Ginger Rogers is best known for the ten films she made with Fred Astaire, in which they became the most beloved dance team in Hollywood history. However, these films were only one element of her long, versatile, and successful career, which spanned vaudeville, Broadway, and over 35 years in movies, as an Academy Award©-winning actress in comedies, dramas, and musicals. Born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1911, in Independence, Missouri, she began performing at an early age, winning Charleston contests and starting on the vaudeville circuit when she was just fourteen. Rogers first met Fred Astaire when he assisted with the choreography for the Gershwins’ Broadway musical Girl Crazy in 1930, the show that made her a star. She started making films around the same time, appearing in several of the hugely popular musicals of dance director Busby Berkeley. Astaire and Rogers were first teamed onscreen in Flying Down to Rio in 1934, becoming an instant sensation when they performed the duet “The Carioca.” Although neither wanted to be teamed regularly, their popularity led to nine more films during the next decade, including Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance?, considered pinnacles of the Hollywood dance film. The timeless appeal of Astaire and Rogers’ onscreen dances owes much not only to Rogers’ skill as a dancer but to her expressiveness and ability to endow movement with emotional depth, giving their duets unmatched dramatic power.
Pictured left: Rogers was personally involved in selecting the gowns she wore in the Astaire-Rogers films, which often contributed significantly to the look of dance sequences with their movement and enhancement of her body’s line. Sometimes these effects came at a cost: this metallic-bead-covered, fur-trimmed dress worn for “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet (1936) weighed 25 pounds, and Astaire recalled in his autobiography that the heavy sleeve struck him in the face during the first take of the dance—which was nonetheless judged the best and used in the finished film.
Pictured right: Fred Astaire and Gingers Rogers, pictured here dancing “The Yam” from Carefree (1938), were the twentieth century’s most iconic representatives of the joys of ballroom dancing. Their duets, which convey a sense of effortless spontaneity, required intensive, exhausting rehearsals and re-takes.
Pictured below (left): Critic Arlene Croce, in her 1972 study The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, praised “Waltz in Swingtime,” a duet from Swing Time (1936) pictured here, as the choreographic masterpiece of the Astaire-Rogers films, with its complex rhythms and combination of classical ballroom and jazz influences.
Pictured above (right): Ginger Rogers, pictured here dancing solo in an audition scene from Follow the Fleet (1936), had experience singing and dancing on Broadway and in Hollywood films, including the musicals of Busby Berkeley, before she was teamed with Fred Astaire.
Pictured left: The romantic chemistry and dramatic richness in Rogers’ and Astaire’s duets, recognized in their first pairing, Flying Down to Rio (1933), pictured here, relied largely on Rogers’ excellence as an actress, which earned her an Academy Award© in 1940. In an essay on Fred Astaire, Imogen Sara Smith writes that Rogers was his greatest partner “because she brought the greatest dramatic depth and emotional eloquence to their duets through her acting skill and the exquisite undertow of resistance that she supplied. Astaire and Rogers don’t just dance together but talk, flirt, argue, and make love through dancing. None of his later partnerships achieved such engrossing psychological dimensions and magical sense of rapport.”