International Tap Dance Hall of Fame

 

The International Tap Dance Hall of Fame is the only tap dance hall of fame exclusively focused on tap dancers. It features founding and innovative 20th and 21st century professional tap dancers.With a collection of photographs, biographies, and videos, the Hall of Fame is becoming a colorful and diverse retrospective of America's seminal tap dance personalities.

 

2004 - Ann Miller (1923-2004) The raven-haired, long-legged dancer whose athleticism and machine-gun taps won her stardom during the golden age of movie musicals, was born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Chireno, Texas on April 12, 1923. Her father, John Alfred Collier, who named her, was a well-known criminal lawyer who defended such infamous gangsters as Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie Parker, and Clyde Barrow; her mother, Clara Birdwell, was a Cherokee. When the Colliers moved to Houston, her mother saw to it that she studied piano and violin, but mostly tap dancing, partly to build up legs that had been affected by rickets, a condition caused by a vitamin D deficiency that can lead to softening of the bones and deformity.

When her parents divorced at the age of nine, she moved to California with her mother, calling herself Annie and soon after adopting the stage name, Ann Miller. There she developed a dance routine she performed at meetings of local civic organizations, earning five dollars a night plus tips, and was able to support her mother. After watching Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), starring the brilliant tap dancer Eleanor Powell, Miller turned her attention to sharpening her tap dance skills on the suggestion of her mother, who told her that if she practiced a bit more, she could be a dancer of the same quality.

A few years later, she was spotted by the talent scout Benny Rubin, who had been escorting Lucille Ball. They arranged a movie audition, which led to her first film, a non-speaking part in New Faces of 1937 for RKO. With her vibrant personality, great legs and dazzling style of tap dancing, RKO awarded Miller a seven-year contract at the age of thirteen (she claimed to be eighteen), and would later insure her legs for $1,000,000. She was such a remarkable young talent that at age fourteen she played Ginger Rogers’ dancing partner in the film Stage Door (1937), which also featured Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden. A year later, she was borrowed by Columbia Pictures to appear with James Stewart and Jean Arthur as Essie Carmichael, the fudge-making, ballet-dancing daughter in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1938. Back at R.K.O., she played the role of Hilda in the Marx Brothers’ film Room Service (1938), and in 1939 made her smashing Broadway debut in George White’s Scandals, which she played for two years.

In the late forties and fifties, Miller was signed by MGM to star in its most memorable musical films. In Easter Parade (1948), she danced most gracefully with Fred Astaire (she was considerably taller than he and had to wear ballet slippers) as she tried to woo him away from Judy Garland; but it was her singing and tap dancing solo, “Chasing the Blues Away,” that she claims as one of the best song and tap dances on musical film. In On the Town (1949), she was paired with Jules Munshin, the sidekick of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, all three sailors desperately looking for girls on their 24-hour leave in New York. In Kiss Me Kate (MGM 1953) she portrayed Lois Lane, the nightclub hoofer who becomes Bianca in Cole Porter’s version of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; belting out the “I’m A Maiden” number in the film, she struts and sashays around the male chorus (which includes Bob Fosse) with flirtatious brazen, interspersing a machine-gun rattle of taps to punctuate the lyrics. Other MGM musical films of note included Texas Carnival (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), a remake of Jerome Kern’s Roberta, Small Town Girl (1953), Deep in My Heart (1954), Hit the Deck (1955), and the role of Gloria Dell in The Opposite Sex (1956).

By the late 1950s, Miller moved from movies to nightclubs and also appeared frequently on such television programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, and Laugh-In. In 1969, she scored a Broadway triumph when she took on the title role in Mame, renewed energy to the role originated by Angela Lansbury. Miller continued to work even while jobs were scarce. In the early 1970s on television, she was seen dancing atop an eight-foot soup can in the Busby Berkeley-inspired TV ads for Heinz’s Great American Soups, which were choreographed by Danny Daniels. She also went on the road with touring companies of Can-Can, Panama Hattie, Hello Dolly! and Blithe Spirit.

Miller’s greatest Broadway triumph came in 1979 when she wowed audiences with her tap dancing while starring with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies, a musical salute to vaudeville. The show ran for nearly three years on Broadway and several years on tour and abroad, and earned her a Tony Award nomination, the George M. Cohen Award for Best Female Entertainer (1980), the Sarah Siddons Award for Best Performer of the Year (1984), and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination in (1989).

In 1992, Miller was honored with a Life Time Achievement Award by the University of Southern California; in 1993, the Gypsy Award for Lifetime Achievment from the Dance Society of America; and in 1994 the Flo-Bert Award from the New York Committee to Celebrate Tap Dance. Her tap shoes, which she called Moe and Joe, are exhibited in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. She has also written two books, Miller’s Highlife, an autobiography, and Tapping Into the Force, about her psychic abilities. Her performance in David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive in 2001 marked nearly seventy years in the movies. She died on January 22, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.

In her heyday, Miller was America’s leading female tap dance star, inheriting the mantle from Eleanor Powell. She preferred a vigorous approach to dancing that was athletic and speedy, and claimed to be able to dance at 500 taps per minute, which no one disputed. While she will be remembered in the popular imagination as a raven-haired, long legged tap dancer with the lacquered raven hair and Nefertiti eye makeup, the tap world will forever celebrate her dazzling and gutsy style of tap dancing that was as brassy and good-hearted as the showgirl roles she played in her films. Melding glamour and razzmatazz with speedy precision, Miller came as close to hoofing in high-heels as any female dancer in the history of the movie musical.

Constance Valis Hill

 

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