Facts About Fred
March 22, 2017
To watch Fred Astaire dance on film – even today – is to marvel at his grace, skill and athleticism. What many don’t know is the extent to which this virtuoso practiced, worried, and worked on his craft.
Astaire’s brilliance speaks of a confident character without a care. But Fred Astaire, namesake of the chain of dance studios he co-founded in the late 1940s, was often plagued by self-doubt and generally quite shy.
That may have played into his original reticence to perform with Ginger Rogers. Of course, we now have trouble thinking of one without the other, so divinely did they dance together for 16 years while appearing in 10 outstanding Hollywood movies (Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance? just to name a few.) But after a long partnership on stage with his sister (more about that coming up), Fred wasn’t ready to tie himself to a regular partner again. Fortunately he did, and he forever changed the way cinema presented dance.
Frederick Austerlitz, who was born in 1899, was enrolled in dance school by his parents when he was 4, to accompany his older sister Adele. They would become professionals, changing their name to Astaire in 1917, and work together until 1932, when Adele retired to marry.
A year later, Fred Astaire moved to Hollywood and embarked on a stellar career that married acting and dancing. Astaire meticulously choreographed routines, melding different styles (tap, ballroom) into his program. Oddly, the notes from his first screen test did not predict such popularity and success. Said the note: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.”
He definitely danced a little.
All told, Fred Astaire made 71 musical films and took part in several TV specials. His dancing outshone his vocal work, but he was very well-regarded as a singer. It was he who introduced “Night and Day,” written by Cole Porter, in 1932’s The Gay Divorcee. “Cheek to Cheek” from 1935’s Top Hat is also an industry standard.
Here’s a few not-so-known facts on Fred:
- Among his many talents, Fred also loved to play the accordion, clarinet and piano
- His surname wasn’t originally Astaire, it was Austerlitz. His mother felt that their surname was a reminder of the Battle of Austerlitz so she advised her children to change it to Astaire
- The American Film Institute named Fred Astaire the 5th Greatest male Star of Old Hollywood
- Astaire disguised his very large hands by curling his middle two fingers while dancing
- As mentioned above, Fred Astaire is credited with changing the role of dance in musical cinema, insisting that all song and dance routines be integrated into the plot and used to move the story forward (versus dance-as-spectacle, which was typical for the time)
Fred Astaire was detail-oriented and a perfectionist, and his relentless insistence on weeks – sometimes months – of rehearsals before a film could start shooting (and numerous retakes during filming) was notorious. As Astaire himself observed, “I’ve never yet got anything 100% right. Still it’s never as bad as I think it is.” But that did not stifle the joy in his performances, nor his love of dancing in general. That same sense of happiness from dance continues to light the way at every Fred Astaire Dance Studio, the company Fred Astaire himself co-founded in 1947, to share his techniques and the joy of dance with the public. Find your local Fred Astaire Dance Studio here, and discover a warm and welcoming community that will inspire you to reach new heights, feel and look confident, and have fun doing it!