Dance Week: Dancing And Self Image

Fredginger Little children will often spontaneously start dancing to energetic music. They don’t worry about how they look, they just enjoy moving to the music. Then boys and girls divide into separate tribes, and by adolescence everyone is self-conscious about their body. Worrying about how you look to others can inhibit dancing.

Social dancing was important to my parents, as it had been to my father’s parents. I learned to dance fairly young and took a couple of classes in college. Years later I signed my wife and myself up for dance lessons, and we loved it so much we continued to take lessons in a variety of dances for a decade. 

After a few years of lessons we occasionally substituted for our teacher, or served as a demonstration couple. Once, after demonstrating, we watched as some beginning students waltzed around the floor. My wife whispered to me to look at a particular couple. Nothing stood out about them to me, so I said, “What?” She said, “Look at her face. She feels like Ginger Rogers.”

Seeing films of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers can seem to define grace—his immaculate tuxedo, her impossibly beautiful gown, both of them seeming almost weightless.

By the time these movies were made Astaire had been dancing almost all his life. He grew up dancing in vaudeville with his older sister Adele. Their partnership ended only when Adele married an English Lord.

In films his partnership with Ginger Rogers was the longest and most successful. She was a great dancer, although some argue she was not as technically skilled as Astaire’s later partners like Eleanor Powell and Rita Hayworth. But Rogers remained an charming actress even while dancing, just as Adele Astaire had been. Critic John Mueller felt that “the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.”

The reality was probably different. Astaire was a perfectionist. Never satisfied, always doubting himself, he wanted to practice routines weeks past their scheduled shooting dates. He would practice long hours until he and his partner were exhausted, with Astaire still never totally satisfied. Fortunately for us, none of that grueling work and endless self-doubt shows in the final illusions, those images of effortless grace.

Illusions can be important. Dancing is easier physically when you’re young. But the feeling of joy you can experience while dancing does not disappear with age. My father, widowed, danced into his 80s. Each Saturday night, he would dress up, and, looking dapper, he would drive somewhere to dance. At 83 he died at home peacefully in his sleep, and three women attended his memorial that had danced with him the previous Saturday.

No doubt they would miss my father as a friend. But the loss of their dance partner was probably just as devastating. They knew that my father wasn’t Fred Astaire, and that none of them were Ginger Rogers. But the pleasure of moving in time with the music, of being squired around the dance floor by a well-dressed man who enjoyed their company: such things allowed to them feel that life was joyous, and that they were graceful and desirable. I suspect they felt something like the way they imagined Ginger felt when dancing with Fred.

How important are such feelings? With my father no longer available as a dance partner, one woman moved away to a retirement center. Nothing had changed about her health, but her image of herself had. She no longer saw herself as a woman who, come Saturday night, would be dressing up and going out to dance.