Who was Astaire’s best partner?
Fred Astaire himself was unique, and as a solo performer in his genre he was unsurpassed. Period. It wasn’t just that he could choreograph routine after routine and bring freshness to each one. It wasn’t just that he could sing so well that, despite the thinness of his somewhat reedy voice, many stellar songwriters considered him the very best interpreter of their creations and competed to write songs especially for him.
It wasn’t just that he could do the steps. Oh, he could do them, all right. But every single movement had a purpose, a meaning, an emotion, an emphasis of phrasing that was very much his own; no empty tap tap tapping for him.
Astaire is remembered for his partnership with Ginger Rogers, but he danced with many other dancers (including his first partner, his sister Adele, who was supposed to have been fantastic but of whom only still photos like this one remain to let us know what we’re missing):
There were a lot of “better” dancers (technically) than Ginger who partnered with Fred. Some were balletic. Some were very strong tap dancers, such as Eleanor Powell. I know that a lot of people consider Powell the very best, technically unstoppable. But to me she’s of no particular interest at all. Her tapping is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (a bit like Meryl Streep’s acting, I have to say). Here’s a video; you decide for yourself:
In the above clip, I can’t take my eyes off Fred. I see Powell too, and their side-by-side mirroring of the steps gives me a chance to see what he does that makes him so sublime, and what she fails to do that renders her a bore (to me, anyway; sorry Eleanor).
Now, maybe what I’m about to do isn’t fair. Because for comparison I’m going to put up one of the most beautiful numbers Astaire ever choreographed and danced with Ginger Rogers, and it’s of a very different nature than the fast and snappy Powell number above. It’s lushly romantic. But it’s not just that. It’s believably lushly romantic and somehow sexual as well, without even a hint of a salacious move. These two people are so closely aligned—emotionally and physically—without being in the least identical; so almost mystically attuned that you believe—in the mesmerizing power of dancing (see how he almost hypnotizes Rogers at the beginning) and the mesmerizing spell cast by love:
I’m throwing this next one in as an extra. It’s a solo by Astaire, one of his best. It’s a nice companion piece to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” because both cast “dance” as a sort of character, an actor in a little drama. In the pas de deux above, Fred sings to Ginger that they should dance, must dance, and “face the music” together, and then the music tells them what to do. In this next solo, Fred insists that he won’t dance, he will resist the urge to dance with her lest it lead to romance, as he knows it might. And yet he’s pulled into a solo dance against his will, again by the power of the music (certainly those Russian-guard extras in leftover costumes from “The Wizard of Oz” have little power to force him or to stop him):
You of course already know my answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post. It was Ginger, Ginger, Ginger all the way.