Fred and Ginger. Not Astaire and Rogers or Rogers and Astaire for that matter, but always Fred and Ginger, as if we know them. Ironically, the romance that occurs between their characters in the dance, the thing that draws these two rather aloof characters together and draws us to them, does not really make Fred and Ginger more approachable. They are still a world apart from us, their own world, perhaps.
“Top Hat” (1935) gives us the quintessential Fred and Ginger routine, Fred in white tie and tails, and Ginger in a flowing gown, in this case the famous ostrich feather number. Her blonde hair is tightly pinned up, and sophisticated seduction is the order of the day as the song they dance to is, of course “Cheek to Cheek.”
They begin first as only another pair of dancers on a crowded floor, and she is at first cold to him because of the customary plot device of mistaken identity, but soon they ascend stairs, and then a garden terrace and they are alone, dancing slowly, closely, with gentle swirls and twirls, a slight ruffling of the ostrich feathers. They are filmed in a full body shot always, never close-ups, because their expression of attraction is in their body movements and we’re not supposed to miss it with a distracting quick shot to the eyes.
The sweeping dips, the light-as-air steps, and the dance finally finishing as they lean upon the garden wall, calm and quiet as a lake on a summer evening.
“Cheek to Cheek” is so ethereal it is practically a dream sequence, but it is delightfully contrasted by another dance number earlier in the film, when Fred and Ginger dance in a gazebo taking refuge from a thunderstorm. The song, “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain,” and this time Ginger is in riding jodhpurs and tweed coat, and Fred in a suit. This has more taps to it. The customary aloofness is ratcheted up a notch in this dance, as they barely touch each other. They face off, a challenge, a dare. She puts her hands in her pockets and mimics his movements. This part of the dance was ad-libbed by Ginger Rogers. As she notes in her autobiography, “Ginger, My Story” (Harper Collins, 1991), and as also noted elsewhere by director Mark Sandrich, Ginger contributed a great deal to the choreography of their dances together. Fred would work out the basics with choreographer Hermes Pan, and then Ginger would come in and put in a few finishing touches.
As Miss Rogers notes in her autobiography, “I had more fun rehearsing than in actually performing. Inspiration comes during the preparation as you seek a better turn, step, or jump. In performance, you do it once and that’s it. The time for improving is over.”
The two would rehearse their dance numbers for eight hours a day, for six weeks, prior to filming. You had to love it.
According to Miss Rogers, it was her suggestion that they do the “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” number in “Shall We Dance” (1937) on roller skates. This is a remarkable dance routine. The scene it set in New York’s Central Park (obviously a set), and they enter the scene with somewhat weary attitudes on roller skates. Again, they are not quite a couple, and the strain of avoiding publicity hounds who think they are a couple is getting to them. They stumble to a bench, sit, and begin to sing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
At first we might think they will spend the whole number on the bench, but without warning they stand, with a long glide into a dance that is quite amazing. The roller skates, incidentally, are the kind you used to clamp onto your shoes, so there’s no supportive safety boot here. Arm in arm at first, they stroll, and tap a little, and fake a stumble, and recover with panache. Then in unison, then in tandem, there are Olympic ice dancers who aren’t this good. The dance ends with a kind of Roller Derby bit where Ginger skates behind Fred who leads them around in a circle, picking up speed, when finally they end by stumbling off the walk and throwing themselves onto a grassy embankment.
All Ginger remarks in her book is, “The roller skating number was a ball to do.” In his autobiography, “Steps in Time” (Harper and Brothers, 1959) Mr. Astaire says even less. Neither describes in detail about the rigors of their dance choreography, and yet their dances were all about detail. Astaire was known in particular for being a perfectionist. Perhaps like some artists who shy away from analyzing their work too much, they feel it loses some of its magic if you pick it apart.
Finally, we have the “Bouncing the Blues” number from “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949), Fred and Ginger’s last film together after not having made a film together for a decade. As Miss Rogers notes, “to get back into your dancing shoes after ten years is not the simplest thing to do.” And yet, she remarks, “Once Fred and I began rehearsing in earnest, the ten years melted away.”
In this number, Ginger is wearing black slacks, a white blouse, and appears to be a copy of Fred, who wears grey slacks and a pink shirt; both are wearing scarves around their waists and at their necks.
In the weeks when they used to rehearse their numbers, Ginger would wear pants for their ease of movement in the rehearsal stage, and switch to the dress and shoes she would wear for the film only at the end. This number, “Bouncing the Blues” gives us a look at how Fred and Ginger might have appeared while rehearsing, not only by their casual clothes, but by their casual attitudes. There is no aloofness here. Nor is there especially romance. There is a sweet camaraderie, a perfect timing between two people who have a long history of knowing each other moves.
The jazz piece begins with rippling cymbals and then gushes into a flood of taps and twirls, all in unison. They are smiling, and we are allowed for once, or perhaps just finally noticing, their expressions. They are grinning like fools. Her loose hair bounces on her shoulders as they throw themselves into a high-stepping trot, their arms about each other’s waists. They really look like they are having a ball, in their own little world.