Recently someone on Quora asked “What made Fred Astaire such a great dancer? I mean he dances like any other normal person would.” Don’t laugh. It was an interesting question. Because Fred Astaire wanted his dancing to look like anyone could do it.
Astaire combined elegance, ease and grace into a dance style that offered escape to an American audience struggling through the Great Depression and then a devastating world war. But his greatest strength was the way he made difficult things seem easy. He is often compared to another great male dancer of his time, Gene Kelly. But where Kelly did difficult things that you knew were difficult, the way Astaire danced looked effortless. This illusion was the magic of his performance style.
Astaire’s experience in Vaudeville and film since he was a young lad also led to a rich understanding of how dancing translates to film. He made familiar steps look magical and new. For an audience that had become somewhat jaded by musicals that just acted as showcases for skilled dancers, he broke new ground by trying things that had never been done, like dancing on the ceiling (using a rotating room), using a mop as his partner, or dancing around firecrackers. And yet, even with these fresh new approaches to dancing on film, he would make sure that the dancing always looked as if anyone could do it.
Even with fresh new approaches to dancing on film, he would make sure that the dancing always looked as if anyone could do it.
Perhaps the best answer to the question posted on Quora was from Benjamin Murphy. It’s so good that I’ll share a portion of it:
Does Astaire dance like any normal person does? No: but his art consists in making you think, for a moment, that you could dance that way. There was a story told by a famous photographer, whose name escapes me, about his meetings with Astaire and Gene Kelly. When he was taking Astaire’s photo, he asked Astaire to teach him a dance move. Astaire showed him how to tap an umbrella on the ground as he was walking. Later, he recounted the story to Gene Kelly, who showed him how to throw an umbrella in the air and catch it behind his back. Gene’s move is showy — it sounds difficult, looks difficult, and when you’re do it, people can see that you are dancing. But tapping an umbrella on the ground as you walk — doesn’t everybody already know how to do that? Yes we do, but not like Fred Astaire.
His dancing incorporates everyday gestures and actions. His routines often move gradually from talking and walking to singing and dancing. Hermes Pan explained that this was something they thought about a lot. In musicals, you go from reality — people speaking — to fantasy: dancing with music that comes from out of nowhere, and the transition was handled carefully, deliberately. Back then, people would go and watch Fred and Ginger dancing on-screen and then they’d expect to try out some of those dance moves themselves, so you will see parts of those dances that are not so difficult, and that anyone can imitate. Then they transition to the kind of dancing that requires a very high level of expertise.
A good example of this gradual switch is the opening sequence of Easter Parade. He’s walking down the street, looking in a shop window, entering a shop and buying stuff. There’s a sense in which Fred isn’t actually dancing at this point. True, there is music playing and everyone is singing, but there isn’t any action Fred does that is incompatible with what his character is doing. But of course he is dancing because the timing is perfect, the gestures are just right, everything fits together.
Astaire was a master of making the difficult things look easy. The golfing scene from Carefree in which he hits each ball with perfect musical timing and always straight down the fairway. The drunk scene from Holiday Inn where he stumbles around yet with precision that is awe-inspiring. Even the most ordinary actions are masterful movements all perfectly timed to music. Nothing, no line of the foot or placement of arms and hands or angle of the head is out of place yet the dancing looks casual, as if anyone could do it. We should all strive to look that effortless in our dancing.
Here’s a nice overview of some of Astaire’s most memorable scenes. Enjoy!