b. 21 November 1912, Springfield, Massachusetts, USA, d. 11 February 1982, Beverly Hills, California, USA. Often billed as ‘the world’s greatest female tap dancer’, Powell is regarded by many as the most accomplished of Fred Astaire’s screen partners, but without, of course, the indefinable magic of Ginger Rogers. She studied ballet at an early age and later took up tap dancing. After only a few lessons she is said to have achieved ‘machine-gun rapidity’ - up to five taps per second. Powell moved to New York in 1928 and appeared in The Optimists revue at the Casino de Paris Theatre, and a year later made her Broadway debut in the musical Follow Thru. This was followed by more stage shows, such as Fine And Dandy, Hot-Cha, and George White’s Scandals (1932). A small, but highly impressive role in the film of George White’s Scandals (1935), led to Powell being elevated to star status immediately after the release of Broadway Melody Of 1936. Signed to a seven year contract with MGM, her exhilarating tap dancing was on display in musicals such as Born To Dance, Broadway Melody Of 1938, Rosalie, Honolulu, Broadway Melody Of 1940, Lady Be Good, Ship Ahoy, Thousands Cheer, I Dood It, and Sensations Of 1945. By that stage, Powell, who married the actor Glenn Ford in 1943, had retired from showbusiness to devote more time to her family. She made just one more film, The Duchess Of Idaho, in 1950.
A devout Presbyterian, she became a Sunday school teacher in the 50s and starred in her own religious television programme, Faith Of Our Children, which won five Emmy Awards. After she and Ford were divorced in 1959, Powell made a brief comeback playing large clubs and showrooms in Las Vegas and New York with a classy cabaret act. Reminders of her remarkable terpsichorean skills flooded back in 1974, when the marvellous ‘Begin The Beguine’ routine she did with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody Of 1940 was included in MGM’s That’s Entertainment! As Frank Sinatra said when he introduced the sequence in that film: ‘You know, you can wait around and hope, but I’ll tell you - you’ll never see the likes of this again.’