Jack Cole: The 'scary' dancer who made Marilyn sparkle

Posted in 12 April 2019

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He's been called the father of American jazz dancing. But Jack Cole was also the man who gave Marilyn Monroe her dance moves. Another Cole pupil, Chita Rivera - star of the original Broadway West Side Story - recalls him as a demanding choreographer but, more than 60 years on, says she'll never have cause for complaint.

Rivera is one of the few people still to have memories of dancing with Cole in his prime. She's been a Broadway star since 1957, when she created the role of Anita in West Side Story.

A year before that she'd appeared with Cole on TV on Sid Caesar's comedy show. They performed an extended and powerful version of the jazz standard the Beale Street Blues.

"Jack was extraordinary," Rivera says. "The style he created was like nothing else you'd seen. He could be exciting and scary and maybe you didn't always want to hang around with him - but I'm delighted we got to dance together at the beginning of my career."

Cole was born John Ewing Richter in 1911 into a blue collar family in New Jersey.

The turning point in his career came as a teenager when he started to dance with the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. Its founders Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn had abandoned European balletic tradition to explore other cultures - especially Indian dance.

Improbable as it seems, the Indian influence would still be visible two decades later when Cole devised Marilyn Monroe's most famous dance routine, the Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend sequence.

Rivera recalls how Cole performed. "Jack danced in the floor, as opposed to above the floor. It wasn't so much great balletic leaps - watch Beale St Blues online and you'll see the way Jack moved. There's a mixture of femininity there but also he dances like a guy. Strong, really strong - like a big cat. It's something you see in Rudolf Nureyev as well: they were both very, very male."