Wydra lectures on Astaire for Dance Circle

Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer

Hollywood folklore says a studio executive for RKO Radio Pictures wrote “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” for a screen test report on Fred Astaire.

With both the report and screen test long lost, there is no way of knowing for sure whether that is actually true, but Astaire himself mentioned the report in a 1980 interview with Barbara Walters. He said the report actually read: “Can’t act. Slightly balding. Also dances.”

Either way, the Chautauqua Dance Circle will host a lecture on the slightly balding man at 3 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall.

Dance lover and CDC member Nancilee Wydra will give the lecture on the man who defined dance on the silver screen in the 1930s.

Wydra said she has never been a professional dancer, nor is she a dance critic. She is just a person who loves dance.

So when the CDC needed someone to lecture on North Carolina Dance Theatre Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s favorite non-ballet dancer, she decided to take on the challenge.

She said along the way, she found Astaire had an interesting storyline.

“I mean, he was hardly a leading man,” she said.

Astaire just didn’t look the part.

“He was not the type of guy that walked in a room and made you say, ‘OK, I better hide my girlfriend,’ ” Wydra said.

What Astaire did have was charisma, style and grace, which all came across when he acted.

“His body doesn’t encumber his movement, and I think that’s what makes him so startlingly seductive to watch,” she said.

Astaire never studied with any “greats,” Wydra said. He and his older sister Adele started dancing together when he was 5, taking lessons at a local dance school in Omaha, Neb.

The brother-sister act toured the vaudeville circuit before taking their talents to Broadway in 1917.

The partnership went on until 1932, when his sister retired from the act to marry a British nobleman, Wydra said.

Without his sister by his side, Astaire struggled, but eventually decided to give Hollywood another chance.

In 1933, Astaire landed a small role in Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford opening new opportunities. After signing a contract with RKO, he was paired up with Ginger Rogers for Flying Down to Rio, Wydra said, starting the famous partnership.

The duo became film’s favorite dance team, and Astaire’s career took off.

“By the time his big movies came out, Fred Astaire was in his late 30s, which is actually considered old for a dancer,” Wydra said.

Wydra said she greatly admires people with verve and vision.

“These are the type of people who are my heroes,” she said, “in that they do things despite convention.”