The Fred Astaire work ethic

As I watched old Fred Astaire movies, I was struck by the sheer perfection of his movements and his flawless syncopation.  I had the conscious thought that America would be so much better off if Fred Astaire's work ethic and search for perfection were applied to our own culture.

One Fred Astaire dance, in particular, stands out as the quintessence of hard work and purity of effort: "Puttin' on the Ritz."  Astaire, in his iconic top hat and tails, takes the music and reshapes it to his dance.  He doesn't merely dance to the music; the music dances to him.  With almost four million views, this clip is quintessentially Astaire.  It is sheer perfection.  Effortlessly (or so it appears), he moves every part of body and mind, using a cane as a prop, to create a syncopated flow that is sublime and strikes the appreciative viewer somewhere way back in the lizard brain.  It is primitive while being sophisticated beyond belief.

According to John Mueller, an American political scholar and expert on the dance, the wow factor in "Puttin' on the Ritz" is the

use of delayed rhythmic resolution: a staggering, off-balance passage, emphasized by the unorthodox stresses in the lyric, suddenly resolves satisfyingly on a held note, followed by the forceful assertion of the title phrase.

Mueller's description is a long way of saying that what Astaire did in this particular number was impossible in anyone else's hands.  Or feet.  Astaire created from whole cloth a way of dancing that forevermore would have his elegance stamped on it.

Reading his autobiography is revealing.  While not a great literary work, it wasn't meant to be.  It was simply and honestly his childhood vaudeville story with his sister in a stage act that traced from when they were small children to when he struck out on his own.  He later went on to Hollywood to dance with the most beautiful, talented actresses of those days.  Ginger Rogers was not his only dance partner.  There were other beauties like Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Leslie Caron, and Cyd Charisse with her sultry litheness.  Opinions differ as to who was his best partner.  (Hint: Ginger.)

His work ethic was almost pathological; he worried some of his dances to death by rehearsing them scores of times, sometimes to the point where Ginger Rogers's feet were bleeding.  To say he was a perfectionist is to minimize his modus operandi.  He micromanaged everything because he rightly surmised that no one knew better than he what would work best.

Astaire directed the people doing the filming of his dances never to shoot anything but full-body shots because it interfered with the flow of the dance.  He was right.  Astaire also curled his middle fingers while dancing because he felt they were too long.  Such attention to detail, in addition to his God-given gift, made him the best dancer of any time in our history.  There has never been another Fred Astaire.  While Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, two wonderful dancers of the same period, were excellent, they were different.

Dance-wise, I can think of no 21st-century dancers of Astaire's genre and accomplishment, except perhaps Derek Hough, who has the control and talent to come close in movement if not in style.  Even Mikhail Baryshnikov said he looked to Fred Astaire for inspiration.  He said, "No dancer can watch Fred Astaire and not know that we all should have been in another business."

If you view our culture across all lines of endeavor, you may notice that people are succeeding and rising to the top of professions and businesses and entertainment with little going for them except a coarseness that demands you pay attention.  The Fred Astaire ethic of working a problem from every angle, a hundred times if necessary, in order to make it the very best it can be, is gone.  In its place are expediency, greed, sloth, lust for power, and a total lack of reasonable solutions.

Would that we had some Fred Astaires in our government and in our agencies.  Perhaps something would actually get done that helps Americans rather than hurts them.  And it would be far more appealing to watch.

The lessons of Fred Astaire loom large.  A return to a strong work ethic and the courage to work a problem to an effective and salutary solution is in order.  I look forward to the day when we wrest control of our country from the no-talents, the non-thinkers, the inept strategists, and give them to people who have actual solutions instead of all the tap-dancing we are seeing now.

Image: Picryl.

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