap dances, writes about dance, teaches dance, and makes dance movies. She has performed and taught throughout the U.S. and internationally. Her first documentary, Thinking On Their Feet: Women of the Tap Renaissance, recently screened at The Wexner Center for the Arts and the Southern Utah International Documentary Festival. Jenai has an MFA in Dance from The Ohio State University. Her book about the history of contemporary dance in Columbus, Ohio will be released May 2012.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Ames, Jerry and Jim Siegelman. The Book of Tap. New York: David McKay Company, 1977.

Levin, Alice. Eleanor Powell: First Lady of Dance. Empire, 1998.

Looseleaf, Victoria. “History: Eleanor Powell.” Dance Teacher, May 2009: p. 60-61.

Tibbets, John C. and James M. Welsh, ed. American Classic Screen Profiles, Scarecrow Press, 2010.

Moving Image

All of Eleanor Powell’s major works are commercially available on VHS or DVD:

Broadway Melody of 1936, Born to Dance, Rosalie, Broadway Melody of 1938, Honolulu, Lady Be Good, Ship Ahoy, I Dood It, Sensations of 1945.