How Did Fred Astaire Help Debbie Reynolds Learn to Dance?

After the spooky mother-daughter passing of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher last week, the Internet is aglow with clips of one or the other or both. Focusing on one great scene, the “Good Morning" song from Singin' in the Rain, one might assume that Reynolds was as experienced a dancer as the formidable Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor.

But no. In 1951, when Debbie Reynolds was chosen to star with Gene Kelly in MGM's Singin' in the Rain, she was 19 and had almost no experience dancing or singing. Kelly, understandably, was furious. But Louis B. Mayer had made the decision and that was that.

Reynolds was given three months to “learn to dance." Three teachers would alternate giving her private lessons. “I was dancing eight hours a day, nonstop," she writes in her memoir, which is excerpted in Reading Dancing, the wonderful anthology edited by Robert Gottlieb. She was so frustrated that she threw her tap shoes at the mirror, shattering it. She would spend all her studio time holding back tears. And then…“One day I was lying under the piano sobbing when I heard a voice ask, 'Why are you crying?'" She vented her frustration: “I feel like I'm going to die, it's so hard. I can't…I can't…"

The voice gently calmed her down. She looked up and saw Fred Astaire, standing next to the piano, with concern on his face. He told her that he gets frustrated and upset too, and invited her to watch a rehearsal with Hermes Pan while they prepared for Royal Wedding. She saw how hard he worked and left the studio feeling less alone.

And of course, in the final movie, she miraculously keeps up with Kelly and O'Connor—and adds her own effervescence. Take a look at her in the happy-go-lucky “Good Morning" number. She's quick, effortless and bubbling with joy and camaraderie.

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Photo by Ema Peter, Courtesy University of Southern California, Glorya Kaufman School of Dance

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July 2021