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Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Shall We Dance?

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers created one of the most iconic dance partnerships of the 20th century - starring in 10 films together and becoming Hollywood's sweethearts during the golden era of cinema.

They were both film stars in their own right when they first paired up on the big screen in 1933. This was the start of their legendary 16-year dance partnership - bringing cheer to the American public during the dark days of the Great Depression.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

© PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Vaudeville act

Astaire's talent was spotted at an early age by his school teacher in his home town of Omaha, Nebraska, where he was born Friedrich Austerlitz in 1899.

His Austrian immigrant father and American mother moved the family to New York, where Fred and his older sister, Adele, attended stage school, on the advice of their teacher.

After joining the Alviene Master School of Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts, the surname "Astaire" was born, because it sounded "more American".

Fred and Adele became a vaudeville dance act between 1905 and 1917. They progressed to musical theatre on Broadway, performing legendary dance routines until 1932, when the partnership split up after Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish.

Fred, who was now 33, then did a screen test for RKO. He was signed to the studio by producer David Selznick, who had reservations because Astaire wasn't in the usual "Hollywood heartthrob" mould, although he was noted as having "tremendous charm".

 

Child star

Born in 1911, Virginia McMath became Ginger after her cousin, Helen, dreamed up the nickname. Ginger's mother, Lela, was a dancer in the Majestic Theatre in Independence, Missouri.

Ginger would stand in the wings, watching her mum dance. It wasn't long before the youngster was invited on to the stage to sing and dance herself, where she showed amazing talent.

Lela had separated from Ginger's father, but he tried to snatch his young daughter. As a result, Ginger had a rather traumatic childhood. She was returned to her mother and never saw her father again.

Lela remarried John Rogers and the family moved to Fort Worth, with Ginger adopting her step-father's surname. Lela encouraged her to embark on a career on the stage.

In 1928, Ginger married her sweetheart, Jack Culpepper, when she was only 17. They formed a vaudeville act called Ginger and Pepper, but they divorced after only a few months. Ginger headed to New York with her mother and won a Broadway role in a show called Top Speed in 1929.

She was headhunted for a role in the top Broadway musical, Girl Crazy, by George and Ira Gershwin, within two weeks.

 

Fred meets Ginger

During rehearsals for Girl Crazy, Ginger and Fred met for the first time. She was 19 years old and dancing in her first major show. He was 30 and a well-established Broadway star.

Fred was hired to help with the choreography in Girl Crazy and his ideas helped turn Ginger into an overnight dance sensation. As a result, she was offered a role in the Paramount Studios' film, Young Man of Manhattan, in 1930.

She also sang We're in the Money in the famous film, Gold Diggers of 1933. Meanwhile, Astaire made his Hollywood debut the same year, starring opposite Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady, which was a big hit.

Studio bosses at RKO decided to team up their two stars as supporting characters in the musical, Flying Down to Rio, in 1933 - a frothy vehicle to showcase the talents of screen goddess Dolores Del Rio.

Fred played assistant band leader Fred Ayres opposite Ginger's singer, Honey Hales. The successful film led to Fred and Ginger becoming a regular dance partnership in a series of hit musicals.

They made eight more musicals with RKO, including The Gay Divorcee in 1934, Top Hat in 1935, Swing Time in 1936 and Shall We Dance in 1937.

 

End of an era

Fred and Ginger's films kept cinema-goers happy during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1938, they featured on the cover of the legendary Life magazine, securing their place as America's best-loved dance partnership.

Sadly, RKO faced bankruptcy at the end of the decade and the days of the lavish musicals had ended, as studios could no longer afford to stage them in the current economic climate. Fred and Ginger's dance partnership dissolved and they starred separately in a number of films in the 1940s.

Ginger played the title role in the 1940 film, Kitty Foyle, winning a Best Actress Academy Award. Fred starred in You'll Never Get Rich in 1941, opposite Rita Hayworth. He also starred in Holiday Inn in 1942 with Bing Crosby.

In 1949, Fred and Ginger were reunited one final time for the MGM musical, The Barkleys of Broadway, which was their only film shot in technicolour.

In a plot that mirrored real life, they played two Broadway stars who broke up, but later realised they needed each other. The film was a massive success with the fans and the critics.

Ginger, who was hailed as Fred's greatest ever dance partner, went on to enjoy a solo career as a serious actress, making around 70 films. She also continued with her stage work, starring in Mame in the West End when she was 58.

Fred’s solo career also blossomed, and he went on to star opposite a number of leading ladies, including Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face in 1957. He had other dance partners, including Paulette Goddard and Lucille Bremer, but his partnership with Ginger Rogers is the one everyone remembers.

If you're hoping to be the next Fred and Ginger, make sure you use Coruba's rubber safety mats in the dance studio.

With non-slip benefits that help protect against injuries, our mats create the perfect environment to practice those new dance moves – particularly the lifts! Please contact us for further details.



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