by Jane Powell
October 23, 1950
Since I’ve had the experience of dancing with Fred Astaire in MGM’s ROYAL WEDDING, I know what it is like to work with a champion, an something about what it takes to make a champion.
This doesn’t make me a champion, nor necessarily, even an expert dancer. But since I worked with Fred I feel I know what a person must do if he hopes to become really good in any line of work.
Being cast with Fred is an experience that falls into three rather definite parts. First, there is anticipation; second, the rehearsals, and third, the actual shooting. Each of these experiences is very different from the others.
I had not thought about being cast with Fred in ROYAL WDDING until after Ricardo Montalban and I finished TWO WEEKS OF LOVE [Note: It’s really “Two Weeks With Love”]. In this picture we danced enough to prove that I don’t use two left shoes when I dress in the morning—but hardly more than that.
The word went around that fred Astaire needed a partner. A quick check of the girls who qualified revealed that they either were having babies or otherwise were unavailable. This left me.
Although I do not claim to be a dancer, I like to dance, and my husband, Geary Steffen, and I dance every chance we get. Consequently, Geary, a former professional skater, has taught me quite a bit about rhythm and balance.
When I got the part with Fred, I was elated and at the same time frightened. I thought of the wonderful dancers–Eleanor Powell, Ginger Rogers, Vera Ellen, and others who had been his partners in past hit pictures. And I knew, too, that Fred had a reputation for demanding perfection in every routine. It was enough to frighten any girl, particularly one with limited dancing experience.
Then came rehearsals. I approached the first with about the same bewildered awe as though I had been asked to help Einstein solve mathematical problems, and my first look at Fred’s quietly grave face seemed to turn my legs into rubber.
But as we started working together, I discovered that Fred was shaking worse than I. At first, I didn’t know what to think. Certainly, if Fred Astaire were justified in being nervous at the start of a picture, I should be in a panic.
But there was something reassuring about Fred’s nervousness. His trembling hands and the serious way he speaks seemed to tell me he was prepared to do more than share to make my first dancing role a success.
As we rehearsed, and became better acquainted, I started kidding him by calling him a “worry wart.” He worries about the scenes that have been shot, the routine he is rehearsing, and the ones that are coming up. He feels that if he isn’t worrying–particularly about details many lesser dancers ignore–he isn’t doing his best. And with all this expert worrying going on, it seemed a waste of time for me–a girl of 21–to duplicate the efforts of a man who has worried himself into an outstanding success. So I quit worrying.
What I have said may make Fred seem like a heavy-browed Simon Legree with a long whip, but really he isn’t that sort at all. While many dancers with less artistry will work a partner until she collapses, Fred is one of the most considerate men I have ever met.
After two hours of work, he looked at me, his head to one side, and asked, “Jane, can you use a rest?”
My muscles ached–I was discovering ones I didn’t know I had–and I wanted to sit down and take off my shoes. But Fred seemed so full of energy I tried to tell him I wasn’t tired–really tired, that is.
But I didn’t fool Fred. He sensed that fatigue was interfering with my ability to learn the routine.
For three weeks, as rehearsed our long routines, he arranged to give me a rest every few hours. Sometimes I would take off my shoes and rest as hard as I could. Other times I would be called to the fitting room during one of these breaks. But regardless of I did, Fred would continue working on a specialty number. He never seemed to tire.
When I went to work on ROYAL WEDDING I thought I didn’t have a superfluous pound of weight, for I had been working hard. But my dancing with Fred took off six pounds that I didn’t get back until Geary and I spent a week in Nevada resting after the picture was finished.
The tremendous amount of rehearsal time was a good investment. When the cameras were ready–or, I should say, when we were ready for the cameras–there was a minimum of confusion. I heard the director giving his orders to the crew, the lights hit us. the cameras started rolling, the music cued us, and we were at work. My feet, my hands and my body had gone through the movements so many times under Fred’s meticulous guidance that it seemed we were having another practice session.
Some who don’t know Fred have asked me if he is difficult to work with They judge him by his serious manner and his quiet, sincere way of talking about pictures and dancing and he is a very serious man. For example, when we began rehearsals, he said, “I have to learn dancing all over again for every picture.”
But being serious doesn’t keep Fred from having a sense of humor. The gag, thhe boff and the practical jokes are not for him, and that is the way it should be around a set. A picture means too much to too many people to turn it into a sophomore picnic.
Fred’s humor, is an integral part of him, though it isn’t the kind to arouse hilarious laughter, the quiet chuckles it generates seemed to prevent tension from developing in the cast.
Fred never seems to try to impress others with his humor–or otherwise. Nor does he try to steal scenes. Instead, he works earnestly to achieve perfection for the picture. And he comes very close to getting it by having infinite patience and by concentration as much on small details as on major movements. This, I believe, is why Fred’s partner finds herself a dancing trilby under the spell of a lithe, adroit and very expert Svengali.