Monday, October 19, 2009

Classic Dancer: Fred Astaire

Today, we're starting a new series on classic dancers who can inspire hip hop and street dancers worldwide. Each day of this week, we'll feature a new dancer with biographic information and some insights on their influence. Several of these names are not from hip hop background. But it's important for the new generation of hip hop and street dancers to be aware of influential dancers outside of their genre. Today's feature is on none other than Fred Astaire. (Photo above is of Astaire and Ginger Rogers from his Wikipedia entry.)

You can see a clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time here:

When it comes to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, there are few names that have had greater influence than Fred Astaire. His artistic integrity, classy demeanor, and innovative use of staging within the film frame laid the groundwork for later successors such as Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse. Astaire came from a vaudeville background, starting with a duet act including his sister Adele in the 1920s. But his move into Hollywood filmmaking would be his artistic triumph. Whether it was rescuing Ginger Rogers from losing her job in Swing Time or tapping against drums in Easter Parade, Astaire imbued his choreography with economy and grace while drawing from multiple influences. He hybridized several influences and made it his own. Working with assistant choreographers, most notably Hermes Pan, Astaire pioneered a number of well-known pieces in his filmography, which stand out as highlights in the musical age of Hollywood.

Astaire kept the film camera relatively static, allowing the dancer to move freely within the film frame. Gone were the aerial shots and close-up shots from the Busby Berkeley films. Now, it was about featuring the dancer without any filmmaking distraction. Imagine the number of rehearsals that it would take to reach that level of performance! Astaire was reportedly a perfectionist so it can be assumed that he and his collaborators worked hard. But it was all worth it. The technical level of dancing in his choreography is astounding and there's very little in the hip hop film and television world that can match it. Nowadays, we are inundated with rapidly moving cameras and quick edits that can sometimes take away from the dancer's performance. Can we return to those days when the dancer was allowed to shine on screen? There could be so much that an audience is missing if a high-level hip hop or street dancer is being compromised by a camera or editing strategy that favors style over substance.

Overall, Astaire's work in film and television created an iconic image of himself onscreen. We may not know him intimately as a person. But we know Astaire as a Hollywood icon who has affected millions worldwide. His image, his grace, and his indomitable demeanor live eternally in our hearts. He taught us how to have pluck, to pursue a beauty like Ginger Rogers, and to celebrate with elegance no matter the circumstances. He brought a character and persona to his dance, which sometimes is missing from our current hip hop and street dance generation. But it is his artistic willingness to forge his own path that should burn brightly in our minds. Can we learn from his example? Perhaps there is a new future ahead for us as dancers if we're open to influences outside of ourselves.

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