But he blew minds when he danced on the ceiling in that same movie, to the tune "You're All The World To Me", written by "Brigadoon" lyricist Alan Jay Lerner.
Like all great illusions, it relies on our grounding in science. Gravity works, people don't dance on the ceiling. Audiences raved over it.
35 years later, "Royal Wedding" Director Stanley Donen recreated the effect for Lionel Richie in the 1986 music video for “Dancing on the Ceiling”. The great thing about the Lionel Richie 'making of' clip below is it talks about things we may have known but were undocumented about what Donen and Astaire did. They didn't record the process at the time, Astaire was just always pushing boundaries:
Recently, the "Dancing With The Stars" TV show did something they often do and something they don't; they indirectly endorsed physics, they do that a lot, because some of the things people do on the show defy believability - but they also abandoned the long, full-stage shots to do something that Fred Astaire once did; let people dance on the ceiling.
They don't know it but they introduced old-school techniques to a new generation of viewers:
Well, I don't regularly watch "Dancing With The Stars" but I do check out Physics Buzz and they posted the "Dancing With The Stars" video in an article about it. I loved the homage so I looked at some deconstructions of what Astaire did and here is the thing that strikes me the most: A rotating room can only do so much. Some of that 1951 footage, even watching it as a square room inside a rotating cage, just proves again that he is defying some gravity all by himself.
Cameramen are the unsung heroes of movies and television, of course. Robert Planck was strapped to a camera and an ironing board so he could rotate as the room did.
The folks at Physics Buzz have a lot more examples using the same basic concept, like "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Inception" and many more.
Dancing on the Ceiling - Physics Central Physics Buzz blog
Royal Wedding by Frank Miller, TCM
Astaire Unwound - Galen Fott
(1) Fred Astaire with a hat rack: