Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan: A Collaboration That Changed 20th Century Dance Choreography

December 15, 2015

The legendary dance talents of Fred Astaire were surely influenced, even enhanced, by the many dance partners, collaborators and choreographers he worked with during his iconic career. This blog post tips a hat to Hermes Pan… dancer, choreographer, collaborator and good friend of Fred Astaire for over 60 years.

Born on December 10, 1909 in Memphis TN, American dancer and choreographer, Hermes Pan (born Hermes Joseph Panagiotopoulos), principally remembered as Fred Astaire’s choreographic collaborator on the famous 1930s movie musicals starring Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Pan and Astaire (whom he resembled physically), met on the set of “Flying Down to Rio” (1933), in which Pan worked as an assistant to dance director Dave Gould. While Astaire was working on a series of steps for “The Carioca” dance scene, it was suggested that Pan might have a few ideas. He did, demonstrating a brief break he had picked up from his street days in New York. And thus began a lifelong professional collaboration and friendship between the two, which included 17 of Astaire’s 31 musical films and three of his four television specials.

It’s widely considered to be one of the most important forces in dance choreography of 20th century film and television musicals. Astaire called Pan his “ideas man”, and while he generally choreographed his own routines (and sometimes worked with other choreographers) he greatly valued the assistance of Pan not just as a source and critic of ideas, but also as a rehearsal partner. Pan also performed the essential function of rehearsing Ginger Rogers whose many other commitments during the filming of the Astaire-Rogers musicals often conflicted with Astaire’s rehearsal schedule. In addition, he recorded

Ginger’s taps in post-production in some numbers. He is rumored to have done so in high heels, for authenticity.

Pan’s first on-screen appearance was as clarinetist during the Astaire-Goddard routine “I Ain’t Hep To That Step But I’ll Dig It” in “Second Chorus” (1940), and dressed as The Ghost in the deleted (and only) Astaire-Pan routine “Me and the Ghost Upstairs” from the same film. His dance performances on-screen (non-speaking dancing roles for which he also acted as choreographer) included routines with Betty Grable in “Moon Over Miami” (1941 film) and “Coney Island” (1943). His longest filmed dance routine is a complex tap duet with Grable in “Footlight Serenade” (1942 film) that echoed his choreographic work with Astaire and Rogers, and in which his similarity to Astaire is striking. He also appeared with Rita Hayworth in “My Gal Sal” (1942) and with Betty Grable again in “Pin Up Girl” (1944). These are his only dance performances on film, (except for a brief, but credited appearance in “Kiss Me Kate” as “Soldier Boy”), performances which have also allowed comparisons between Pan’s and Astaire’s dance styles.

Pan and Astaire continued to collaborate right up to Astaire’s last musical picture “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968), which on a number of fronts, did not go well for Pan himself. Even though the young director Francis Ford Coppola had no prior experience with musical films, he overrode Astaire and Pan’s plans for the film’s dance routines. He had reintroduced the “dancing camera” style of the early 1930s which Astaire had done so much to banish from the Hollywood musical. Eventually Pan, who had a small walk-on part in the film, was fired by Coppola (who has since acknowledged his own primary responsibility for the film’s limited artistic success).

Hermes Pan choreographed approximately 50 films during his career. He received Academy Award nominations for dance direction in “Top Hat” (1935) and ” Swing Time” (1936

),  an Emmy Award for the television special “An Evening with Fred Astaire” (1958), was recognized with a National Film Award in 1980, and by the Joffrey Ballet in 1986. When not working with Astaire, Pan was much in demand as a choreographer throughout the golden age of the Hollywood musical, most notably in Lovely to Look At (1952) and Kiss Me Kate (1953, in which Bob Fosse also choreographed and danced). He and Fred Astaire remained friends until Astaire’s death in 1987. Pan himself passed away in 1990 in California, at the age of 79.


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