I’ve read a little bit of debate, though not a pressing amount, on who Fred Astaire’s best dancing partner was: Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Vera-Ellen. They’re all wonderful (though Rita Hayworth is a bit stiff for me, like she had an iron bar for a spine when dancing), but they’re also different, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare them
But for utter joy in dancing, no one beats Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. No one makes dancing look more spontaneous than those two, so effortless and so fun. You almost think you can get up and do it, too (I never think I can dance like Cyd Charisse).
Swing Time (1936) was their sixth movie together and has some of their very finest dances. The songs were written by Jerome Kern (of “Show Boat” renown) and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (who writes some of the wittiest lyrics I’ve heard, like “A Fine Romance”).
In the story, Fred Astaire is a gambler gone out to seek his fortune so he can marry his sweetheart. However, once he gets to New York City, he runs into Ginger Rogers. She is a dancing instructor and he pays for a lesson, pretending to be absolutely awful. They then sing a song:“Pick Yourself Up.” She is disgusted with him, but when she then gets fired by her boss (Eric Blore) he pulls her back onto the dance floor to demonstrate how much she has “taught” him while the incomparably funny Blore looks on.
Part of what made Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire unique is how they used their dances to further the plot. In this case, you can see Ginger Rogers undergo a complete metamorphosis of feelings towards him in only two and a half minutes and it is wonderful to watch her expressions throughout. First she looks exasperated and annoyed, but as soon as he begins dancing there is a complicated mixture of surprise, hope, pleasure and excitement. There’s also hesitancy, as she’s not quite sure where this is going, but gradually changes as she allows herself to fully get into the dance when she realizes the extant of his prowess. By the end, they have become one, demonstrating a complete comfort and ‘rightness’ that is truly unique to them.
In Puttin’ On The Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography, the author Peter Levinson writes about how Fred Astaire always had his dances shot in one long, continuous shot. He never broke it up or wanted the dance viewed from different angles. He felt the dance should be viewed as a whole, with the whole body of each dancer in view at all times.