Happy Birthday, Fred Astaire (Honorary Jitterbug)
Fred Astaire was born May 10, 1899 (he died June 22, in 1987). You could read a ton of great books or even simply the Wikipedia article on Fred Astaire to learn about him, but for this little birthday article I just want to mention a few things regarding him and swing.
First off, many people equate Fred Astaire with ballroom dancing or hoofing, when he really had hardly any formal training in either.* He called what he did “outlaw style,” and it was a collection of things he had learned from vaudeville and theater and evolved himself, or things he had just made up. He was, by almost all accounts, a self-made dancer. He spent hours and hours rehearsing almost every step he ever took on camera, and his dancing never stopped after a dance number—all of his action as an actor was rehearsed as if it were dancing.
As he is one of my favorite dancers to watch, (probably my all-time favorite, after all the factors are in), I often think about his relationship to swing.** Afterall, he has very little direct relationship to jitterbug, except that he was, first and foremost, a jazz dancer—as in, one who was a master of dancing and phrasing and looking really appropriate dancing to 1930s-era popular jazz music.*** Occasionally, he would do other dancing; like tango, or beatnik, or ballet, but it all looked slightly foreign on him. Whereas, give the man a coat rack and a swung rhythm, and you suddenly saw what many have since recognized as the one of the greatest dancers that ever lived.
Regarding the jitterbug era, Fred Astaire was probably the most common thread among all the original swing dancers. By which I mean, Fred and Ginger movies were extremely popular during the 30s, when jitterbugging as we know it was being invented. If there’s one jazz dancer a jitterbug was likely to have seen, it was Fred Astaire. Many West Coast Lindy Hoppers may have never seen a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper dance, and many Harlem Lindy Hoppers may have never seen much West Coast Lindy Hop. And hardly any of those groups might have seen Swing dancing from other regions of the country. However, there’s a good bet almost every swing dancer alive at that time would have seen Fred Astaire dance.
We know Fred was West Coast Swing dancer Willie Desatoff’s greatest inspiration. We also know that the Whitey’s held him in great respect, via Frankie Manning: I’ve been present at probably a dozen of Frankie Manning’s lunch talks or Q&A sessions, which were given at hundreds of events over the years. At one of them, he told a story about social dancing and playing around with all of the other Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers during a break while shooting a film. Fred Astaire had come by the set with a friend that day and watched them dance. Fred then said to his friend, “I wish I could dance like that.” Frankie Manning remembered thinking “What? We all wish like we could dance like you!” Frankie Manning ended the story by saying that the next Fred Astaire picture they saw, Fred apparently attempted some Lindy Hop step or styling, and Frankie Manning said “Yeah, he does wish he could dance like us.” ****
It’s not in Frankie’s autobiography [UPDATED: Actually, it is, pg. 153. I'm an idiot.] , and it’s not in a Fred Astaire biography I know of, but from what little I know by having read a lot about him and watching him dance a hundred times, it easily could have happened. By all accounts I’ve read, Fred Astaire greatly admired jazz dancers who came up with exciting ways to express jazz music. It’s also possible the rehearsal workaholic yearned for the carefree improvisation of the Lindy Hoppers. And, for all I know, “I wish I could dance like them” could mean a dozen more things.
For his “outlaw” attitude towards dancing, his love and mastery of jazz rhythms, and a dozen other reasons, Swungover would like to make Fred Astaire an honorary jitterbug. To celebrate, I think we should all dance a little outlaw style of our own invention at our next dance opportunity.
Before we go, I’d like to show an Astaire clip. Out of all the dozens I could show you, I want to focus on an otherwise average one [though, remember, average for Fred was still incredibly good]: his dance with Ginger Rogers to “Let Yourself Go” in Follow the Fleet, one of their worst pictures, plot-and-dialogue-wise.
In it Fred plays a sailor, a casting decision they hoped would make him more “everyman-like” and take away the depression-era implications of his usual top-hat-and-tails characters. Clothes were very important to Fred Astaire, and the clothing he wore in a dance number affected the way he choreographed the dance. Take for instance this dance. Were he in top hat and tails, Fred would have danced both elegantly and, in contrast, playfully. Here, in sailor pants and chewing gum, dancing for a street dance contest, Fred dances steps that are a little bit more rough. A little bit more flashy. A little bit more wild.
The other thing to note is that this is a Hollywood film from 1936 showing a dance contest to popular jazz music.***** Among the other “competitors” that are left on the floor with Fred and Ginger are Bob Cromer and Dorothy Fleischman, selected from local LA dance contests. What you are probably seeing from them are collections of steps that were popular in the day, including bunny hops and several other steps that would make it into shag. (You even see some close-embrace in-place dancing that might even be Pure Balboa, but we can’t see the feet and so have no way of confirming. It probably isn’t, considering they were all only minutes before doing a dance that moved around the line of the dance, which Balboa didn’t.)
But what you definitely have is partnered jazz dance that often involves breakaways and a vernacular of difference steps. It’s easy to daydream that you might be seeing a little bit of the primordial ooze that would, over the next few years, develop into “Swing” [the early form of Bal-Swing]. Do I know this for sure? Of course not. But it’s just something interesting to think about. Otherwise, I just sit back, watch Fred and Ginger, and steal as much as I can from them.
By the way, I’m very excited to be doing a LED Talk on Fred Astaire at this year’s ILHC.
* — Actually, Fred Astaire technically didn’t do hoofing, and he, and many old timer hoofers, would be the first to tell you that. In the original sense of the word, hoofing implied small tap steps right under your body with very little other body movement. It wasn’t so much dancing as it was strict subtle rhythm-making. Fred danced with his full body, and flung his feet out from under him in various ways, all of which was apparently un-hoofer. However, he helped change the definition of the word, so that by the time Gene Kelly came along, they were both known as hoofers. (Most of this according to Marshall Stearns’s Jazz Dance)
** — Really quickly, I want to mention that Ginger Rogers herself has a very similar place in swing. She herself was a jazz dancer first and foremost; she even got her first big break by winning a Charleston contest. And as far as attitude goes, she personified the carefree and sassy woman that people like Irene Thomas and Jean Veloz would adopt as their dancing personalities.
** — Also, Fred happened to love swing and jazz most of any music. Count Basie was one of his favorite bands, “St James Infirmary” was his favorite song of all time, and swing drummingwas one of his favorite hobbies. (All of this according to various biographies I’ve read.) Also, a personal favorite of mine.
*** — I have yet to see a Fred Astaire clip where he is obviously attempting Lindy Hop (If you know of one, please let me know).
[UPDATED: Snookie, in the comments below, offered this clip, where he does seem to be doing some jitterbugging-ish dancing at the end of their dance routine. Thanks, Snookie!]
It’s possible he might have been talking about this clip with [UPDATED: Rita Hayworth], where he does the Shorty George rather badly, compared to how well he dances everything else in the choreography. To be fair, he may be doing Shorty George as well, or even better, than he was taught it. They probably did not fly in Leon James from the Savoy Ballroom, for instance, to teach him how they did it at the Savoy. They obviously also neglected to find out the true history of who Shorty George was. Or, the problem could be that Fred Astaire simply preferred not to move his hips.
**** — It was actually filmed right around the time the swing craze officially hit with Benny Goodman’s 1935 concert in that same part of town. Astaire, as mentioned, loved swing music, and asked them to do film music for him in the swing style, which they did in his very next film Swing Time. It was a waltz.
What are the other Honorary Jitterbug awards Swungover has bestowed? So far, only one: