Jump to content


Eleanor Powell and tap


  • Please log in to reply
33 replies to this topic

#1 dirac

dirac

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 25,126 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 05:36 PM

Cutting and pasting this query from bart into a new topic:

We have other posters out there who are interested in these high matters. Do speak up!

Well, I have a question about Eleanor Powell. I know that she was considered a great dancer and that Astaire is said to have considered her as such. I've only seen a few old movies on tv -- caught on the fly rather than watched carefully. My impression is one of driving energy, not disguished as it often is with Astaire, and not really much more. Can some of you describe her dancing and explain what made her seem so special?

(I confess to an inability to "get" tap except in short doses. I guess I prefer the looser, lankier style of soft shoe. I'd love to get some advice on what to look for when Powell or others tappers dance. And I'd love to find out where Astaire's style fits into all this. Is there a term for what he does?)



#2 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 06:09 PM

Cutting and pasting this query from bart into a new topic:

[ My impression is one of driving energy, not disguished as it often is with Astaire, and not really much more. Can some of you describe her dancing and explain what made her seem so special?

(I confess to an inability to "get" tap except in short doses. I guess I prefer the looser, lankier style of soft shoe. I'd love to get some advice on what to look for when Powell or others tappers dance. And I'd love to find out where Astaire's style fits into all this. Is there a term for what he does?)


No, I can't. I just think she is phenomenal. I agree with dirac (from thread this derives from) that she's a touch butch, but although this is not something I highly prize in women generally, if I find them or their work beautiful, I don't object and even think 'the more the merrier' if they can make it appealing--Garbo was a certain kind of butch. Ethel Merman is definitely butch, much more so than Powell. I think it may be a matter of taste just as with Sylvie Guillem, of whom I am thus far not very fond, although I do not consider her butch.

Anyway, what you perceive as 'driving energy and not much more' is to me just brilliance at a kind of dancing that is so extroverted to begin with that the brighter the better. I admit this is more attractive to me, as in 'Rosalie', when Powell is dancing alone and can just let all that ability celebrate itself. So it's just a matter of taste. I think the best tap dancer should be virtuosic and extroverted, and I think Powell delivers this better than any other I know of from musical films.

#3 carbro

carbro

    Late Board Registrar

  • Rest in Peace
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 6,361 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 06:26 PM

I think of Powell as more brash than butch. Betty Grable -- now, there's butch!

I spotted Powell on Broadway just a few months ago. Those eyes just shoot out at you -- gorgeous! And she still looked as though she could break into a dance at any moment.

#4 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 06:38 PM

I think of Powell as more brash than butch. Betty Grable -- now, there's butch!

I spotted Powell on Broadway just a few months ago. Those eyes just shoot out at you -- gorgeous! And she still looked as though she could break into a dance at any moment.


Are you sure you're not thinking of Jane Powell? although maybe you were like me and dirac (but in reverse) who had though Betty Hutton had been dead since the late 70s, because I'm sure you know the dancer Eleanor Powell--but she died in 1982, I remember it rather vividly. I kept the obituary, which touched me, as she'd been a particularly lovely person.

#5 bart

bart

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 7,320 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 07:27 PM

I think the best tap dancer should be virtuosic and extroverted, and I think Powell delivers this better than any other I know of from musical films.

Interesting. I guess you're right about this being a matter of personal taste: I don't respond to this style in other art forms either.

How does Astaire fit into this?. I often find the opposite of in-your-face virtuosity and extroversion in Astaire. He seems to be an introverted dancer, self-possessed, not needing to impress, but making his dancing the outward expression of what he finds inside. This is true of his solos, but also some of his partner work, especially with Rogers.

Baryshnikov often has the same quality, especially in "The Little Ballet" (mid 1980s) on the Baryshnikov/Tharp dvd.

In ballet, which dancers might be considered to have the same presentation and impact as Powell had in tap?

