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5 facts about Vera Ellen and what we can learn to improve our dancing

With Christmas only 1 sleep away, it seems only fitting that I pay homage to my absolute favourite dancer, who I absolutely adored from the very second I saw her in White Christmas. Everyone has that Christmas film that makes them feel like glitter is exploding inside of them, and for me White Christmas is that film. Vera is absolutely one of the Hollywood greats and no matter how many times I watch her I’m always mesmerised. She was one of the things that made me want to become a dancer so badly. I’d replay her dance scenes over and over on YouTube. So why is this important if you want to become a dancer?

One of the ways that dancers improve, is through observing other dancers, and then translating that across to the way we move. There is no doubt that that old time musical theatre Hollywood era has a certain je je sais quoi that is both iconic and completely unique to the time. This was partially due to the influence and demand of the era, but also due to a different way of working. Whereas now scenes are shot in very quick succession often within a day or two, back then Hollywood actors would sometimes rehearse the same routine for 3 weeks straight! This is also good to remember if you catch yourself comparing yourself! Astaire for example, was particularly known for choreographing and rehearsing for 6 weeks straight before shooting even took place. So with all that in mind, let’s get back to my favourite Hollywood great- Vera.

For those of you who haven’t seen her work, check out her dancing this nifty little number below from White Christmas with the wonderful John Brascia.

Her other dance partners included Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye and Donold O’ Connor. Let’s have a quick look at 5 things we can learn about Vera to help us in our own dance journey!

1. She was one of the youngest rockettes ever.

This makes so much sense. She had legs for days and her dancing screams both precision and grace. So if you want to emulate dancing with the precision and poise that Vera so naturally embodies (not to mention those kicks) doing some rockettes based training is a must. (N.B. Since lockdown hit, the rockettes have a ton of free classes on their Instagram TV, so this is a great place to start.) You can also get a low down on their steps, style and dance moves here.

2. She didn’t sing.

Yep, that’s right, she was actually dubbed. As performers, we often put pressure on ourselves to be able to do ALL THE THINGS. But I think what we can really learn from this is that we don’t have to be able to do everything. The main thing is passion, and excellence in the areas of which we excel. We are not defined by our ability to be super human machines, but by our heart and ability to tend to the talents that we’ve been gifted with, to water them and honour that.

3. She was fired from the rockettes after 2 weeks for showing too much individuality.

I personally find this reassuring as a dancer. If someone as phenomenal as Vera Ellen can get fired, then it takes the pressure and fear off a little, don’t you think? Never try to shrink yourself to fit a job or company. When we compromise ourselves in this way, it’s easy to tell ourselves it’s just a small thing here, another there, but it changes how we feel about ourselves internally. We start to hide or apologise for ourselves, so aim to fully shine your light and stand firm in who you are, and know that the right jobs will embrace you for it, but don’t be afraid to lose the wrong ones!

4. She was a pro at fusing ballet and tap.

So often we think of dance genres (particularly ones that are quite different as being separate) but actually watching the fusion of these two things together is magical. There is no separation in dance, if a style doesn’t work- have a think about what flavours that suit you naturally you can bring in. Embrace the fusion of different styles within a routine, look for the different flavours, sharps and softs and your dancing will become electric!

5. She was determined to be seen.

Vera by her own admission, was very bookish growing up. However, when she began dancing she found that people sat up and took note. She fully embraced this and you can really see this in the way she performs. It’s more than just dancing, it’s a communication with the audience. She flirts; she plays; and she is completely thrilled to own the space she occupies with utter confidence. This determination brings an enthusiasm and dynamite to everything she performs. Every opportunity for musicality is given a nod, and she greets the audience with complete conviction and the knowledge that she will be welcomed. If we can think ourselves into that space of being, secure in what we have to offer and engage fully with the love of it, we move from technicality to magic.

Why is this important?

As dancers, we learn through a kind of osmosis- we find ourselves implementing and taking something of those that inspire us into the way way we move and making it entirely our own. So if you’ve never heard of Vera, I hope this post is a source of inspiration to you 🙂 To all my readers, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas (I know I’ll be watching White Christmas as a rite of passage over the next few days) but whatever you do regardless of whether it’s snow white, I hope it’s wonderful!

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