History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 January 2010

Dance Lessons

Fred Astaire didn't like to do romantic clinch scenes on screen. Partly, he thought he didn't have the requisite romantic leading man looks. So the kiss that follows this still from Swing Time is blocked from audience view by a door in the foreground that opens just in time.

And anyway, Astaire would add, the lovemaking was in the dance routines he choreographed.

Which assertion could certainly stand as support for any romance writer's choice to leave the explicit erotic details out of her romance writing. And indeed (though I've always written erotic romance , not to speak of some down and dirty erotica) some of my favorite romance reading depends upon little besides a hero and heroine, perhaps a text, glove, or stocking in contention, and lots of good banter.

While for my own writing, it's always been a different matter. Explicit sex is an important part of my books. A mysteriously important part of it, especially for mild-mannered, shy moi -- I'm always trying to figure out what fascination this sort of writing holds for me, what part it plays in my craft, and how to do it better and yet to keep it fresh, surprising. And mysterious.

And so, a few weeks ago when I was packing for a vacation trip (which meant first a whole lot of ironing in front of my DVD player), when I was marveling at the dance routines in the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers masterpiece Swing Time, I did surprise myself by thinking, "Oh yes, that's what I'm going for when I write the sex scenes."

At first I didn't even quite know what I meant. But I had a lot to iron, and a lot of choices to make about what to bring for frigid East Coast and Midwest weather and how to get it all into my carry-on bags. And luckily, the DVD of Swing Time contains some of the most informative and least self-indulgent supplementary material of any DVD I've ever seen, with film scholars, dancers, and various artists who actually worked with Astaire and Rogers explaining, in exhaustive detail, the remarkable conception and production of those dance routines. And after I watched certain segments enough times -- even, as Astaire scholar John Mueller suggests on the voice-over commentary, in slow motion -- I started to get it.

Or at least I started to get what I could take away from it. Which is that in the three extraordinary numbers Astaire and Rogers dance together in Swing Time, what we see is two people simultaneously being most themselves and also somehow becoming more than that -- learning to be a couple -- in a narrative arc that spans the dance routines and traces the development of a relationship.

It starts simply, and it's built into the very steps Astaire created.

The ostensible plot, by the way, hardly bears scrutiny, except to say that it provides obstacles when needed: sometimes money (this was the Great Depression, after all), sometimes prior obligations to other lesser love interests.

All you need know at the beginning is that Rogers is a dance instructor, Astaire a gambler who's been secretly moonlighting a dancer. They've met classically cute; Astaire, partly because of his gambling, has inadvertently insulted Rogers; he's decided to take dance lessons to get close to her and get her to forgive him,. And to justify his getting the lessons, he's been pretending (with some effort) to be a hopeless klutz while she tries first simply to teach him to walk rhythmically at her side, and then to do a rudimentary right-two-three left-two-three with her as a couple.

Here, in their first routine "Pick Yourself Up" he "suddenly" picks up the steps, amazing Rogers and everyone but the delighted film audience. What I love in the sequence besides its obvious gorgeousness is his and Rogers' mutual discovery of who they are in motion -- or when they're being their truest, most intimate selves, dancing.

But also check out what film scholar John Mueller has called "The Astaire Double Helix" -- a step that begins with them walking/dancing side-by-side -- gorgeously equal in their competence, entertained by each other's competence and (wonderfully) just a little bit competitive as well -- then spinning around each other in a complex drama of separateness, yearning, and attraction, then somehow propelled by the energy of their separate spins to land back face to face to dance as partners.

I found myself moved beyond measure, and I think (in this dialectic between separateness and mutuality) I found a piece of what I've always been trying to portray in my sex scenes. Click here for the exquisite routine, which Mueller called Ginger Roger's greatest two minutes (and note that the double helix is about a minute and ten seconds into the routine.)

The steps and motifs develop and grow more poignant as the narrative works its way home. In the "Waltz in Swing Time" number, the couple is confident in their growing mutual professional competence, happy to share it with a breathless, appreciative audience, to explore the joys of waltzing to an updated beat (the meeting of old and new thrilling my historical writer wonkiness), and simply reprising the one-two-three from their first dance with a fabulous exuberance coming from an ecstasy of their emerging understanding that they've become a couple with a shared history (a history that -- thanks to the voyeurism that always informs the best erotic fictions -- the audience is also privileged to understand).

