Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

By Kirk, Fiona | Dance Teacher, June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Kirk, Fiona, Dance Teacher

The legacy of Hollywood's most famous dancing duo

During the 1930s, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced their way through nine movies, bringing a dose of elegance and sophistication to a country suffering through the Depression. The romance and song of such films as Top Hat, Swing Time and Follow the Fleet easily won the hearts of moviegoers, but the pairing of Astaire and Rogers was revolutionary in itself. The duo was among the first to integrate dance into a movie's storyline, turning the choreography into a vehicle for characters to express their emotions.

Both dancers had their start in vaudeville. Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1899. He and his sister, Adele, moved with their mother to New York City in 1904, where they trained with Claude Alvienne in tap, ballroom and ballet. The two were a success on the vaudeville circuit, eventually making their Broadway debut in 1917. By all accounts, Adele was the star, with Astaire's technical perfection underscoring her charisma and charm. Over the next 15 years, they worked on the Great White Way and in London, in shows such as Funny Face and The Band Wagon. But in 1932, Adele got married, leaving her brother without a partner. Astaire decided it was time to give the movie business a try.

Astaire had been a huge success onstage, but this hardly assured his stardom on the silver screen. According to Hollywood legend, an early screen test was not promising: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little," was the assessment. With his wide forehead and jug ears, Astaire wasn't quite the dashing leading-man type, and in fact considered himself more of a character actor than a romantic lead. But in 1933 he managed to land a supporting role in the film Flying Down to Rio, a movie that also featured Rogers. The film would change both their careers forever.

Rogers was born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, in 1911. After her parents divorced, Rogers ended up in Fort Worth, Texas, where her mother worked as a theater critic for the local paper. When Rogers was 14, she won the Texas State Charleston Championship. Accompanied by her mother, she spent the next four years on the vaudeville circuit and, at the age of 19, garnered the lead in the Broadway show Girl Crazy. Astaire was called in to help with the choreography, and he met and briefly dated Rogers at that time.

Girl Crazy made Rogers a star. She headed to Hollywood and appeared in a number of films, including 42nd Street, and in 1933, was an established celebrity when she agreed to appear in Flying Down to Rio.

The film featured Astaire and Rogers in only one major dance number, but their onscreen chemistry in "The Carioca" caught the attention of the studio heads. The two went on to make a total of nine films together, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936) and Carefree (1938). Rogers, with her Texas swagger and impish smile, brought to her roles an earthiness that contrasted nicely with Astaire's lithe body and long eyelashes. Katharine Hepburn once famously remarked, "He gives her class and she gives him sex."

Their ballroom dancing was remarkably fluid. The two would separate and come back together like drops of water-it was hard to tell where one body began and the other ended.

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