Meet Fred Astaire’s “Secret Weapon”

The dance world has always loved Fred Astaire but not everyone knows about his “secret weapon”; dancer and choreographer Hermes Pan.

Since many dance teachers spend a great deal of their time in the pursuit of excelling in the art of choreography, I thought I would highlight this often overlooked genius!

Hermes Pan was born Hermes Panagiotopoulos in 1910 in Memphis, Tennessee.

After the death of his father, who was the Greek Consul, his mother moved Hermes and his sister, Vasso to the poorest section of New York were he learned to tap dance on the streets from the local black children.

They eventually moved west to Los Angeles and Pan appeared as a chorus boy in the Marx brothers broadway production of Animal Crackers in 1928.

Pan was working on the set of set of Flying Down to Rio (1933) as the assistant to the dance director when he met Fred Astaire.  His suggestions for “The Carioca” number began a lifelong collaboration and friendship between the two.

Astaire called Pan his “idea man” and collaborated on 17 of his films and 3 of his television specials.  He also served as Astaire’s rehearsal partner while obsessively fine tuning his routines.

Hal Borne, Astaire’s arranger and rehearsal pianist, said, ”Hermes was terribly instrumental in everything that Fred did. He was really Fred’s alter ego. His ideas for choreography were exactly what Fred wanted.”

His taps were sometimes the ones you hear as Ginger Roger’s as they were added post-production and it is rumored that he did the work in high heels so that the sound was authentic.  Hermes taught Ginger the dance steps prior to rehearsing with Astaire.

He also physically resembled Fred and served as a double for him in rehearsal sequences for Astaire’s films.

When not working alongside Fred Astaire he was in high demand as a choreographer for many other Hollywood musicals.  The most famous of these where Lovely To Look At and Kiss Me Kate.

Pan received the Academy Award in 1937 for the RKO Astaire picture A Damsel in Distress  and is listed as one of the top 20 choreographers of all time. He won an Emmy for the 1958 TV special An Evening with Fred Astaire.

 You can see Pan as the clarinetist during the routine “I Ain’t Hep To That Step But I’ll Dig It” in Second Chorus (1940).   He danced with Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami (1941) and Coney Island (1943) and with Rita Hayworth in My Gal Sal (1942)
Quoting Musical Theater Heritage:   In a 1980 interview with the editors of Conversations With Choreographers, Hermes Pan disregarded the role of research in his process, “I don’t like to have to do much research… I’d rather do something from my own imagination.” In contrast to choreographers such as Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, and Donald Saddler who utilized research and dramaturgy as the basis for their choreographic styles, Pan relied most strongly on music, imagination, and visual imagery in his approach to creating choreography.

Although never formally trained as a musician, Pan exhibited a strong kinesthetic and emotional connection to music. He worked closely with Sombrero composer Sol Chaplin to ensure that the choreographic and musical components worked together in harmony. The Purification Dance is an excellent example of the symbiotic nature of music and movement; in the piece, both dancer and orchestra move as a unified entity. Each chaîné is accompanied by a swirl in the music, each dart, battement, rise, and fall is expressed with remarkable eloquence in the orchestra. This dance is a rare example of the sublime collaboration possible between choreographer and composer.

From a review of the book: Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire, “Pan emerges as a man in full, an artist inseparable from his works. He was a choreographer deeply interested in his dancers’ personalities, and his dances became his way of embracing and understanding the outside world.”

Hermes Pan died on September 19, 1990 in Beverly Hills.

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Here is a bit of You Tube video of Hermes Pan and Betty Grable:

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