Monday, July 23, 2012

Nobody does it quite like Fred.

Hi everyone,

Last week, the Smithsonian put me in the clouds with Gene Kelly at the Museum of American History. This week, they offered a date with Fred Astaire at the Hirshhorn Museum. Thursday night, Fred Astaire: Dancing with Geniusoffered a mix of lecture by fan/Fred expert Christine Bamberger with film clips and recordings to explore the dancer's life and work. 

Fred Astaire's name inevitably came up in whatever I read about Gene Kelly. People like to compare them because they were the two giants of dance at the time, but I never understood the comparison: Their styles are completely different. 

Growing up, I saw most of Fred Astaire's movies. But, unlike the instantaneous adoration that hit me with Gene Kelly, my love for Fred Astaire was more gradual. At first, I thought he was clumsier than Gene Kelly: To me, Fred always seemed to tap too hard and fast; I worried that he might fall over at any second. In my eyes, Gene just floated on air. 

As I got older, I realized that Fred Astaire would never fall over. He could do whatever he wanted with his feet, and everything would always be precise, elegant, and perfect. Someone who knew Fred said his body oozed dance, even when just walking down the street. I believe it!

The lecturer sounded just like me – if you replace Fred with Gene: She fell in love with Fred when she saw That's Entertainment! at 13.  She's a writer/editor for a government contractor, but she watches classic movies all the time. And, by now, she's learned so much about Fred Astaire that she can serve as an expert resource on the topic. 

I wouldn't call myself an expert on Gene Kelly, and I'm definitely not an expert on Fred Astaire: I haven't even read any books about Fred Astaire (yet). So, I was excited to go to this event to learn more about the other giant.

To my surprise, I knew most of what was highlighted in the lecture. I was amazed to find out, though, that Fred Astaire primarily thought of himself only as an entertainer and nothing much more. Always humble, he didn't consider or care much about being remembered for his talent. Instead he stayed focused on moving forward and trying new things. 

Well, Fred Astaire was entertaining! What I love most about him is his musicality; he always made his songs distinctly his own. In fact, songwriters of the day, such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter, asked him more than any other entertainer to introduce their songs in his movies. Fred Astaire had his own style of singing and seemed to play instruments with ease--talents that, I learned, he just "picked up along the way." As Christine said after we watched Fred play an elaborate tune on the piano, "It's not fair, is it?"

Ultimately, the lecture made me want to watch Fred Astaire dance. So, here's one of my favorites, "A Shine on Your Shoes," from 1953's The Band Wagon.

This dance makes me so happy! Of course, Fred is amazing. (You'll see what I mean about his musicality here.) This song was written in 1932 by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, and this is a wonderful version of it. But, for me, the shoe-shiner practically steals the show – I love this guy! He's beaming! His name is Leroy Daniels, a real-life dancing shoeshine man they found in Los Angeles. Check it out: 


Copyright: MGM


I suppose, if Fred Astaire showed up at my shoeshine stand, I'd be that happy too – especially if I had remembered to wear my pink socks.





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