Remembering Ginger

DANCE numbers in movies may be largely a thing of the past, but in the mind's eye of two generations of Americans, a blissful vision lingers.

It is of Fred Astaire, in top hat, white tie, and tails; and his eternal partner, Ginger Rogers, in high heels and flowing gown. Together they leap and glide across gleaming dance floors in breathtaking routines that for many still define glamor and romance.

To a Depression-era audience, they offered joy, escape, and an exhilarating glimpse of the good life.

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Miss Rogers, who died Tuesday, brought irresistable grace and vitality to this magic cinematic partnership of the 1930s.

Her personal virtuosity was never out of sync -- even for a beat -- with that of her brilliant partner. As it was observed, she did everything Astaire did, except backward -- and in high heels.

Yet the two were totally distinct performers. In her 10 films with Astaire -- including classics like ''Flying Down to Rio,'' ''Shall We Dance?'' and ''Swing Time'' -- Rogers maintained a balance of power. Her individuality -- intelligent and stylishly assertive -- was all but palpable. She came over on screen as a clearly independent woman with huge personal appeal.

After 1939, the dazzling movie couple went their separate ways -- she to an impressive career as an actress in many major films and on Broadway, winning an Oscar for her performance in ''Kitty Foyle'' (1940).

In December 1992 she was among those recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Such achievements are aspects of her career sometimes obscured by her image as half of the famous film couple.

And perhaps understandably: As she executed those challenging dance steps, her mirth and exuberance brought audiences -- both men and women -- right up there on the screen with her.

To a wide circle of friends, she was known for her warmth and vibrancy, for her supportiveness to young talent, and for a lifelong commitment to her religion, Christian Science.

To audiences who saw her dance in movie houses, or to those today who catch her films on TV or home video, she remains the embodiment of elusive feminine appeal, still lighting up the screen as she responds to Astaire's memorable courtship dances.

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