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Backward, In High Heels

by Wallace

Fred Astaire gave Ginger Rogers class, but she gave him sex. At least, thus goes the saying. Both exceptional dancers, they could make the hardest step or routine look easy. Dancing “Waltz in Swing-Time” proved difficult because the six-eight time, a tricky tempo to dance to, replaced the usual three-quarter time. Often described as Fred and Ginger’s best dance number ever performed because of its complexity and unpredictability, “Waltz in Swing-Time” combined the formal, contained style of Waltz with the fast-paced, hip tempo of Swing.

The Waltz defeats me. The Waltz requires a gracefulness that I simply do not possess. It requires stepping wide and I, who have short legs, cannot step so far – at least, I make that excuse. When I step backward, I push with the thigh of my opposite leg to compensate for my short stride, resulting in a sort of step-clunk, step-clunk that does not feel graceful at all. I have heard that one should imagine a big, beautiful bouquet of roses when doing the under-arm turn, the arm brushing over the blooms when swooping around them. A lovely image, but I get distracted wondering why a bouquet of roses would intrude in the middle of a dance floor.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced on screen for the first time with “The Carioca” in Flying Down to Rio. Fourth and fifth billed in the cast, they did not seem likely to steal the spotlight, especially with Ginger Rogers cast only as a second choice when the first choice eloped. RKO made the movie in an attempt to wrench itself out of bankruptcy in the midst of the Great Depression. They cast Dolores del Rio as the Latin Bombshell, hoping she would pull the crowds in. She pulled the crowds in, all right, but once the movie started, no one really cared about the love triangle between Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond and Raul Roulien; everyone fell in love with the quirky side characters. When those two danced, the audience gave a standing ovation – unprecedented in movie history. People flocked to dance studios, begging to learn “The Carioca.”

I play “The Carioca” for my ballroom dance teacher, asking her what dance it would classify as. I want to dance it, moving one step closer to Fred and Ginger. The song begins. The trumpet slides up the register to pop out the high note. After the maracas tap out the tempo, the clarinet echoes the trumpet’s slide with an easy coolness, followed briefly by the flute and then the whole orchestra slowly swings in to skip down the scale. Bongo drums bring back the tempo until the trumpet takes back the spotlight, crooning the melody above the other instruments. The flutes and violins float behind the trumpet, adding harmony and depth, while the piano trickles merrily underneath. The percussion moves the orchestra forward and I sway in rhythm, watching my teacher, wondering what she will say. She listens; her hand tucked under her chin, her eyebrows furrowed, and finally describes “The Carioca” as nothing, a song impossible to dance to.

Ginger Rogers always wore beautiful gowns for dancing, one of which she actually designed, with the help of her mother, and wore in “Cheek to Cheek.” Long and elegant, the gown flowed with ostrich feathers covering it. Fred Astaire did not approve. He picked at the feathers all over his suit, all over the floor, and in the air, claiming they would ruin the take. But she insisted, promising that the dress would look just fine on screen. He grudgingly acquiesced and she won, luckily. The dress enhanced the romantic effect. The feathers accentuated her every move, swaying when she swayed; weightless, they made her look as if she floated on air. After he saw the result, Fred Astaire gave Ginger Rogers a feather pendant engraved with the words, “You were right.”

I never know what to wear to ballroom dances. I sometimes wear a peasant skirt because it billows, long and full. When I do the Cha-Cha, it swishes under me like a fabric hoola-hoop. Cha-cha-cha, swish-swish-swish - terribly fun, but not terribly fancy. I have a dress I used to love to wear that made me feel a little fancier, yet still had the same full skirt. Once, I wore the dress when swing dancing; my partner tried to pick me up but his hand slipped and he dropped me. He claimed the dress made him slip. I argued that his laziness and his grip caused the fall. Although the empire cut on the dress did leave my waist bare, making his a plausible excuse, I didn’t really believe him. But I never danced in that dress again.

Fred and Ginger did not kiss in their movies, not until Carefree, their eighth movie together. Fred Astaire’s wife forbade it. Most people think that Fred and Ginger either loved each other or hated each other, but neither assumption holds truth; they enjoyed a close friendship. They went on a date once, before they starred together in The Gay Divorcee, before Fred married, and shared a kiss that Ginger Rogers claimed would not have passed the censors. But on screen, they never kissed. They never really needed to. Their dancing showed their characters’ relationships far better than any kiss. When they danced, they showed flirtation, romance, sex.

My chest briefly brushes against his and I lean back. I have difficulty feeling passionate for someone I hardly know. People regard ballroom dancing as stuffy, but they don’t realize the intimacy it requires. My partner steps forward between my legs as I step back, our thighs touching. We stand in the correct position for the Tango: our thighs touching, our hands touching, our chests touching, our faces nearly touching. The Tango thrives on passion and intimate contact. I lean farther back anyway.

Film historians love to wax eloquent on Fred Astaire, the perfectionist. True, he practiced routines over and over and over again, but Ginger Rogers did nothing less. When filming “Never Gonna Dance,” it took forty-seven takes on the final sequence to satisfy them both. In the sequence, she twirls and twirls and twirls, he catches her, spins her, and she twirls and twirls and twirls again. They kept repeating the take until somebody pointed out Ginger’s feet, bleeding through her shoes. It seemed like an appropriate moment to stop. But she refused to stop. So they pasted band-aids on her feet, then she got back on her feet and continued the take. Talk about perfectionist.

My feet hurt. I do not hesitate to complain of this every few steps. But dancing for two hours straight, especially with the Samba thrown into the mix, murders my feet. Now, I can barely walk. However, my pain gives evidence to the fun the Samba offers. The hop-step-step, hop-step-step energizes me – and exhausts me. Pretend to jump over a candle, but the bounce should not leave the legs; the upper body must not jolt up and down, but stay still enough to balance a book on the head, without allowing it to topple off. But I haven’t learned all of these particulars quite yet. If I did, it probably wouldn’t matter anyway. I dance the Samba like I dance all ballroom dances: for fun, with abandon, not with precision; a probable reason for the pain in my feet. Oh, well. What does it matter? I’m no Ginger Rogers. I can’t convince myself to dance so well my feet bleed out of my shoes. Besides, I don’t need to.