#6 volcanohunter

volcanohunter

    Platinum Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,904 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 08:22 PM

Actually, I think that Powell could be extremely subtle. Most of the "Broadway Rhythm" number in Broadway Melody of 1936 (excepting the back bends) and the "Fascinatin' Rhythm" dance in Lady Be Good demonstrate extremely fine gradations of dynamics. I'm sorry she didn't do more of these numbers. Pound for pound, I think Eleanor Powell had more raw dancing talent than anyone else I've seen, including phenomenal balance and a body every bit as bendy as Sylvie Guillem's. But it's as if she had too much ability. Film producers always seemed to use her as a one-woman production number, and the outrageous acrobatics were never far from view. I much prefer Eleanor Powell the rarefied tapper.

As for butch: definitely Ann Miller!

#7 carbro

carbro

    Late Board Registrar

  • Rest in Peace
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 6,361 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 08:45 PM

Are you sure you're not thinking of Jane Powell? . . . because I'm sure you know the dancer Eleanor Powell--but she died in 1982, I remember it rather vividly.

:bow: Indeed I am. :wacko:

Okay, Eleanor is not so much butch, IMO, as androgynous. There's a difference. Sorry if I'm being picky-picky-picky. You want her to lose the shoulder pads -- if those are pads and not real shoulders. But paradoxically, for all the bendiness of her body, there was no feminine yielding in her persona, and I hope this phrase doesn't offend the feminists, among whom I count myself.

No, E. Powell was not so good a romantic opposite for Astaire.

#8 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 05 October 2007 - 09:03 PM

Okay, Eleanor is not so much butch, IMO, as androgynous. There's a difference. Sorry if I'm being picky-picky-picky. You want her to lose the shoulder pads -- if those are pads and not real shoulders. But paradoxically, for all the bendiness of her body, there was no feminine yielding in her persona, and I hope this phrase doesn't offend the feminists, among whom I count myself.


Now that that's clear, I tend to agree with the 'brash' myself, but not quite the 'androgynous'--because I find Marlene Dietrich to be the prototype of 'androgynous' (more than Garbo). As for 'no feminine yielding in the persona', I don't see that in Powell either, but rather in Joan Crawford.. :bow:
Some of the ones I thought were somewhat 'butch' still had the 'feminine yielding', whereas Ms. Crawford is neither butch nor yielding, as I see it. I find her mostly sad.

#9 bart

bart

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 7,320 posts

Posted 06 October 2007 - 04:23 AM

Actually, I think that Powell could be extremely subtle. Most of the "Broadway Rhythm" number in Broadway Melody of 1936 (excepting the back bends) and the "Fascinatin' Rhythm" dance in Lady Be Good demonstrate extremely fine gradations of dynamics. I'm sorry she didn't do more of these numbers. Pound for pound, I think Eleanor Powell had more raw dancing talent than anyone else I've seen, including phenomenal balance and a body every bit as bendy as Sylvie Guillem's. But it's as if she had too much ability. Film producers always seemed to use her as a one-woman production number, and the outrageous acrobatics were never far from view. I much prefer Eleanor Powell the rarefied tapper.

Volcanohunter, thanks. You make me want to see this dancer again and look more closely and with more of an open mind.

#10 bart

bart

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 7,320 posts

Posted 06 October 2007 - 09:37 AM

This thread has gotten me to look at some of the YouTube clips. I think Powell's technique, if your ideal is balletic, is easy to confuse with "bad ballet." My lack of experience with tap makes me want to look at it in terms of what it's NOT. I focus on the lack of extension, the compressed and slightly hunched over torrso, the knees almost always bent, ditto elbows. the feet are miraculous, but they move so fast that I have no knowledge-base from which to understand what they are doing.

The big production number from Rosalie reveals all of these qualities, but also a great deal of what volcanohunter mentioned: huge kicks, incredibly fast chaine turns, risk-taking leaps from one surface to another, a kind of desperate, exhilerating speed and rhythm that actually work against the rather slow and plodding title song.

Then I looked at a clip of Powell and Astaire dancing "Begin the Beguine" (from the compilation That's Entertainment). Astaire is definitely more flowing and flexible. Watch the quick turns towards the end. For each turn they thrust one arm up in the air. Astaire's arm movement seems more controlled, with each part of the arm and hand working to make one line. Powell throws the arm out; when it stops, it stops. It's clear that this is a matter of different technique and style.

As to Powell's being "butch," I don't see it. I do see that her line and her movements are not what we typically thinking of as "feminine." In the duet with Astaire, he seems cool; she seems tomboyish. In both clips she has no sexual allure whatsoever. She's not helped by a dress with wide, pointed shoulders; this contrasts unfavorably with Astaire's elegant and casual white suit. (In Rosalie, she's dressed even worse -- a short, wide, flounced tutu like a vaudeville cigarette girl's or cartoon French maid, with fluffy material around her wrists.)

#11 dirac

dirac

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 25,126 posts

Posted 06 October 2007 - 12:35 PM

In both clips she has no sexual allure whatever


That's a key point, and it's part of the reason why the producers volcanohunter mentions above couldn't quite figure out what to do with her -- a female tap dancer who didn't partner easily with anyone and couldn't offer much besides dazzling dancing and a mildly pleasing personality could only be, in essence, a novelty performer.

There are aspects of tap style that are, in a way, defeminizing -- although for a time in the last few decades there were a number of talented female tappers.

More to say but my time is limited today -- keep talking, everyone!

#12 volcanohunter

volcanohunter

    Platinum Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,904 posts

Posted 06 October 2007 - 01:20 PM

Relaxed ankles and bent knees are required in tap dancing. You can't shuffle without them. The relaxed upper body and bent elbows follow the legs, but the abdomen is always engaged. In watching old musicals, it seemed to me that female tappers, dressed in skirts as they usually were, were at a disadvantage. Their relaxed legs and feet were exposed, whereas the men's long, baggy pants disguised the "bad line" of their tap dancer's legs. I don't think it's coincidental that Eleanor Powell did so many numbers in top hat and tails. (Ginger Rogers also adopted the baggy trouser look in the tap number she did in The Barkleys of Broadway.)

If you look at Powell's quasi-ballet numbers, I'll agree that they were dreadful. I don't doubt that she had lots of turnout, but evidently she'd never learned to use it, and her feet weren't built for pointe work. But I think that Cyd Charisse's ballet numbers were pretty awful too, and she was trained for it. Perhaps Hollywood just does ballet badly.

Tall, powerful female dancers like Powell are often difficult to pair up. That's the case in ballet also. I blame the men for not measuring up :bow:. Besides, I don't think it's absolutely essential for a woman (or man) to be sexually seductive to be a star dancer. If it were, Fred Astaire would never have had a career.

I first saw Eleanor Powell's dancing as a teenager and immediately adopted her as a female role model. The majority of audiences may not have warmed to it, but I admired her self-sufficiency, confidence and strength, probably because I was so lacking in those qualities myself, and it was very reassuring to see that a tall woman could become a great dance star.

#13 dirac

dirac

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 25,126 posts

Posted 08 October 2007 - 10:16 AM

The relaxed upper body and bent elbows follow the legs, but the abdomen is always engaged. In watching old musicals, it seemed to me that female tappers, dressed in skirts as they usually were, were at a disadvantage. Their relaxed legs and feet were exposed, whereas the men's long, baggy pants disguised the "bad line" of their tap dancer's legs. I don't think it's coincidental that Eleanor Powell did so many numbers in top hat and tails.


Good point.

Besides, I don't think it's absolutely essential for a woman (or man) to be sexually seductive to be a star dancer. If it were, Fred Astaire would never have had a career.


Astaire wasn’t handsome or sexy, and it is true that for most of his stage career he wasn’t a romantic lead (part of the purpose of “The Gay Divorce” was to establish him as such), but he did have erotic appeal with the right partner; Katharine Hepburn’s famous comment about the Astaire-Rogers pairing, “He gives her class and she gives him sex,” while simplified, is to the point here.

