On Dancing and Dancers, Especially EP


I don’t usually do this but I am going to share with you a charming email I got today in response to the comment I made on the “shoes” quiz. I said I couldn’t dance and I didn’t even like watching it. Regular eagle, who hates the 1000-character limit in my bargain basement comments program almost as much as my niece hates asparagus, sent me this instead. I’m glad he did.

It’s a hell of a note at the age of 66, (be 67 in June, and I always remind myself that we are celebrating the end of the year not the beginning, so I’ll start my 68th year this June), to fall in love after only a few minutes.I think you can appreciate my possession, as I am a very visual person and movies and pictures and things visual have always had the most impact on me. Other than good music of course, which I truly love.

OK, I’ll quit beating around the bush, (no a real bush, not that Bush, though I would like to beat him), her name is Eleanor and she is a great dancer. The impact of watching her was like getting hit by a truck. There’s one problem however……… she is dead. Died in 1982, I believe. Born 1912. Name: Eleanor Torrey Powell. She was called the Queen of Tap for her wonderful 1930s movies. Wow! Could she dance.

A few months after Powell’s death, Gene Nelson told an admirer of Ms. Powell’s, “She was one of the nicest people in the business and so talented. Oh, how I miss her.”

In [the] 1994 film That’s Entertainment part 3, the late Frank Sinatra said it best during his narration of the Eleanor Powell segment, “You know you can wait around and hope, but I tell you, you’ll never see the likes of this again.” And from what little I know of dancing, and have seen in my life, I believe he was absolutely correct.

All of this effect…from two small clips of her movies, I believe one of them was the Broadway Melodies of 1936, and the other was Honolulu, 1939. Almost all of her work was done at MGM.

I caught the two clips in the film “That’s Dancing” MGM 1985 shown last night on local PBS.

I am just going to have to try & find more of her work to watch.

I am in love! Dammit! After all this time, and 46 years of marriage to a wonderful woman. How do you explain it?

Oh the theater! The movies!

Indeed. I know exactly what he means. OK, I’ll admit it: I lied–sort of, a little bit. For the sake of flippancy and a punchy tagline, I told a wee bit of an untruth. No, not about dancing like a hippo. That’s true–I suck eggs. About not liking to watch it. Mostly I don’t, but there are three major exceptions:

1) I love ballet when it’s performed by brilliant dancers who can also act. This combination is extremely rare now, which why I don’t go very often. The wooden expressions that modern dancers freeze their faces into make me feel like I’m watching plastic dolls express what they imagine a human feeling might be like if they ever had one. Maybe it’s a phase or a fad but whatever it is, it’s boring. Dance is the most pure form of physically-expressed emotion, and to deliberately remove that emotion is to leave the dancer circling pointlessly in a void like a record player somebody forgot to turn off after the record was over. Yes it’s moving, but who cares? I’ll pass. My oven needs cleaning, anyway.

2) Musicals usually leave me as cold as Dick Cheney’s heart, (except for Sondheim, as you might expect). I find most choreography in most musicals to be almost childishly mindless, repetitive, derivative to the point of outright copying (there seem to be only three or four moves the choreographers are comfortable with and they repeat them until I want to shoot somebody. “Oh, they’re doing that again, are they? They just did that in the last dance only they were going counter-clockwise instead of clockwise.”), and emotionally sophomoronic. By the end of the first number, I’m normally checking my watch and remembering how I forgot to clean the downspouts and that I should rub some lard on the cat’s boil.

But there are two musical dance choreographers that I love like old friends: Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Robbins and Fosse are dead, alas, and though their choreography lives on, nobody else really has a handle on how to bring out the life in it the way they did. Robbins’ angular, twitchy, jazzbo energy always had me bopping my feet in the stalls, amazed that human bodies could do things like that, and so fast!

Fosse’s eccentric, half-human, half-windup-doll, jerky unpredictability is my favorite, though. Depite its superficially mechanical look, there was always something in it of the mixing of emotional opposites–joyous despair, childish maturity, the light of night and the dark of day–that you would have sworn couldn’t exist in the same body, the same motion, until you saw his work and how wrong you were. And underneath it all, that simmering, pot-about-to-boil-over sensuality that was all heat and, like a 3-day-old rag fire, ready to explode exposed to the slightest spark. I’ve watched All That Jazz a dozen times (possibly the best performance of Roy Scheider’s career), and I am still awed by the startling dance sequences and haunted by the thought of all the work Fosse did that was diluted or killed outright because musical theater wasn’t ready for it. He said that he had picked out for the movie the best of the stuff they hadn’t let him do in the theater because it was “too risky” (read: “risque”), and the knowledge of what’s been lost still bothers me. He was one of a kind.

3) However, it was eagle’s lovely note that reminded me of what I have always loved most since I was a kid: tap.

Powell, the greatest female tapper of all time was, indeed, something special. It’s easy to fall in love with her, I’ve done it a thousand times (apologies to WC for stealing his line, but it’s true). Every time I see her, the years drop away and I fall in love all over again. She was beautiful, funny, sweet, and–when she wanted to be–sharp as a firecracker six inches from your face. And she danced like nobody else in the world.

About her, there’s no argument, but who was the best male tapper? That can get vicious among fans. Astaire? Greg Hines? Harold Nicholas? Bojangles? I don’t choose. I love ’em all. Tap is like playing percussion with your feet–it’s the rhythmic combinations, breaks, and extended riffs that separate the wanna-be’s from the grown-ups, the garage-band bangers from the Krupa’s and the Cobham’s. Harold Nicholas could do a full split and still keep time with his back foot taps. Fred Astaire could improvise a dance with firecrackers (the only time he ever improvised on film) and riff between the explosions. Greg Hines can accelerate his combinations practically to the speed of light. And Bojangles could make the toughest steps look so easy you thought you could do it, too, with just a few minutes’ practice.

But what’s the use o’ talkin’? Tap is over there in my movie drawer, and there’s that scene in it when he takes a class outside and teaches them to tap to the funky beat of machinery as it tears up the steet. and before you know it the whole damn city joins in. I think I’ll go watch it.

Thanks, eagle.

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