Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers epitomized exhibition ballroom dance in film and beyond. Both dancers had stage careers before their first film pairing. Astaire and his sister Adele began in vaudeville as children, reaching Broadway as specialty dancers in Over the Top (1917). Their reputations grew in New York and London with roles in the Gerhswins' Lady, Be Good (1925) and Funny Face (1927), The Bandwagon (1931), and many other musicals and revues. Adele retired in 1932. Rogers reached Broadway via Charleston competitions, vaudeville, and stints as a band singer. In Hollywood, she had roles that combined comedy and tap dancing in Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of1933.
They were playing secondary comic roles when they were paired by Dave Gould for "The Carioca'' number in the RKO musical Flying Down to Rio (1933). Their subsequent collaborations, staged by Hermes Pan, who had been Gould's assistant, were all starring roles. The classic Astaire and Rogers films were plotted musicals with songs by Broadway's greatest songwriters—The Gay Divorcee, with songs by Cole Porter (1934); Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Carefree (1938), by Irving Berlin; Roberta (1935) and Swing Time (1936), by Jerome Kern; and Shall We Dance (1937), by George and Ira Gershwin. Each accommodated at least one newly invented social dance, one competitive tap routine, and one love duet, as well as a tap solo for Astaire. Pan's romantic duets began simply, often with rhythmic walking, and progressed through flowing movements to lifts and dips, before returning to a quiet ending. Astaire and Rogers were cast in the title roles in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), RKO's tribute to the pre-World War I ballroom dancers. The RKO publicity machine promoted them, the films, the songs, and ballroom dances extracted from the musicals.
Although they reunited for the backstage musical The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), their dance partnership ended in 1939. Rogers went on to star in comedy roles for MGM and Twentieth Century Fox; Astaire kept dancing in film and on television, primarily to Pan's choreography. He was able to adapt his expertise to each partner—in tap with Eleanor Powell, languorous ballroom with Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse, and musical comedy with Judy Garland, Jane Powell, and Leslie Caron. For many, his tap solos with props were the highlight of the films. They began with objects setting a rhythm, such as the ship's engine in "Slap That Bass'' in Shall We Dance. Although Astaire is recognized as one of the greatest of American dancers, as a popular quip has it, "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.''
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