The Dancing Minister, Part 1
Regis NicollRegis Nicoll's weblog
- 2010 Jun 04
The list of great female dancers includes the likes of Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Ann Miller. But the greatest was one that few people are familiar with, unless they happen to be a classic movie buff, dancer, or octogenarian.
Eleanor Powell was without peer among her dancing counterparts. For the better part of a decade, she was box-office gold, saving her studio, MGM, from bankruptcy with her winsome screen presence and show-stopping dance routines. Despite her film success, Powell had the shortest career of any major musical star, starring in only a dozen movies from 1935 to 1945. Nevertheless, she left a lasting legacy through her work onscreen and off.
Primarily celebrated for her dazzling tap work, Powell was accomplished in ballet, acrobatics, ballroom, and jazz, combining elements of these into many of her routines. While her colleagues, including the great Fred Astaire, relied on choreographers for most, if not all, of their work, Powell choreographed her own dance numbers, which were always high in technical merit and creativity.
As for Fred Astaire, among his many and storied partners, Eleanor Powell was the only one who could match his footwork. In fact, when the "Queen of Taps" was suggested as his leading lady in Broadway Melody of 1940, Astaire is said to have been unnerved at the thought of their pairing. Years, and many dancing partners, later, Astaire said that Powell "was in a class by herself." But it was more than uncommon talent that set her apart.
Eleanor Powell was a woman of practiced faith whose Christian beliefs shaped her as an artist and a person. She acknowledged her talent as a God-given gift and her film career as a prelude to ministry. More on that later.
As one of the brightest stars in the Hollywood firmament, Powell could have easily drifted into the narcissism so common among celebrities then and now. But even at the height of fame, she remained the charming "girl next door" whose gentleness, generosity, and caring were legend among friends and fans alike; in fact, many of her fans became life-long friends and pen pals who knew her affectionately as "Ellie."
Throughout Ellie's life, her faith was central. It kept her chaste in an off-screen culture that reflected on-screen "pre-Code" values; it led her to retire from film at the pinnacle of her career to become a devoted wife and mother; it helped her endure a difficult 16-year marriage that eventually ended in divorce; it strengthened her and anchored her after divorce; and it inspired her advocacy for at-risk children, children with disabilities, and racial equality long before the national conscience was awakened to racial injustice.
Born on November 21, 1912, to a teenage mother in a fatherless home, Eleanor Powell entered the world under anything but auspicious circumstances... Continue reading here.