Week 375: “Cheek to Cheek” by Fred Astaire

Dancing as a social event has completely changed over the past century.

It’s still something we do as a way to have fun, meet people, and respond physically (if often awkwardly) to our favourite music. But the real decline has been in couples dancing.

A century ago, attending a dance hall meant knowing specific steps, and being able to execute them with a partner. It was the primary way of breaking the ice with a potential mate; the language of courtship. Not knowing some basic steps would have been socially crippling.

Movie musicals further boosted dancing’s popularity in the mid-20th century, adding a layer of romanticism that captured the imaginations of couples everywhere. And no movie couple inspired more dancing feet than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Watching them navigate choreography in movies like Top Hat is like watching the human equivalent of cursive writing. They change speeds effortlessly, move in and out of sync like sine waves, and seem to follow each other in some kind of beautiful, symbiotic orbit.

Today, most couples dance once: on their wedding day. And even then, it’s often not a practiced routine, but a four-minute swaying hug that the couple’s family and friends stand around and pretend to enjoy watching.

I’m not about to suggest that the decline in couples dancing over the past few generations is an indicator of wider social collapse. There are probably as many happy couples today as there were in 1922. And as many miserable ones.

All I’m saying is that dancing with the person you love is teamwork, communication, and a physical intimacy all in one. It might deserve more time in your relationship than just one day.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way he glides way into his upper vocal range on “so that I can hardly speak.”

2. The way the lyrics drop out at 1:55, giving Fred and Ginger a chance to circumnavigate the floor.

3. The overall rhythm of this version is much more floaty than the (possibly better-known) Ella Fitzgerald version, whose bouncy horn stabs have a definite charm to them. But as much as I like that version, the original Astaire rendition is so smooth, you can almost feel your partner’s soft cheek against your own.

Recommended listening activity:

Polishing your dancing shoes.

Buy it here.