Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the greatest dancing couple ever to hit the silver screen. What was their secret?

Fred and Ginger. Ginger and Fred. If you don’t know who they were, go on YouTube and check them out. Don’t worry about whether you know a thing about dance. Just watch. 

Try this, for starters, from the 1936 movie “Follow the Fleet”:

You can see from this early movie that they were destined for greatness. Yet, it’s impossible to overestimate just how great—how legendary—they would become. 

Their first dance sequence together was a bit part in a movie called “Flying Down to Rio.” They stole the show. And no wonder:

The crazy part is that in all these years, nobody has replaced them in their top spot. Of course there have been amazing dancers—Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, John Travolta, the list goes on. 

But no onscreen couple makes people feel the way we do when we watch those two. They’re not flashy, or not always. In fact, Fred Astaire reacted against the big budget dance production. To him, it was all about keeping it simple and light. 

Check this sequence out and you’ll see what I mean:

The camera doesn’t do anything special. Nor is there anything big budget going on, at least in any way you notice. 

They’re on roller skates. Not the modern kind with rubber wheels filled with ball bearings that give you support. The old fashioned kind made from metal you have to screw onto your shoes with a key.

And the outfits, unlike some of their other, more extravagant ones, are simple. In fact, it’s amazing how often you see this glamorous couple dressed in ordinary clothes. 

Almost every time I watch them, at some point my heart does this thing. Just a guess, but my guess is the same thing —indescribable as it may be— happens to most people when they watch these two.

Maybe it’s the fact that they don’t seem to be rising and falling the way the rest of do. Are they on strings? Full of helium? So perfectly matched they float on air?

Here’s a sequence that, especially at the end, gives you the same heart punch right at the point that first Ginger and then Fred lift off over a rail:

Other dancers could do that same move and our reaction might be to go “meh,” or not notice it at all. When Ginger and Fred do it, it’s like they’re flying, and I’m flying with them. I could watch it a thousand times and I’d still get that feeling. 

There’s no easy explanation for this. Of course we can consider some elements of how Astaire changed the way dance sequences were filmed. 

He was a genius, in part because he knew who to work with. His chemistry with Ginger Rogers was one piece of it. Another was his choreographer, Hermes Pan, who he worked with on his movies to develop his signature style.

That’s the mark of a genius—being a good collaborator (and knowing who to collaborate with). 

As I discuss in a previous post, he invented his own technology, known as the “Astaire dolly” to make it look like the camera is still. This keeps all attention on the dancers. This was a radical departure from previous dance movie cinematography. 

These secrets helped, no doubt. Still, they don’t explain the incredible staying power the pair hold in the popular imagination. There simply has never been a dancing duo like them. 

To put this in perspective, Hollywood movies began around 1910, with the first feature film, “In Old California.” That’s 113 years ago. 

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers came along just 23 years after that. Since then, we’ve had thousands of Hollywood movies, and hundreds of A list movie stars from John Wayne to Marilyn Monroe to Tom Cruise. 

In all that time, with all those movies, we never had another Fred and Ginger. The only thing, to me, that comes close is “Singin’ in the Rain,” which actually has a threesome—Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. 

This scene is perhaps the greatest dance and singing sequence in movie history that doesn’t involve Fred and Ginger:

It’s great. It’s fun, and funny. But for all that, no heart punch. No…well, whatever it is that made Fred and Ginger the sensation they were and still are. 

So, what was Fred and Ginger’s secret?

It’s impossible to say, but for my money it was that they understood something about what we want. Instead of “performing” the way that we’re all used to, they did something else. 

This could be the time they were living in. People needed entertainment that took their minds off their troubles. The Great Depression robbed people of the basics of life. 

Joy was in short supply.

They weren’t trying to get attention. Everything, every move and smile, was given rather than sucked up. 

Of all my favorite Fred Astaire quotes, this is the one that gets me every time: “be yourself but don’t be conspicuous.”

It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine any star saying that today. Much less one who was considered the greatest at his craft. Perhaps it’s part of the secret so few of us have taken to heart—if we’ve heard anything like it at all.

Whether it’s the ultimate secret to success, I don’t know. But it seems to be the secret to having the kind of life that will both challenge you and make it worth living. And maybe that’s more important.

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