And at the dark moment when the plot conflicts seem insoluble, the dazzling "Never Gonna Dance" routine reprises and reorders the steps and motifs so that now the separateness always threatening to dominate finally makes good on its threat (at least until the HEA ending soon to com). The now broken-up couple are alone on the set where they last danced so happily. They've tried to talk -- but talking isn't what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers do best even at the best of times.

Again beginning by walking side to side, Astaire sweeps Rogers into almost frighteningly quick spins. For a moment it seems like the old one-two-three step might bring them back together. But it doesn't. Nor does the double helix work -- perhaps because they no longer have that good-natured competitiveness that's so productive in all romances. Astaire is too violent as the initiator of the spins; the poignancy of Rogers achieving them is startling -- though eventually she's spun off the screen to leave him (gorgeously, of course) exhausted and despairing.

(This was the famous routine, by the way, that took 47 takes and left Rogers' feet bleeding; I don't know why it was so difficult, but I'm guessing it's the speed and control demanded of her. Dramatically it's astonishing; she never seems stronger than in this break-up scene -- and the gown is to die for, isn't it?)

But the happy ending does come. Improbably, ridiculously, plotwise. But wonderfully from a thematic viewpoint. Taking explicit notice of the dance/sexuality equation, Fred sings, (to the tune of "A Fine Romance")

Remember how my arms hold you when we dance
But we're not going to dance
This is a fine romance

And it is. Leading me to remember the dance scenes I've included in Almost a Gentleman and The Edge of Impropriety (interestingly, in both cases, with the dancers all in black and white). And that I recently commented on some blog that "I write because I can't dance."

OK. Your turn. About the relationship of eroticism to other sorts of narrative. About dance and film and other arts and romance. Or whatever -- including the films and novels of the 1930s that seem to be so much a part of the romance aesthetic a la hoyden.

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Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Oh that post was so much fun and I haven't even watched the dances yet. Thanks for the insight, Pam.

I love the films from the 30's especially the ones that tried to make people forget the difficulties they were facing in the Depression. Part of the long list of "entertainment as escape" that is what books, tv and movies are for me.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Mary! How great to hear from you -- I think of you every Sunday when the anthology you're in shows up yet again on the NY Times Best Seller List.

Swing Time is definitely an escapist movie -- but that doesn't mean it forgets the Great Depression entirely. Money's an ongoing concern: Fred's name is Lucky and Ginger's is Penny. And there's a wonderful scene where a broke Lucky (in full formal dress) hops a freight train to NY. And of course, Ginger Rogers always had that gutsy independence. The whole thing here is done with a delicious light touch.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've always thought of my sex scenes as a game where who leads goes back and forth. I hadn't really thought about it in terms of ballroom dancing, but it totally works.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Svea Love said...

Oh I love Fred Astaire! I did a term paper on him once. It was one of the most interesting and pleasing papers to write! Great post, thank you :)

4:23 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Muse. Glad you enjoyed it.

And yup, Kalen, "who leads" is definitely the issue.

8:44 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

There's that phrase about "the dance as old as time" which sometimes gets used in romances to describe sex. And Henry Tilney made some interesting observations about dancing:

I consider a country–dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.”

“But they are such very different things!”

“ — That you think they cannot be compared together.”

“To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.”

“And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else. You will allow all this?”

“Yes, to be sure, as you state it, all this sounds very well; but still they are so very different. I cannot look upon them at all in the same light, nor think the same duties belong to them.”

“In one respect, there certainly is a difference. In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water. That, I suppose, was the difference of duties which struck you, as rendering the conditions incapable of comparison.” (Chapter 10, Northanger Abbey)

5:08 AM  
Anonymous Maryan Wherry said...

There's actually been a fair amount of "scholarly" blathering about the structure of musicals and the placement of songs/dances. Astaire and Rogers are pretty iconic. Try "Top Hat"--perfect structure and the secondary characters are much more fun. And I think it better than "Swing Time" in showing the dance as courtship and HEA.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I will try "Top Hat," Maryan, and nice to hear from you.

And Laura, I always like to hear from Henry Tilney, my favorite JA hero, man enough to joke about muslin.

5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just spent an hour viewing Fred and Ginger and Eleanor Powell videos. I love those old movies and their dance routines. It can be an expression of emotion and sexuality. Many of these dance scenes say more about the relationship of the couple and are much more romantic than most kissing scenes. It is the emotion that counts, the tension. You can feel it, but you don't have to watch where it will eventually lead.
When we first got married, one of our neighbors said they weren't allowed to dance except in the privacy of their own homes. Dancing was considered foreplay.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Pam! I love Depression era movies (I grew up going to old movie theaters). I think my favorite Astaire/Rodgers movie is "Shall We Dance," though I also love "Roberta" (in which they play the secondary couple) for its gorgeous Jerome Kern score ("Smoke Get in Your Eyes," "Yesterdays", "Lovely to Look At").

