Black people are usually smug about their supposed superiority to white people in all things physical, from the boudoir to the dance floor, but Fred Astaire seems to transcend all stereotypical discussion, with no carping or resentment. Given the racial history of American entertainment, that is quite rare. Astaire looms not because he seems more masculine than anybody else or more handsome or less corny. He remains more pure than all categories because of his ability, in motion, to transform all things through grace, which is the fundamental dream beneath the gaudy exterior of American civilization.
Astaire was so good that he is equally as large in American dance as Louis Armstrong is in American music. Astaire was like Armstrong because his confidence changed the art form in which he worked. In jazz, the solo feature, of which Armstrong was the great innovator, is parallel to the close-up in film. Armstrong altered the New Orleans tradition of improvising with the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet so that the sonic spotlight shone on him alone with the rhythm section. With his daring imagination, extraordinary stamina, and expressive virtuosity, Armstrong, intending only to liberate himself, proved that the solo was an epic innovation. Armstrong’s style not only dominated jazz; his harmonies and the unpredictably percussivenature of his melodic inventions inspired the writers of popular songs—the best of whom could not resist the swing of his rhythm.
Astaire, who well understood swing, was one of Armstrong’s children. As Arlene Croce and others have observed, Astaire took the cinematic dance number away from the artifice of overhead shots and camera positions that were unlike what one would see in person. Astaire had no need for a logistical visual genius like Busby Berkeley. Astaire wanted the camera to serve the dancer so that all the complexity, nuance, and expression would be the dancer’s responsibility. He would not stand for crosscutting or anything other than the camera being far enough away to capture his entire body. The reason: His instrument stretched from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. Novelty shots and startling setups were replaced with a luminescent individual power held in place by an overwhelming ease. Astaire gave the impression that the way he was moving at any moment was three things plaited together: the only, the most natural, and the best choice.
“Cheek to Cheek” Ginger Rogers, who was not an especially good singer and could not always keep up with Astaire, was his greatest partner. Have we seen the complexity of romantic ecstasy, joy, bravery, or disappointment and desperation better rendered than in “Cheek to Cheek” (see video to left), “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and “Never Gonna Dance”? No actress has ever been better at communicating the mood to be wooed and the levels of sheer amazement felt when observing a man become magnetic. This, of course, is breathtakingly symbolized by the dancing in which Astaire transcends the limits of the jaunty, the overarticulate, the tongue-tied, the farcical setup, the bad dialogue, and everything else that makes a musical, whether at its best or its worst, essentially ridiculous.
Astaire’s innovations came along at the right time, just as Armstrong’s had, and were charismatic for exactly the same reasons: Astaire was incomparable. There may have been greater tap dancers than Astaire in some Harlem somewhere in America. Or, Astaire may have been right when he supposedly said that Bill Robinson was the greatest dancer he had ever seen. Even so, we can’t be sure: What a genius sees when experiencing someone else working within his idiom is usually not only what is going on but what is implied. As it stands, taking into consideration all of the racist limitations that meant there could be no black leading men in the 1930s, we have to recognize Astaire for what he was. Not, as Honi Coles * observed, the greatest tap dancer but the greatest American dancer, because Astaire was a master of blending and invention, as all truly superior domestic artists must be.
Astaire had the singular ability to tell stories through the medium of the body in combination with the face, a face that never quite became handsome but was transformed through his inimitable poise into something persuasively alluring. Beyond that, as proved in the 1936 solo “Bojangles of Harlem,” Astaire was capable of overcoming a condescending set of lyrics and the toned-down burnt-cork conventions of minstrelsy. In their place, he offers a joie de vivre that celebrates the richest meaning of its subject rather than insults a grand master of the tap dance and the ethnic group from which he came. Such transcendence was central to the power of Armstrong’s art, which could overcome lyrics, ditties, minstrelsy, and anything else that would reduce the force of his aesthetic will.
The biggest difference between Armstrong and Astaire was that everything stopped with Astaire, while Armstrong opened up a new world of individuality that made it possible for many giants to follow in his wake. After Armstrong came Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. Who were the giants we saw emerge after Astaire? I say none. It seemed, once upon a time, that Michael Jackson had the charisma and the flexibility to take up where Astaire had left off, but that soon proved to be a naive thought. Jackson devolved into a narcissistic mannequin who, instead of dancing, might just as easily have been doing exercises before a mirror. The vast province of American elegance that Astaire opened still awaits a talent of appropriate size.