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Just Deserts: Celebrate Fred Astaire
Today’s the dancer, actor, singer and movie star’s birthday in 1899
Day after day goes by, often with some meaningless, artificial or vacant cause being thrust by the shrillest voices in government and media—without the ablest persons getting just desserts. This is why I celebrate Fred Astaire’s birthday. The greatest dancer in the previous century’s newest art, the movies, deserves more than mere remembrance. Fred Astaire, especially Fred Astaire, ought to be celebrated.
I suppose I know more than most about this excellent actor, singer and dancer. Born on this date in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1899, he was challenged as a boy. In 2009, I reviewed a biography by Joseph Epstein about him for The Objective Standard. I’ve read Steps in Time, his autobiography (to be reviewed here). I’ve seen many of his movies, some several times. I’ve watched him on television. I own and listen to his recordings of songs. They always have the same effect: Fred Astaire makes me think in every performance in any of the fine arts—or format or genre. Fred Astaire takes my breath away. Sometimes, he makes me want to dance. He often makes me smile.
The reason is the lightness. I find that most of my earliest heroes in life—Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, John Wayne, Roberto Clemente, Olivia Newton-John—share this essential quality. I’ve studied each of them to the extent possible as a journalist in my writing. I’ve discovered, in the course of my studies and research, that they worked with diligence, grit and with supreme loyalty to achieving perfection, which is not the same as perfectionism, to achieve this lightness.
Being light, gay and cheerful is difficult to achieve, let alone sustain, and making everything seem light takes extraordinary effort and skill. Rudolf Nureyev once said: “The art of dancing is not to make a difficult step look easy but to make an easy step look interesting.” No one achieved all of this—lightness, gaiety and enhancing what looks easy—in motion picture dance more than Fred Astaire. He expressed this light, gay and exalted sense of life though he was also serious, thoughtful and good—on dance terms, he was excellent. After Fred Astaire’s death in 1987, choreographer Merce Cunningham said he enjoyed Astaire’s:
“wit and play with steps, going slightly ahead of the beat and again delaying to stretch something a fraction…the sheer pleasure of his dancing—a quality that makes us lose track of mental gymnastics. It gives the mind a rest and the spirit a big boost.”
Fred Astaire was particularly demanding, requiring rehearsals for weeks, or months, for hours and hours and hours—often day after day and on time, on budget and always on point. Maya Angelou once said that “people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think everyone who’s felt this way watching him dance must actively celebrate this mid-American dancer’s birthday—with vigor, passion and vitality—because what exquisite dancer Fred Astaire delivers, lightness through perfection, is rare and precious and on the verge of going dark.
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