The majority of audiences may not have warmed to it


For a time she was popular indeed.

#14 Helene

Helene

    Administrator

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 11,155 posts

Posted 08 October 2007 - 10:32 AM

Astaire wasn’t handsome or sexy, and it is true that for most of his stage career he wasn’t a romantic lead (part of the purpose of “The Gay Divorce” was to establish him as such), but he did have erotic appeal with the right partner; Katharine Hepburn’s famous comment about the Astaire-Rogers pairing, “He gives her class and she gives him sex,” while simplified, is to the point here.

I agree with the not handsome part, but not with the sexy part. My best friend, whose of British and Italian descent, once told me that he was British from the waist up and Italian from the waist down, and I think much of Astaire's appeal was the same. He had a mid-American face and his characters were often jerky smart alec's, and quite rude to his love object -- I don't think he was such a prize in most of his movies; at least his suave rivals were up front about it, although they were clearly foreign/foreign-influenced and not 'Merican -- but his upper body said one thing, especially with his facial expressions, and his lower body, with its rhythm and phrasing, made very different promises, and because he was such a dance genius, we want to believe that's the truth of his characters.

#15 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 08 October 2007 - 01:20 PM

Astaire wasn’t handsome or sexy, and it is true that for most of his stage career he wasn’t a romantic lead (part of the purpose of “The Gay Divorce” was to establish him as such), but he did have erotic appeal with the right partner; Katharine Hepburn’s famous comment about the Astaire-Rogers pairing, “He gives her class and she gives him sex,” while simplified, is to the point here.

I agree with the not handsome part, but not with the sexy part. My best friend, whose of British and Italian descent, once told me that he was British from the waist up and Italian from the waist down, and I think much of Astaire's appeal was the same. He had a mid-American face and his characters were often jerky smart alec's, and quite rude to his love object -- I don't think he was such a prize in most of his movies; at least his suave rivals were up front about it, although they were clearly foreign/foreign-influenced and not 'Merican -- but his upper body said one thing, especially with his facial expressions, and his lower body, with its rhythm and phrasing, made very different promises, and because he was such a dance genius, we want to believe that's the truth of his characters.


This sort of thing is so subjective, it just ends up being about personal taste and 'what turns you on', which we had enough trouble with on the 'beautifully proportioned' male and female ballet dancers. I actually find Astaire handsome in a classy-gent way when he was very young, but no promise in the lower body. Gene Kelly, Irish, was also Italian from top to bottom, or even if he wasn't, you get the idea of the way I see that hunk. Now Katharine Hepburn, without any sex appeal that I can ever see herself, may not be the best to pronounce on the Fred/Ginger pairing, although people tend to agree with it: I don't, I don't find either of them to be the least bit sexy. Cyd Charisse was truly sexy, and although Eleanor Powell I don't find sexy, I don't see that 'she has no sexual allure'--she's athletic, and that can sometimes hold it's own 'promises.'


(In Rosalie, she's dressed even worse -- a short, wide, flounced tutu like a vaudeville cigarette girl's or cartoon French maid, with fluffy material around her wrists.)


But this is not ballet, and a big vaudeville-like turn is not that long past. It's vulgar and garish, but I don't think the vulgar and garish don't have their place--in the case of 'Rosalie', it brings a ridiculous, occasionally amusing but usually moribund bit of fluff to electric life. It is probably where we want to see them that we differ. I like the description Bart has given, however I like what he disparages--I find Ms. Powell's pyrotechnics are well-matched by her 'vaudeville cigarette girl' or 'cartoon French maid'. I wouldn't want to see this in 'Coppellia', but, as Peter Martins once said 'We are NOT Broadway', several years before contacting Susan Stroman for some business in the repertoire.


0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users


Help support Ballet Alert! and Ballet Talk for Dancers year round by using this search box for your amazon.com purchases (adblockers may block display):