One elegant step: On Astaire the student
Two weeks ago I started a series on Fred Astaire, concluding the introductory post with a comment about Astaire the student and Astaire the complementary artist. It’s that first matter, Astaire the student, that I take up in greater detail here.
It’s interesting – if you can resist the temptation to watch his feet – to watch Astaire’s face as he dances. His “normal” dancing face – the usual set of his face while dancing, when acting doesn’t require him to alter it – is unique among screen dancers. It’s the face of a little boy, hard at work at and totally absorbed in some agreeable task. Nothing in his face indicates self-consciousness, neither does an ounce of showiness appear in his countenance. Kingfishers catch fire; dragonflies draw flame; Astaire dances. Or, as he put it himself, “I have no desire to prove anything by it. I have never used it as an outlet or a means of expressing myself. I just dance.”
Astaire’s “just dancing” on screen is of a piece with his “just dancing” for thousands of hours off screen. By the time he appeared in front of the camera he had his steps pretty well worked out, but still he had a peculiar attentiveness to everyone and everything about him as he danced, as well as an uncanny focus on the timeliness and tidiness of his own movements. There wasn’t much of “putting on a show” about his filmed dances – he simply did what he always did, and it was a show – and there was absolutely nothing by way of going through the motions. On screen you see mastery, mastery that was born of a student’s submission: studious submission to his craft, to his tools, to gravity, to time, to his partners, to the moment. The reason you don’t see Astaire stepping out of place is that he was continually aware of his place. In a dance, he had as keen a sense of le moment juste as Jesus had when he was tempted in the wilderness.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight . . .
 Though he was famous – or infamous – for thinking of new ideas for dances that’d already been filmed, and then insisting that such dances be re-rehearsed and re-filmed to incorporate the new ideas.