Ann Miller as all-American star: virtuosity, exoticism and "that crazy tom-tom beat"

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


The Texan tap dancer and self-described ‘star lady’ Ann Miller enjoyed a long and consistent career in Hollywood musicals. Rarely cast as romantic lead, and instead appearing as vamp or comedienne, Miller tended to feature in speciality roles designed to explore her own star persona as one of the fastest tappers in the business. With her legs reportedly insured for a million dollars, Miller’s strong association with the Black form of tap and her energetic physical and vocal performance style formed the basis of both her appeal to casting executives and her disruption of typical constructions of white femininity. Her numbers, including notable appearances in Hey, Rookie (1944), On The Town (1949), Small Town Girl (1953), and Hit The Deck (1955), frequently incorporated deliberate musical signifiers of "non-white" ethnicity to further codify Miller’s presence as liminal. Her performances were staged to overlap with the physical strength, virtuosity, and glamorous exoticism of her star image in ways that aimed not only to commodify these attributes, but also to contain them.

The kind of slippage we see between star and role in much of Miller’s work is always present in film, but it is perhaps especially obvious in the musical’s world of pleasurable, professional entertainment. The backstage musical makes it a particular feature, but the genre’s overall emphasis on authenticity and transparency ensures that ‘real world’ personae never feel too far from the screen. This paper explores the ways in which Miller’s onscreen musical numbers both promote and efface the ‘problems’ of her offscreen personality, focusing in particular on often explicitly racist discourses of exoticism and authenticity. The dual threat and attraction that Miller’s virtuosic body held for Hollywood – and its strategies to both exploit and efface her star presence – typify both the musical’s celebration of spectacular, individualised virtuosity and its intense anxieties around difference.
Period11 Nov 2021
Event titleBehind the Scene and Off the Stage: Representations of American Entertainment
Event typeConference
LocationUnited KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational