shall we dance?

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936).

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936).

There is a place in Los Angeles where a band plays swing like delusion. Their instruments squat on a wide half-foot pillar overlooking a linoleum stade where skirted women and high-waisted men wait for heaven. But so far no pearly gates, just a bass line that floats around like stink in the breeze. The players are on break and such a pause may tempt a wider view where suspicious downstairs club-goers lean in, gawking, cat eyes scanning the bar where clipped moustaches filter the irony out of old fashions. But this is a place decidedly against the wider view, and stilettos. This is a room on edge, for kitten heels and striped suspenders have little to do when the air is quiet. A hair pin drops smack nothing on inchless carpet and no fewer than twelve aimless men take a knee in the search. Eyes darting around ankles and stomped fingers do no good; they picked the wrong signal. But not Ms. Lost Pin. She clocks the shift, that settling bass line, grabs a partner just as the tallest pair of sunglasses you’ve ever seen teases at Yamaha keys. Sticks hit drum heads and Ms. L.P. clicks herself and her beau into beat just as our de facto bandleader, a Midge Williams revival with an errant hair of blue streak, steps up to a crackly mike, motions to those men still knees bent on the floor to please get up, and opens her mouth to sing from somewhere far off in time. Back when moods grew sentimental not big. When a flirtation could start and end in eight notes, no tears, no broken hearts. When hands met and feet tapped and people did what they were meant to do — they danced. How they danced!

Of course there’s more than one way to dance, just as there’s more than one shoe to wear out on a Saturday night. But I’m not here to discuss attire. I’m here because several days ago something terrible happened to me.

The occasion was Sunday afternoon and the setting was my couch, where I draped myself as 1936’s Swing Time bounced and bebopped on my 32-inch T.V. Swing Time stars Fred Astaire, turtley (and for a single and story-gratuitous number as the character “Bojangles of Harlem,” blackfaced), and Ginger Rogers, proud like bleached hair. I had seen Fred and Ginger operate separately before. Fred, patron-romantically in Funny Face, and Ginger chimp-dodging and elixir-drinking in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, and I knew the famous Kat Hepburn quip. The one about all his class and all her sex appeal and what a gift the combination was to each other. I knew the significance. I had heard of the monument of their pairing. But I had heard it in the way you hear of a long extinct species. A raised eyebrow, maybe a sigh, no further incident.

In Swing Time, Rogers plays a dance instructor to Astaire’s down-on-his-luck gambler, “Lucky.” Twenty-so minutes into the film Rogers and Astaire finally meet hands and feet during an improvised dance lesson in which Astaire falls all over himself before serenading Rogers (this, in the 30s, is flirting). You may recognize the narrative devices at work here: built tension, delayed gratification, a peculiar Old Hollywood musical rule in which a song that is eventually danced to must be sung in full first, but Rogers has had just about enough, indeed enough for her dance boss to threaten her job. At last, Astaire snaps to. He gives up the charade, taps out a technically perfect shuffle, and takes Rogers in hand as Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ “Pick Yourself Up” plays again, this time sans Astaire’s thin tenor.

And then the terrible thing happened. I sobbed through a polka.

If the sound of foot falls weren’t recorded you’d think they were floating on strings. My attention bounded, competing at blast with my heart beat as the Fred-Ginger monument moved in a way I’d never seen before on film, or elsewhere. No longer draped across sofa cushions, I realized I had at some point risen, craned my neck in a way any chiropractor would wail over, and sat rapt. The tears broke so fast that I drew my breath in shock. Something in my throat gurgled as I feared life after this moment. And then there was the crescendo, the climax, Astaire lept, Rogers flew. The music faded with the frame and my lungs and gravity said hello again, dear. Now wipe your tears.

Drugged, I went on to watch several more Astaire/Rogers joints through the week, including 1937’s Shall We Dance, a film which features an incredible number performed on roller skates, a feat I cannot begin to analyze, really, without fear of short circuiting. The appeal of Astaire and Rogers’ dancing, though, isn’t gimmick. It’s the illusion of real-time composition. And it is an illusion: they rehearsed each of their famous routines for several weeks before celluloid came into the picture. That illusion, in my opinion, is what the best art is made of. I hasten to package it (they did it first), but that kind of bottled spontaneity is so difficult to achieve that it produces in me a forest green envy. It’s what a critic refers to when they speak of craft.

There is a wonderful line from Shall We Dance that puts things aptly. Rather than stop dancing as he prances about in the face of someone who would really prefer he cut it out, a ballet instructor replies, the nuisance of interference read deeply across his every atom, “Can you not see I am busy being a wave?” Rogers and Astaire move in this way, like a wave uninterrupted.

In 1935’s Top Hat, the team first dances together while trapped during a rainstorm. Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” booms into the scene, cueing a coy look from Astaire as if to say “here we go.” Rogers, shy, listens to Astaire’s prescribed serenade, then begins the dance as his shadow. She follows in call and response, matching Astaire’s increasing technical challenges, shuffle-shuffle, step, shuffle, and soon they bound in-step together. If Astaire has a weakness it’s in the way he occasionally gives it all away; indeed, you can sometimes see him leading. It’s the same weakness that makes his solo dances more acts of prowess than awe. But he’s saved in his partnership, and in my view: history, by a monument-maker, that untouchable part of the whole Fred-Ginger enterprise, and it’s all in Rogers’ face as she moves in his mirror. She lives moment to moment within the choreography, carried completely on wild-winged feet. She is uninhibited. She casts out life, out method, and instead performs instance. We must correct Ms. Hepburn’s earlier analysis. Ginger Rogers didn’t give Fred Astaire sex appeal. She gave him joy. And what is dance without joy?