Imitation, Embodiment, and Homage in Eleanor Powell’s Tribute to Bill Robinson

Robynn J. Stilwell

Dorothy March (Eleanor Powell) performs as her favorite movie star, Bill Robinson, in Honolulu (MGM, 1939).

Fred Astaire begins to tap in "Bojangles of Harlem" in Swing Time (RKO, 1936).

Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (Fox, 1935).

"Mr. Bojangles" by Jerry Jeff Walker

Distinctive cells of Bill Robinson’s stair dance. The routine is performed in Harlem Is Heaven (Lincoln Production Company, Herald Pictures, 1932).

"Bojangles of Harlem."

“I Won't Dance” from Roberta (RKO, 1935). Note Astaire cuing the band’s re-entry with repeated foot stomps.

Extended syncopations in "Nice Work If You Can Get It" from A Damsel in Distress (RKO, 1937): two short sequences, one towards the beginning of the number and a slightly longer one towards the end.

Astaire bests his shadows in "Bojangles of Harlem."

Rosalie (Eleanor Powell) revealed to the military cadets (Rosalie, MGM, 1937).

Powell’s almost somber expressions while performing in blackface (Honolulu).

The flex of the wrist and flick of the fingertips demonstrated by the choreography’s originator Kay Mazzo in a performance of the Stravinsky-Balanchine Duo Concertant (1972) lingers in a much later performance by Laura Hecquet. The performance by Mazzo & Peter Martins was recorded by ZDF (Germany) in 1975. The performance by Hecquet and Hugo Marchand is from the Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier, 2016.

"Follow in My Footsteps" (Broadway Melody of 1938, MGM, 1937): Eleanor Powell, Buddy Ebsen, and George Murphy explore the space of a train car.

In That’s Entertainment! III (MGM, 1994) behind-the-scenes footage reveals that Powell’s dance literally recomposes the dance space for "Fascinatin’ Rhythm" (Lady Be Good, MGM, 1941).

Powell’s dancing literally activates space as the stairs rise to meet her in her version of Robinson’s stair dance (Honolulu).

Robinson’s stair dance finale, exiting to the wings on a plane with the staircase.

Powell leaps outward toward the audience, breaking the plane of her impersonation of Robinson.

Powell in "glamour drag" as "Mademoiselle Arlette" in Broadway Melody of 1936 (MGM, 1935).