TAP DANCE HALL OF FAME

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Eleanor Powell (1912-1982)
2002 Inductee

Eleanor Powell, who had the long legs of a thoroughbred dancer and speed and agility of an acrobat, is considered the ”Queen of Tap Dancing” on the silver screen.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the shy eleven year old was sent to dancing school to learn acrobatics and ballet (but no tap dancing!) in an effort to make her more sociable. At the age of twelve, while visiting relatives in Atlantic City, she was spotted by Gus Edwards, a famous producer of children’s shows, which led to her stage debut in the Vaudeville Kiddie Review. After performing in the New York nightclub of the bandleader Ben Bernie, she made her Broadway debut in The Optimists in 1928; the show’s short run sent the young dancer to audition for more work on Broadway stage.

Because she was asked if she could tap at every audition she went to, she enrolled in the dancing school of Jack Donohue, who taught her to tap dance by hanging sand bags onto a belt that weighed her down and riveted her to the floor, thus forcing her to tap close to the floor. She later became Donohue’s dance assistant.

In January 1929, Powell became a star on Broadway in Follow Thru, tapping to the acclaimed “Button Up Your Overcoat.” She also performed at Carnegie Hall with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and in 1932 Florenz Ziegfeld production of Hot-Cha! In 1935, she took Hollywood by storm, first dancing in George White’s 1935 Scandals and subsequently in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Born to Dance (1936), Rosalie (1937), Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), Honolulu (1939), Ship Ahoy (1942), Thousands Cheer (1943), Sensations of 1945 (1944), and Duchess of Idaho (1950).

In Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), she danced with Fred Astaire in the “Begin the Beguine” finale, matching the great dancer in height, grace, and footwork. In Lady Be Good (1941), she danced the “Fascinating Rhythm” number in top hat and short tails, choreography for the chorus Busby Berkeley; the number that opened on an extended close up of her tapping feet ended with her being tossed head over heel over and over again down a corridor of men.

In 1943, after twenty years of performing, she married the actor Glenn Ford and retired from the stage, devoting herself to charitable organizations and religious work, including a brief Sunday morning television series for children. In 1950, she was persuaded to appear in a musical number with Esther Williams and Van Johnson entitled “Dutchess of Idaho.” After her divorce from Ford in 1959, she continued a short but highly regarded night club career. An extended engagement at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas represented a remarkable comeback for a woman in her late forties as a dancer. She continued to dance in top nightclubs across the country. In 1981, she received an award in her name and her honor, the Ellie Award, from the National Film Ceremony, for her outstanding contribution to the film musical.

Constance Valis Hill

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