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Dance With Me

Couples slow dancing, arms around each other: Anything can happen--again.

February 11, 1999|DEVRA MAZA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You see him across a crowded room and suddenly you see no one else. Your eyes meet and you are drawn together as some inexorable force helps you migrate the maze of people between you. Now you stand face to face and, all at once, you're holding hands. Without a word, he slips his other hand around your waist to the small of your back. You slide your free hand up his chest, around his neck. Perhaps you rest your head on his shoulder or you each hold the other's gaze with locked eyes.

And then you begin to sway, your movements mirroring each other's. Your bodies pressed together as one. It's a moment of primordial connection but, oddly, no one seems to notice. For it's a perfectly acceptable public affair. You're dancing--and so are they.

Encounters like that used to happen frequently, once upon a time, when the slow, romantic dance was a routine part of the social scene. Similar scenes pervaded the films of the '30s and '40s that helped inspire me to become a screenwriter. The opportunity for dance in film was a writer's dream. It presented the opportunity to tell entire courtships, proposals and propositions alike, through body language. They often conveyed with an economy of motion emotions that would otherwise take pages of dialogue to tell. With the convenience of dance at a writer's fingertips, she could hurl the stars into each other's arms, and they would be powerless to protest.

All the way back in the silent film era, dance put the motion in motion pictures. In 1921's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," Rudolph Valentino seduced his leading lady with a tango that made him an instant icon. A current version was danced by Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in last year's "The Mask of Zorro." Their dance is the seduction that leads to the "sex" of their sword fight. It was dance as foreplay and no words were needed.

But the epitome of choreography as sexual encounter was embodied by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They danced in an era when film production codes mandated that, in all scenes in which couples were on a bed, at least one foot must remain on the floor. No problem. Even with all their feet on the dance floor, Astaire and Rogers' romantic duets were much steamier than most explicit sex scenes of today.

They made love in dances packed with emotion, affection, drama and--that most crucial component for sexual compatibility--comfort. They were indeed comfortable together. Wherever he led, she safely followed, and it raised them both to thrilling heights.

*

It's no wonder that throughout their 10-film screen pairing, audiences constantly clamored to see them kiss. They got their wish in Astaire and Rogers' last film for RKO, "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," and it became a media event. "They Kiss!" screamed the billboards and tabloids. It was the "Garbo Talks" of its time. But true connoisseurs of film dance knew that they had had their first on-screen kiss years earlier--in dance.

The 1934 gem "The Gay Divorcee" is notable for many things. It contained Astaire and Rogers' first starring roles together. It won the first best song Oscar with its big production of "The Continental." It featured an unknown contract player named Betty Grable singing a novelty number and started a craze for the then-rare Venetian blinds for which we are all still paying the price.

But most of all, it had Fred and Ginger dancing to Cole Porter's exquisitely sensuous ballad "Night and Day" (ineligible for Academy Award consideration as it was written for Astaire's Broadway hit "Gay Divorce," on which this film was loosely based). In it, Astaire pursues Rogers to a gazebo where he ardently sings to her, seducing her to stay. Then, after cornering her with an inviting combination, he pulls her into the dance that establishes them as the ultimate romantic dance team of all time.

At one point in the dance, he attempts to envelop her for a "kiss," but she rebuffs him slowly with the heel of her hand to his chin. The dance "slap" sends him reeling across the shiny floor. (Fred and Ginger always had shiny floors.) Undaunted, he strolls to her again, but this time only takes her hand and the dance continues, growing in closeness and speed as he swirls and lifts her, finally sweeping her over to an ottoman, where he unravels her down to rest.

The choreographic climax reached, Astaire then steps back, brushing his hands in that satisfied, mission-accomplished way. But Rogers just stares up at him, her eyes all afterglow. She can't speak, and neither can we.

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