Was one of Fred Astaire’s tap dancing partners actually better than him?
In fact, Eleanor Powell is considered the only female dancer ever capable of out-dancing Astaire. In the MGM motion picture “Broadway Melody of 1940” Fred teamed up with the amazing Eleanor Powell who was one of the best female tappers around. Together, Astaire and Powell danced to Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest tap sequences in film history.
Remember, back then, a woman’s role in dances was to look pretty and make the man look good. And with her talent and grace, Eleanor often became the main focus. In fact, Eleanor Powell was the only one who could match his footwork and, while Fred respected her immensely, after this movie he decided to get a new dance partner so he could shine again! In his autobiography “Steps in Time”, Fred says simply;
“She ‘put ’em down like a man’, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.”
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Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire Tap Dance in the Barkleys of Broadway
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were iconic dance partners well known for their graceful ballroom dancing as top box office names over their productive Hollywood career. Whats even more amazing is that they were also amazingly versatile tap dancers as this clip from the 1949 movie the Barkleys of Broadway illustrates so well.
The Barkleys of Broadway tells the tale of a musical comedy team at the peak of their careers, something which they both experienced together with their own rise to stardom. Many feel that this quality of true life makes this movie one of their greatest films together. Sadly, this was their last movie dancing together. But perhaps we should just be happy that this bit of magic was captured at all – the part was originally supposed to go to Judy Garland!
Gregory Hines and Suzzanne Douglas dancing “Cheek to Cheek”
The 1989 movie “Tap” features some of the best tap dance scenes by old time greats like Sammy Davis Jr. and Harold Nicholas and younger stars like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Written and directed by Nick Castle, the son of the choreographer who worked with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on some of their most famous dance numbers, the movie features and variety of tap dancing scenes to enjoy.
In this scene, Gregory Hines and Suzzanne Douglas tap dance their take of “Cheek to Cheek” as originally made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movie “Top Hat” from 1935.
Lullaby of Broadway, 1935
Well known for his fantastic geometric dance pattern choreography, in 1935 Busby Berkeley directed his finest effort with Gold Diggers of 1935. Filmed during the high point of tap dancing, many consider his tap dance number “Lullaby of Broadway” to be the most memorable tap dance sequence ever filmed.
The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather
Fayard and Harold Nicholas, better known as the “Nicholas Brothers”, were a phenomenal pair of tap dancers who performed in the legendary “Cotton Club” in Harlem and later went on to teach dancing to superstars such as Michael and Janet Jackson among many others.
This clip is from the wonderful picture “Stormy Weather” filmed in 1943 and features the great Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra. The film also featured another tap dance legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as well as Fats Waller and Lena Horne.
If you listen closely, you will be amazed at the synchronicity and unison of their tap dancing. This tap dancing number is so famous that Fred Astaire called this performance “the greatest dance number ever filmed” and Mikhail Baryshnikov said, “Those guys are perfect examples of pure genius.”
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Little Colonel
The 1932 film “The Little Colonel” starring Shirley Temple features a wonderful tap dancing performance by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson which finds him teaching Shirley Temple his signature stair dance. This was actually the first interracial dance team shown in a Hollywood movie and represents a recreation of Bill’s famous stair tap dancing routine which he introduced in 1918 and performed during in his vaudeville days. Bill’s tap dancing style was unique and lasting, making tap dancing more upright, with a lightness and focus on complex rhythmic precision. For the movie, Bill was brought in to teach Shirley Temple how to tap dance. As Shirley recalled years later;
“Bill walked a step ahead of us, but when he noticed me hurrying to catch up, he shortened his stride to accommodate mine. I kept reaching up for his hand. When he took my hand in his, it felt large and cool. For a few moments, we continued walking in silence. “Can I call you Uncle Billy?” I asked. “Why sure you can”, he replied… “But then I get to call you darlin.'”