Lessons from Kelly and Astaire

Arizona resident Lee Mills reminisces about winning a scholarship to work at MGM and taking dance lessons from Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Getting to MGM:

When Lee Mills enters the dining room at Sierra Blanca in Pinetop-Lakeside, she brings a reminder of her days as a dance student at MGM studios. Pinned to a pillowcase that covers a piece of equipment is a publicity shot of Gene Kelly, one of the most famous dancers in Hollywood. He was also one of her teachers.

“I lived in Tucson, but I went to this dance school on a scholarship,” Mills explained. “Scholarship winners could go to Juilliard in New York City or the MGM studio in Los Angeles. “The scholarship paid the expenses for the student and one chaperone. We lived in the Hollywood Hilton and were provided two meals a day. We usually went someplace else for lunch.” The students always had chaperones wherever she went, Mills recalled, adding they weren’t really needed because MGM told them what to wear, where to go and who they could be seen with.

On Meeting Kelly, Astaire, and Lee:

Mills’ first dance training was in classical ballet which began when she was about 8. Her repertoire expanded, especially after she went to the MGM dance school when she was 13 in 1951. When she returned to her dance school in Tucson, she was expected to teach other students what she had learned. Meeting Gene Kelly was a high point of her time at the school. “He was 28 or 29 and I was 13 and I was in love,” she reminisced. “It was my first case of puppy love and I got to dance with my idol. He was so handsome, as cute as could be. He and his wife were really good together and quite friendly to us.”

Besides Kelly, the students had lessons from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. She said Astaire couldn’t count when he danced so he would recite “shave and a haircut, two bits,” to get the right rhythm.

They also had lessons from Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper in burlesque whose story was the basis for the musical Gypsy. “She knew how to dress and wear makeup. One of the things she told us was never show everything you have. She taught us the Hawaiian hula.”

Finally, a humorous anecdote on Bob Hope:

Asked if she ever performed with Bob Hope, she gave an emphatic “no,” saying he and Bing Crosby “used some of the most foul language you’ve ever heard. They would stand at both ends of a train and yell at each other. They weren’t respectful of us at all.”

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News, videos, and commentary devoted to the dancer, choreographer, director extraordinaire.

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