Astaire and Ginger Rogers Retain Status as America’s Brilliant Dancers

Fred and Ginger: Set The Standard … Long Before Dancing With The Stars

The descriptive phrase “He’s no Fred Astaire” was used often in the 20th century to describe a man whose dancing skills were lacking. And every little girl who took a dancing class heard her teacher, or family member, tout her as the next Ginger Rogers.

The world grew up with “Fred and Ginger” as a standard to which all dancers were compared. And few of us seniors can watch one of their classic films on TV without it rekindling a special time or moment in our lives.

Ginger Rogers was born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, in the year 1911; Fred Astaire began his life as Frederic Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1899. Nothing spectacular or extraordinary about either name, but together as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers their names would create Hollywood history.

Down through the decades, the entertainment world has given birth to many famous dance teams, among them: Donald O’Conner and Debbie Reynolds, Marge and Gower Champion, Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margo Fonteyn, but for dance fans everywhere, it will always be Astaire and Rogers who put the kick in America’s conga. No other dance team has managed to bridge the generation gap enduring in popularity through a century of changes.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

Since first being paired together in 1933, some seventy-two years ago, Hollywood’s golden couple has retained their status as America’s royalty of dance. million movie fans paid a quarter to forget their troubles. When an Astaire and Rogers film premiered at an opulent “Cathedral like” movie palace, audiences lined up under the brilliant lights of a glittering marquee, anxious to spend their hard -earned money to enjoy the magic one more time.

Elegant waltzes, rhythmic tapping, romantic tangos or ruckus rumbas, whatever the style, whatever the beat, staire and Rogers did it all with a unique style and grace.

Film director Thorton Freeland first spotted Ginger Rogers dancing with Ruby Keeler in the Busby Berkeley film, 42’nd Street. Dancing to songs: “Shuffle off to Buffalo,” “Getting To Be A Habit With Me” and the show stopper, “42nd Street.” He was so impressed by Ginger’s looks and footwork, Freeland wanted her for his upcoming new film “Flying Down To Rio.” For her co-star, Freeland chose a popular young dancer named Fred Astaire, who was fresh off the vaudeville circuit where he had been performing a dance act with his sister Adele. The plot of this otherwise forgettable film was weak, but the pairing of this extraordinary dance team made Hollywood history.

That some year, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire starred in the Film, “The Gay Divorcee.” In this film, Gingerwears the first of her glamorous feathered gowns dancing to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and to the Oscar winning, “Continental.” In 1935, Fred, dressed in his trademark tux, and Ginger, wearing her signature feathered gowns, made one of their most memorable films, “Top Hat.” Astaire and Rogers were at their charismatic best in this film, a film that featured Irving Berlin songs: “Cheek to Cheek,” “Top Hat,” “White Tie and Tails.” Later, Astaire would confess his dislike for the legendary dresses worn by his glamorous dance partner in this film. He abhorred the tiny feathers that constantly shed in his face and tickled his nose.

In 1938, Astaire and Rogers teamed up again for one of their finest films together, “Carefree.” More of Berlin’s extraordinary music and supporting cast Jack Carson and Ralph Bellamy made this film another trademark hit. They would star in a series of ten films together from 1933 to 1949; among them: “Dancing Lady” (1933), “Follow The Fleet,” (1936) and “Swing Time” (1936).

As Hollywood’s hottest dance team, they inspired samba fever in the late 1930s, which opened the door to other Latin dances, and soon American dance schools became a profitable business. The samba and rumba were joined by the mambo, the meringue and the paso doble. To be a trendy social dancer in pre-war America meant knowing your Latin dance steps backwards and forward… Cha cha- cha. Five decades after Astaire and Rogers brought the conga to the screen in 1933, America was still dancing to the Latin beat: The 1940s had the samba, the ’50s the cha cha, the ’60s the limbo, the 70s bosa nova, and the ’80s the lambada.

Fred and Ginger danced to a series of hit tunes they helped make famous all over the world. They tangoed to “Orchids In The Moonlight,” tapped in tandem to Irvine Berlin’s “Top Hat,” glided through a two -step to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and led long conga lines to the international hit, The Continental.”

In 1940, in an attempt to break out of her dancing mold and prove herself as a serious actress, Ginger Rogers took the staring roll in the dramatic film Kitty Foyle. The film won her an Oscar for “best actress” establishing her as a star in her own right.

In 1949, after ten years apart, and each with their own separate successful careers, they teamed up one more time in what would be their last film together, The Barkleys of Broadway. Time hadn’t dulled the magic ignited by these two stars as they racked up another hit film and recorded the memorable hit tune, “They can’t Take that away from me.”

Fred Astaire’s influence on modern dance is incalculable. Classic dancers, Nureyev and Balanchine, acknowledged him as the world’s greatest dancer. But Astaire’s talents weren’t always so recognizable. Attracted by Hollywood as a young dancer in the 1920s, Astaire submitted himself for a screen test. The following verdict, given on his star potential, has become part of show biz’ history: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”

Ginger Rogers was an Oscar winning actress and internationally known star. FredAstaire was the most revered dancer of all time. And although each has danced with other partners, it will always be the magic they created together that movie audience will forever revere.

What was it that made these two stars of Hollywood’s golden era so special? Sometimes, in the pairing of a great team the greatness lies in something unseen. Fred and Ginger’s films were like that; they were made up of actors, people, glamorous sets and something else, something unique and everlasting created by the quality of their work.

Cookie Curci
Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a "Remember When" column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of "Mother's Miracle" books ( Morrow books).She has a short story in the new book "ELVIS", Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman's World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L'italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.