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Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire

by Roxane Orgill; Stéphane Jorisch, illus.

Before Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and his sister Adele. From the respective ages of five and seven, the young Astaires danced together for more than 20 years. Orgill and Jorisch tell the true story of their rise from starving vaudeville performers to the twin toasts of London.

Orgill, who lives in New Jersey, has a background as a biographer and music writer; Jorisch, a Governor General’s Award winner, is from Montreal. They too form a class act in this handsome, stylish book. Jorisch’s spectacular paintings evoke an atmosphere and an era, while extra touches like the dancing-note endpapers add whimsical charm. Orgill provides intriguing social history with vivid factual nuggets: for example, Fred and Adele earned $350 a week at a time when movies cost a nickel. An appendix gives great suggestions for further reading, listening, and viewing.

Where the book stumbles is in its lack of intimacy. There are no close-ups in either text or images, and so it is hard for the reader (or young listener) to engage emotionally with either of the main characters. The rags-to-riches plot lacks suspense. We learn that Fred and Adele were happy to be applauded, sad to be flops. But did they laugh together? Get cross and cranky? Did they miss their father while they were on the road, or resent their ambitious mother?

Who, exactly, is the book’s intended audience? Surely the clue is in Fred’s epigraph: “Hard work is great fun.” Footwork is for young performers, with its message being an elegant variation on the old joke: “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!”