It’s funny if you think about it: someone puts pieces of metal on their shoes and jumps around in an athletic fashion making noise with their feet. It’s strange, but – like other things – if someone does a seemingly strange thing with great skill, artistic style, and effortless grace, somehow our heart opens to it and it becomes something wonderful -almost unearthly – a thing of artistic beauty. And the person who does it becomes, in our mind, an artist. That’s tap dancing – and that’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
But in Swing Time they show us more than just tap dancing, more than wonderful ballroom-style dancing – and modern dancing – they open up a realm of pure art. Pure art put on the screen with relentless work and driven perfectionism, surrounded by and embedded in a perfectly silly Hollywood machine-like vehicle that is plenty good fun, if you take it plenty lightly.
Most people picture Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the tux and ball-gown that was their trademark. In this scene
Fred and Ginger dance a beautiful ballet-like modern dance sequence. Earlier, Fred and Ginger do a fun and carefree – albeit extremely difficult – tap-dance together. But the highlight of this movie – and the number one reason to watch this movie if you’ve never seen, and never see, another Astaire movie – is the spectacular Bojangles scene. Fred is liberated from his tux and liberated from his usual elegant tap dancing, ballroom, or ballet style of dance. He turns on the heat and shows his dazzling athletic dance chops. First there’s a clever sequence where his feet flash so fast that the eye can’t completely comprehend the movement:
He has taps on his gloves and taps with his hands – and with his hands against the bottom of his shoes!
Next, he dances with himself – at first it seems there are three projected images of him as he dances:
The punch-line is that, no, he was dancing in perfect synchrony with a previously recorded image of himself!
Yes, Fred is in black-face make-up. That alone might be why you won’t see this movie on a college campus. And, even worse, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a gifted black American tap dancer who – although he was in his 60’s when this movie was made – was, reportedly, just as good a dancer at 60 as he was when he was 25. But he’s not in this movie. He played butlers and waiters in a few Hollywood movies and appeared in one dance movie – which was only marketed to the black movie-going market and didn’t pull in enough money to launch his career on the screen. That, too, was “Hollywood”.
Still, watching the joy and grace expressed by Ginger and Fred in this movie has to warm your heart if you’ve got one. Fred Astaire was a polite, humble person and a consummate professional. He once said that he never danced to express himself – he just danced. He always gave the lion’s share of the credit to his dance partners and his choreographer, Hermes Pan. Fred and Ginger both worked extremely hard, honed their craft, perfected their art, and, in Swing Time, gave us a wonderful gift to enjoy forever: the joy of watching Fred and Ginger dance.