Thursday, June 6, 2013

Swim in Peace

Esther Williams — there will never be another.  The epitome of athleticism, grace and girl-next-door loveliness, Esther swam into the limelight and never really left it.

Here's the wiki on how this wonder woman of the water got her start:

Esther Jane Williams (August 8, 1921 – June 6, 2013) was an American competitive swimmer and MGM movie actress.
Williams set multiple national and regional swimming records in her late teens as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. Unable to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics because of the outbreak of World War II, she joined Billy Rose's Aquacade, where she took on the role vacated by Eleanor Holm after the show's move from New York City to San Francisco. While in the city, she spent five months swimming alongside Olympic gold medal winner and Tarzan star, Johnny Weissmuller. It was at the Aquacade that Williams caught the attention of MGM scouts. After appearing in several small roles, alongside Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy film, and future five time co-star Van Johnson in A Guy Named Joe, Williams made a series of films in the 1940s and early 1950s known as "aquamusicals", which featured elaborate performances with synchronized swimming and diving.
From 1945 to 1949, Williams had at least one film listed among the 20 highest grossing films of the year.  In 1952, Williams appeared in her only biographical role, as Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid, which would go on to become her nickname while at MGM.[9] Williams left MGM in 1956 and appeared in a handful of unsuccessful feature films, followed by several extremely popular water-themed television specials, including one from Cypress Gardens, Florida. Following her retirement from film in the 1960s, Williams became a businesswoman, and lent her name to a line of swimming pools and retro swimwear, instructional swimming videos for children, and serving as a commentator for synchronized swimming at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. 
Born in Inglewood, California, Williams was the fifth and youngest child of Louis Stanton Williams (January 19, 1886 – June 10, 1968) and Bula Myrtle (née Gilpin; October 8, 1885 – 1975).  Louis Williams was a sign painter and Bula Williams was a psychologist. The two lived on neighboring farms in Kansas and carried on a nine-year courtship until June 1, 1908, when they eloped and set off for California. However, they ran out of money in Salt Lake City, Utah, and settled there. Williams's brother, Stanton (September 4, 1912 – March 3, 1929) was discovered by actress Marjorie Rambeau, which led to the family (including sisters Maurine and June and brother David) moving to the Los Angeles area to be near the studios. Louis Williams purchased a small piece of land in southwest area of town, and had a small house built there. Esther was born in the living room, which was also where the family slept until Louis Williams was able to add bedrooms. In 1929, Stanton Williams died after his colon burst.  
In 1935, Bula Williams invited 16-year-old Buddy McClure to live with her family. McClure had recently lost his mother and Mrs Williams was still grieving over the death of her son. Esther recounted in her autobiography that one night, when the rest of the family was visiting relatives in Alhambra, McClure raped her. She was terrified to tell anyone about the incident and waited two years before finally revealing the truth to her parents. They seemed unsure about her story, claiming McClure was "sensitive" and were sympathetic towards him when he admitted his guilt. After Williams stood up to him and banished him from her home, McClure joined the Coast Guard, and Williams never saw him again.  
Swimming star[edit] Williams at the L.A. Athletic Club in 1939. Williams was enthusiastic about swimming in her youth. Her older sister, Maurine, took her to Manhattan Beach and to the local pool. She took a job counting towels at the pool to pay the five cent entry fee, and while there, had swimming lessons from the male lifeguards. From them, she learned the 'male only' swimming strokes, including the butterfly, with which she would later break records.  Her medley team set the record for the 300-yard relay at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1939, and was also National AAU champion in the 100 meter freestyle, with a record-breaking time of 1 minute 0.09 seconds.  By age 16, Williams had won three U.S. National championships in breaststroke and freestyle swimming.  Williams graduated from Washington Preparatory High School in 1939, where she served as class Vice President, and later President.  However, Williams never trained in swimming while there.[20] During her senior year of high school, Williams received a D in her algebra course, preventing her from getting a scholarship from the University of Southern California.  She enrolled in Los Angeles City College to retake the course.  
In 1939, Williams expressed interest in pursuing a degree in physical education in order to teach it one day.  To earn money to pay tuition, Williams took a job as a stock girl at I. Magnin department store, where she also modelled clothing for customers and appeared in newspaper advertisements.  While Williams was working at I. Magnin, she was contacted by Billy Rose's assistant and asked to audition as a replacement for Eleanor Holm in his Aquacade show. Williams impressed Rose, and she got the role.  The Aquacade was part of the Golden Gate International Exposition, and Williams was partnered with Olympic swimmer and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller,  who, as Williams wrote in her autobiography, repeatedly tried to seduce her during the show's run. Despite this, Williams remained with the show until it closed on September 29, 1940.   
Williams had planned to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics but it was cancelled because of the outbreak of World War II. Film career[edit] It was at Aquacade that Williams first attracted attention from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer scouts. MGM's head, Louis B. Mayer, had been looking for a female sports star for the studio to compete with Fox's figure skating star, Sonja Henie.  Williams signed her contract with MGM in 1941.  In her contract were two clauses: the first being that she receive a guest pass to The Beverly Hills Hotel where she could swim in the pool every day, and the second that she would not appear on camera for nine months to allow for acting, singing, dancing and diction lessons. Williams wrote in her autobiography, "If it took nine months for a baby to be born, I figured my 'birth' from Esther Williams the swimmer to Esther Williams the movie actress would not be much different."   
A pin-up of Williams from a 1945 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly While top stars at the studios such as Judy Garland, Betty Grable and Shirley Temple took part in bond tours during the war, Williams was asked to take in hospital tours. At this point, Williams had achieved pin-up status because of the number of photographs of her in bathing suits.  To prepare, Williams and her publicity assistant would listen to Bob Hope and Jack Benny's radio programs, retelling the funniest jokes while at the hospitals. Williams also invited GIs to dance with her on stage and take part in mock screen tests. The men would receive a card telling them their lines, and they would act out the scene in front of the other soldiers. These tests were always romantic scenes and included Williams begging the men to make love to her character, to which they were required to refuse ... multiple times. When the men said the final, "No," Williams would pull at her tear-away skirt and sweater leaving nothing but a gold lamé swimsuit. The scenes would always end with the men giving in and kissing her after that stunt. Her hospital tours continued into the 1950s.  A (forged) signed, waterproof portrait of Williams was circulated among men in the US Navy for a "capture the Esther" competition.  This competition continues to this day in the Royal Australian Navy, which holds in its archives an 'original' forged signed portrait while maintaining a 'capturable' image for use in the fleet.