The book I'm working on now (currently taking an internet break from edits :-), has a dance title ("Vienna Waltz") and a number of waltz scenes (I've been spending a lot of time studying early 19th century waltz patterns). Despite the fact that a number of the books intrigues are driven by sex (as were a number of real life Congress of Vienna intrigues) the book doesn't have any explicit sex scenes. Fading to black and leaving a lot to the imagination seems to fit better with the books I'm writing now. But in several of the waltz scenes in this book, I do think the dance works as a metaphor for lovemaking.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous RfP said...

Social dance, or couples dance,* is also fascinating as a form of role-playing. Couples-dancing generally involves one partner playing "the man" (moving forward, setting the direction, showing off his partner) and one "the woman" (moving backward, etc). No matter what the couple's usual relationship, on the dance floor they play gendered roles. Of course, that oversimplifies; any couple can introduce their own style and nuances. But that doesn't mean they'll revert to everyday type; dance can be a space for role play, in which the dancers don't conform to their usual demeanor and relationship.

*Since we're talking about romance, I'm emphasizing social and couples dancing as opposed to solo dancing or choreographed group dance forms.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

fascinating comment, librarypat. I'm assuming your neighbors were members of a religious group. Or were they?

Tracy, I hoped you'd be commenting, and sharing your expertise about the waltz as a social/erotic marker in Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. I can't wait to read Vienna Waltz.

And hi, RfP. Yes, I agree that "Dance can be a space for role play, in which the dancers don't conform to their usual demeanor and relationship."

In my first published romance novel, Almost a Gentleman my cross-dressing heroine gets to lead when she waltzes at Almack's, and it's the mastery of her dancing that first attracts my hero's notice.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam, yes the no dancing except in private was one of the rules of their religious group, a church I had never heard of (don't remember what it was, that was over 37 years ago.).

1:50 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Coming late to the party ... I've been out of town with spotty internet. Pam, I love this post. I've always been a fan of the Astaire/Rodgers movies because the sexual chemistry comes through in the dance numbers, though I never found Astaire's screen persona (or his looks) remotely sexy. In that department, give me Gene Kelly any day.

But I have always maintained that if a man can dance he's also good in bed.

5:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hey Leslie, great to "see" you. As for dancing and sex, I think Jane Austen thought so too -- especially in Emma. For (although in general I find the Emma/Knightley relationship a little squicky and Humbert-esque) for deliciously sprightly, straight-forwardly sexy confrontation very little beats the exchange after he saves Harriet's self-esteem by dancing with her (and very well too):

They were interrupted by the bustle
of Mr. Weston calling on every body to begin dancing again.

"Come Miss Woodhouse, Miss Otway, Miss Fairfax, what are you all doing?-- Come Emma, set your companions the example. Every body is lazy! Every body is asleep!"

"I am ready," said Emma, "whenever I am wanted."

"Whom are you going to dance with?" asked Mr. Knightley.

She hesitated a moment, and then replied, "With you, if you will ask me."

The prose rhythms are already dancing.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

Just wanted to say thanks--and I'll probably quote this post one of these days on my own blog where I try to weave film (and other sorts of) history in with recipes from time to time! Your observations are particularly interesting because people tend to think of Astaire as not sexy (as opposed, say, to Gene Kelly).

10:50 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thank you, Tinky, for an intro to your fascinating blog at http://www.ourgrandmotherskitchens.com/ (currently ruminating on Lillian Hellman and pot roast).

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Susan/DC said...

A secondary point is that I think the dresses Ginger Rogers wore were far sexier than the skimpier costumes you see today on dance shows today. The fabric skims her body yet floats away as she moves, and that movement echoes the push-pull of the relationship as it develops. Sometimes a long chiffon skirt, which hides, then reveals, is more erotic than a costume which reveals everything all the time.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh, I so agree, Susan. I mentioned the costume in the "Never Gonna Dance" number, but in truth I think the little black wear-to-work dress in "Pick Yourself Up" is the real masterpiece here, the way it flows around her.

She wore the clothes so gorgeously, too. Mueller mentions her wonderfully flexible back; she must have had abs and lats of steel. But there was also that wonderful, slightly cynical, I-work-for-a-living edginess to her shoulders, that I love about her. Very 30s.

4:20 PM  

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