Wednesday, November 20, 2013
If not for Vera-Ellen, I'm not sure I'd have become a dancer.
Maybe that's too extreme. Maybe my worn out tape of Balanchine's The Nutcracker (starring one Macaulay Caulkin circa 1993) would have been enough to prod me to join the ranks of the bun-headed. But even more than wearing a glittery pink tutu and twirling on my toes like a perfect ballerina, I longed to dance like the leading ladies in the musicals of Hollywood's golden age. I wanted Ginger Rogers' elegance, Leslie Caron's sweetness, Ann Miller's charisma and Cyd Charisse's body.
Then, in the Classic Musicals aisle at Blockbuster, I found Vera. Vera was the whole package, the real deal. She was blonde and petite, like me, similarities I embraced wholeheartedly when I finally realized that the genetic odds were against my ever having legs as long and shapely as Cyd's. She did it all--graceful ballet en pointe, fast tap numbers, athletic stunts and romantic duets--seemingly without effort. Vera-Ellen had this way of being both as cute and innocent as Shirley Temple and as sultry as Rita Hayworth. She just had it. Everything.
Vera's not very well remembered--not compared to the likes of Ann, Cyd or Ginger anyway. A couple of leading roles alongside big names like Gene Kelly and Donald O'Conner, a lot of second-billing dance roles in the 1940s, then nothing. Some blame the studio's unwillingness to give Vera "meatier" dramatic roles. Others point to her suspected anorexia and difficult personal life. Whatever the reason, I still feel a little personally slighted that my great dance role model is mostly forgotten.
What people do seem to remember is her standout role opposite Danny Kaye in White Christmas.
And her insanely small waist.
But mostly White Christmas.
It's a tradition in my family to watch White Christmas the day before Thanksgiving every year, usually while baking. When I was a kid, my big sister and I would take a break from rolling pie crusts and simmering cranberries to swoon over Vera and Danny's dance sequences and sing along with Bing and Rosemary. For a while there, we were the Hanes sisters. I took on the dancing role of Judy and my singing sister played Betty. We never took our floor show on the road to any rural Vermont inns, but that's on us. Through every major change or move in my life, I've guarded my pre-Thanksgiving White Christmas tradition. I've watched it on an air mattress in a college dorm, barely 18 and barely functioning my first Thanksgiving away from home. I've dutifully played the DVD on laptops propped up on flour-dusted kitchen counters. I've practically forced my in-laws to project it on to their living room wall. It's not my favorite of Vera-Ellen's movies (that would be On the Town), but it's the most personal. For a while there, my sister and I were the Hanes sisters. One of us the dancer, the other a singer. We never took our floor show on the road to rural Vermont inns, but that's on us.
Few films capitalize so well on Vera's multifaceted dance abilities like White Christmas She has a few nice moments of "Fred and Ginger" elegance in "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" broken up with fast, jazzy tap sequences. The choreography for Mandy showcases her acrobatic abilities and crazy flexibility and no one can rock the three (four?) inch mustard heels like she does in "Abraham" (featuring my dream dance partner John Brascia).
To me as a young girl Vera-Ellen in White Christmas represented everything I thought a dancer should be: powerful, funny, feminine, beautiful, graceful wearer of twirly skirts. Vera's why, despite my focused ballet training, I could never quite shake the desire to be a song-and-dance performer in high heels and long red gloves.
Some other great Vera-Ellen films to check out:
Words and Music (1948) - "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet with Gene Kelly
The Belle of New York (1952) - with Fred Astaire
Wonderm Man (1945) - with Danny Kaye
Posted by Sarah Badger at 9:21 AM