That Old Feeling: A Stellar Astaire

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Fred Astaire

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As the music breaks (at, aptly, the moment where the vocal would be "Oh what a break for me"), Fred executes his first big figure, spinning toward us and giving it a showbizzy, hands-out finish, then folding his arms as if waiting for Ginger to foul up. He dares her to match him and, through competition, to be a partner in his dance-romance. She does the same step, but to the left, with smaller arm elevation, and, instead of the beseeching capper, ends with a modest stamp of her right foot — abrupt, dismissive, ever-so-slightly Fred-deflating. Her message to him: she's still just jaunting, not joining in. She won't dance, don't ask her.

Ginger strolls away from Fred. He follows her, and as they move upstage she throws in a cute little step that the music doesn't allow him to duplicate — a cheap little triumph that he acknowledges by wheeling on one foot and raising his hand to his mouth. For 12 bars they do some snazzy vaudeville tap figures in synch and turn in toward each other. This is the moment when dancers would normally embrace and spin off together, but these two stop just short of touching. This tactic continues through most of the number: every time the music, or their steps, seem ready to force them into a clutch, or at least a collision, they stop short and back off. Facing close — his hands open to hold her, hers raised to him like a crossing guard's Stop signal — they hop, like adversaries concerned they may be warming to each other. The pace accelerates, and their taps echo the new agitation.

As the second dance chorus begins, the two face each other, this close, and stop, each briefly folding arms in a gesture of defiance or daring: okay, what'll you try now? The music persuades them to sway in syncopation, then to enlarge the movement, describing a circle as their arms swinging wider (right, left, four times each). They stop, twirl, clap hands simultaneously and (on "Oh what a break") do a ten-tap strut to the front of the gazebo, landing in synch on the right foot. The first time, Ginger had to undercut Fred's flourish; this time she's with him.

Ginger has now decided she'll play or work along with this persistent fellow, because he's so darned good. She's smiling when they scoot back onto the platform, in smart half-turns that lead to a triple twist for her. Their movements are freer, more familiar; competition is giving way to camaraderie. For the first time the two touch, though only to push the other off into a tandem of quadruple spins. Facing each other at the end of the second dance chorus, they hop again, this time like gleefully agitated kids.

It's time for the final, fastest dance chorus. Lightning and a thunderclap cue a quick change in the emotional weather. Ginger hears this, but she's not frightened, as she was a few minutes ago; now she's jizzed. The horn section starts bleating like impatient klaxons, modulates seven times, up the whole scale, as the dancers do slide-taps, facing each other, too close for comfort. Something's got to give, and it's the music. The trumpet blasts a kind of sexual cavalry call, to which the two respond with a furious stomp; they've got firecracker feet. Fred takes Ginger in his arms and leads her in eight spins, as delirious as they are precise. The courtship is over. This is the real thing: sex as hot, fast fun, two people in perfectly matched abandon, too rapt to notice their surprise at the other's expertise, at how beautifully and energetically they dance as one.

Facing each other, they tap again, each step ever bouncier, and at the Oh-what-a-break break, they do a quick Lindy, their arms airplane wings. Now the band plays games: four times, they blare a five-note sequence and stop; Fred and Ginger fill in each pause with their own pedal percussion. He lifts her into a ballroom spin and, what the heck, she lifts him into one! This brings them out to the front of the gazebo, toward us. They stick their hands out, see that it's still raining and decide to sit it out in some newfound friendly company. Perched cross-legged under the eave, with no hint of post-workout, post-coital exhaustion, they smile and shake hands. Fred's grin is broader: he's found a partner.


When the team split, Astaire kept doing it all on his own. His dancing partners over the next 20 years included some prime enchantresses: Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, Barrie Chase. But Astaire's solos became his signature pieces. On his own, he used stage props — and the properties of film — as cleverly as he had earlier translated stage dance to the screen. He defied time by dancing in slow motion in "Easter Parade," defied gravity by dancing up walls and across ceilings in "Royal Wedding," defied age by hoofing serenely through his sixth, seventh and eighth decades. He conquered television with a brace of specials in the late 50s. He turned to straight acting and won an Oscar nomination (his first!) for his performance in "The Towering Inferno." In his 81st year he took a wife less than half his age: thoroughbred jockey Robyn Smith.

In his chair days Astaire kept active; not for him the idle reverie of days and dances gone by. He rarely watched his old films, and told Smilgis he shuddered to think that they are among the most popular Late Show offerings. "When we did them I thought, 'OK, that's over.' But here they are forever on TV. Two hundred years from now they'll be watching 'Top Hat.' Oh, God!"

They are still watching "Top Hat" today (you did rent that cassette, didn't you?). After his death at 88 on June 22, 1987, Astaire never vanished, never even dimmed, from popular esteem. He became the icon for what was once the aristocracy of popular culture. He surely represents that to me; I've already written about him for, in That Old Feeling columns on Irving Berlin and Gene Kelly. In 1998 I wrote a TIME piece called "High and Low," about the devolution of the people's art. " Start with two fellows from Omaha, Neb., born 25 years apart. One was frail, comical-looking, yet he epitomized elegance in an era when glamour was the ability to steer a slim lady around a dance floor. The other man was bulky, brooding, with the artistic mission to break things: women's hearts, codes of behavior, the very notion of 'good acting.' In their distinct ways — grace vs. power, gentility vs. menace, tux vs. torn T shirt — Fred Astaire and Marlon Brando represented the poles of 20th century popular culture. Astaire gave it class; Brando gave it sex."

In the pop culture war, sex won — real, insolent, dirty sex, not Ginger's kind. And class went to the back of the class. It sits there, ignored and aloof, waiting for the young to recognize it. Can't they see how sensational that slim figure back there looks in his top hat, white tie and tails, as an indulgent smile plays on his face and his feet describe elaborate designs on the schoolroom floor? Can't they see that Britney Spears is not dance — that Fred Astaire is? I hope, some day, the kids will get Astaire. He's too cool to be the property of fogies like me.

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