Fred Astaire Fred Astaire

Elegance is usually an imposition, a set of mannerisms employed by the swells to cover their emptiness and maintain their distance from us plebeians. Fred Astaire's achievement — no, his glory — was that he made elegance infectious. He democratized and Americanized the word most overused to describe himself.

And he did the same thing for dancing. Before the advent of sound movies, dance for most Americans meant tap dancers “laying down iron” in vaudeville. Before Astaire, screen dance was a thundering herd of chorines tapping out a Busby Berkeley abstraction. “I didn't think I had too much of a chance,” Astaire would later say — with good reason. To be sure, he and his sister Adele had worked their way from Omaha through small-time vaudeville to stage stardom in New York and London. But Adele had retired, and at 34, Fred was not obvious star material: a skinny fellow with a reedy voice and an unassuming air.

In fact, his manner and his voice were basic to his success, creating an illusion of ordinariness. This was not unplanned. Nothing in the use of his only instrument — himself — ever was. A cool calculator of effects, a steely perfectionist in execution, he always affected astonishment over adulation. As Mikhail Baryshnikov said, Astaire often seemed to stand wryly outside himself, observing his work as wonderingly as anyone else.

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