The rest is aquatic history. 

Looking forward to seeing you again one day, Esther, on whatever sunny shore you've gone to grace.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Syncopation's Back in Sync

Ginger & Fred did it all!
Hear the beat... of tapping feet...

Dance fads wax and wane nearly as quickly as hemlines.  But a solid dance style weathers the storms of fashion and while occasionally down, is never really out.  So is the case with tap dancing.  Tap shoes have been sitting quietly and patiently at the bottom of the dance trunk in favor of Zumba trainers for years now.  Before Zumba it was step aerobics and before that, high-impact aerobics.  After all, those activities offer vigorous workouts.  And so the Mary Janes roll their eyelits, narrowly escaping the thrift store bin, in great part because they are still good shoes to wear to costume parties.

Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn and the sun again once shine over the world of tap.  About.com's dance section has this to say about the benefits of tap dance:
Tap dancing is a fun style of dance that anyone can learn, regardless of previous dance experience. Tap dancing is beneficial in many ways. Benefits of tap dance include increasing cardiovascular conditioning, strength, flexibility and coordination. Tap builds strength in the legs and feet in addition to increasing flexibility in the hips, knees and ankles. Cognitive abilities are also enhanced, as tap dancers must develop both mental and muscle memory to become proficient at tapping. 
Tap dancing also develops a great sense of rhythm and timing. Tap instructors help students focus on music awareness while incorporating tap steps and combinations. Best of all, tap dance is a solo dance style...you don't need a partner to do it, although that's fun, too.

Want legs like Gene Kelly's dance partner, Cyd Charisse? Tap can give 'em to you. 

Tapped in

If you're curious as to what tap is and where it came from, here's the downlow on the soft-shoe, excerpted from Wikipedia:
Tap dance is a form of dance characterized by using the sound of one's tap shoes hitting the floor as a percussive instrument. As such, it is also commonly considered to be a form of music. Two major variations on tap dance exist: rhythm (Jazz) tap and Broadway tap. Broadway tap focuses more on the dance. It is widely performed as a part of musical theater. Rhythm tap focuses more on musicality, and practitioners consider themselves to be a part of the Jazz tradition. 
"Soft-Shoe" is a rhythm form of tap dancing that doesn't require special shoes [those with taps affixed to the toe portion of the sole and heel], and while rhythm is generated by tapping of the feet, it also uses sliding of the feet (even sometimes using scattered sand on the stage to enhance the sound of the performer's sliding feet) more often than modern rhythm tap. It preceded what is currently considered to be modern tap.
Tap dance has roots in dancing such as the Juba Dance, English Lancashire Clog dancing, and probably most notably Irish stepdancing. It is believed to have begun in the mid-1800s during the rise of minstrel shows. As the minstrel shows began to decline in popularity, tap dance moved to the increasingly popular Vaudeville stage. Due to the two-colored rule, which forbade blacks from performing solo, the majority of Vaudeville tap acts were duets. This gave rise to the famous pair "Buck and Bubbles," which consisted of John "Bubbles" Sublett tap dancing and Ford "Buck" Washington on piano. The duo perfected the "Class Act", a routine in which the performers wore impeccable tuxedos, which has since become a common theme in tap dance. The move is seen by some as a rebuttal to the older minstrel show idea of the tap dancer as a "grinning-and-dancing clown." 
Another notable figure to emerge during this period is Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Well versed in both Buck and Wing dancing and Irish Step dancing, Bill Robinson joined the Vaudeville circuit in 1902. He went on to have a leading role in many films, notably in the Shirley Temple franchise.  During the 1930s tap dance mixed with Lindy Hop. In the 1950s, the style of entertainment changed. Jazz music and tap dance declined, while rock and roll and pop music and the new jazz dance emerged.  
What is now called jazz dance evolved out of tap dance, so both dances have many moves in common. But jazz evolved separately from tap dance to become a new form in its own right. No Maps on My Taps, the Emmy award winning PBS documentary of 1979, helped begin the recent revival of tap dance. The outstanding success of the animated film, Happy Feet, has further reinforced the popular appeal. National Tap Dance Day in the United States, now celebrated May 25, was signed into law by President George Bush on November 7, 1989 with May 25 chosen because it is Bojangles' birthday.

Think modern men don't tap?  Think tap is outdated, stuffy, stiff and formal?  Thing again!  Think Tap Dogs!!  I've been a fan of the original Thunder from Down Under since the '90's, when I first saw those hubba hubba hunks, then wearing jeans, work boots and tight white Ts over muscled torsos, sloshing through construction site sets in beguiling syncopation.  Here is a representative clip, showing the dogs just sort of kicking back nonchalantly, while in essence they are traversing balance beams, tapping in sync all the while.