There was the following sentence in June 29 issue of Time magazine titled “Roberts Rules: What the health care decision means for the country” dealing with Chief Justice of Supreme Court, John Roberts’ ruling to go forward with so-called "Obamacare."

“The fact that Roberts had to squirm like Houdini to reach middle ground only enhanced the bravura of the feat. As the saying goes, it’s one thing to dance like Fred Astaire, but Ginger Rogers did it backwards in high heels. Philosophical purity is easy — the blogosphere is lousy with it — while pragmatic solutions to difficult problems are as rare these days as virgins on Jersey Shore."

The sentence is full of metaphoric (and nostalgic) proper nouns such as Houdini, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Jersey Shore, whose meanings are difficult for non-Americans to decipher at first glance.

I’m still not clear with what “It’s one thing to dance like Fred Astaire, but Ginger Rogers did it backwards in high heels,” exactly means in specific reference to the Chief Justice‘s rules.

I guess the author is likening Ginger Rogers’s backwards steps to Mr. Roberts’ unexpected, but critical turn in upholding the Obamacare at 4-4 split votes. If we eliminate all proper nouns from this sentence, how can we paraphrase this line?

The author says ‘As the saying goes.” Is “It’s one thing to dance like Fred Astaire, but Ginger Rogers did it backwards in high heels,” a popular expression?

I know Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as a septuagenarian, but do today’s youth remember them and use this phrase in their conversation by saying ‘as the saying goes’?

  • You don't mean "Roberts Rules". You mean "Roberts' Rulings". The title of the original article used the former, but that was an (informed) pun. Aug 29, 2012 at 22:54
  • @Mark Beadles.Yes I meant John Roberts’ ruling. I simply stealed ‘Robert's Rules’ from the headline of the article in question, which I suspect have confounded some of you with Robert's Rules of Order. I spelt out it as “Chief Justice of Supreme Court, John Roberts’ ruling to go forward with so-called "Obamacare" in the beggining of this question. Aug 30, 2012 at 4:45
  • I understand, but I wasn't sure if you did. The title as it stands is misleading. If anyone is looking through the questions, they may think the question is about something it's not. Aug 30, 2012 at 11:24
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    @Mark Beadles. Though I simply tried to be faithful to the wording that the author picked up for the catch, it’s may be confusing. I made it consistent to the wording in the text of the question. Thank for your comment. Aug 30, 2012 at 17:52

3 Answers 3


Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were famous dancers in, umm, the 1940s I think.

Fred Astaire was a very skillful dancer, performing many complex and difficult moves on the dance floor.

But humorist Bob Thaves once noted, "Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards ... and in high heels!" That is, when Ginger Rogers danced with Fred Astaire, she had to make all the same complex and difficult moves he did, but on top of that, as the woman she was dancing backwards while he was moving forwards, plus she was wearing high heels while he was wearing flat shoes, which surely made it more difficult still. So the point is, he was saying that Ginger Rogers's job was even more difficult than Fred Astaire's. (As I don't know anything about dancing, I have no idea if this is true. But that was the point of the quote.)

I don't think the original author was trying to say that Mr Roberts went backwards, but rather simply that the task he was trying to accomplish was very difficult -- like dancing backwards.

So without the allusions, the writer was trying to say something like, "This was a very difficult and tricky task. It's one thing to do X in general; it's even harder to do X under these circumstances."

I doubt the average young American would recognize this allusion. I'm 53 years old and I think it's fortuitous that I happened to recognize it. I suspect most Americans under 40 have no idea who Fred Astaire was, never mind recognizing the quote.

Houdini is better remembered, so yeah, I think most Americans would at least know that he was a renowned escape artist.

On the flip side, I'm only vaguely aware that Jersey Shore is some TV show popular today. I know nothing about it. But maybe it's well known to young Americans.

Now that you mention it, that was quite a set of cultural allusions to include in one brief quote. I wonder if that was deliberate or if it was basically a coincidence.

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    +1 for rooting out that Bob Thaves reference. Personally, I think the Time reporter/columnist/hack is being somewhat pretentious. I'm not American, so I can't say for sure, but it seems likely that very few readers would be familiar with both the Astaire/Rogers allusion and Jersey Shore. The writer is self-indulgently showing off his own range of cultural knowledge, rather than creatively using cultural references to improve the quality of his communication. Aug 29, 2012 at 21:19
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    I agree with FumbleFingers completely. It's an awful writing style that forces the reader to do a huge amount of work to try to figure out what you're saying only to wonder if he's actually found out what you were trying to say or what he could synthesize himself. So many interpretations are possible, the reader will have to just pick the one that he already knows is right, so you're not doing anything for him. Aug 29, 2012 at 22:05
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    Interesting observations, and while they may be on the mark (the writer may be pretentious, but he is creative), also anti-intellectual and typical of today's uneducated and illiterate generations, who know only what they see on TV (there are still many Astaire/Rogers movies on US TV) and are uninterested in cultural, social, or any other kind of history older than their iPods. I've never seen Jersey Shore, but I could look it up if I cared about Snooki. Condemning the knowledgeable few because the many are ignorant is lame. Make the world safe for babies & know-nothings? Each to their own.
    – user21497
    Aug 29, 2012 at 22:06
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    I think the level of eruditeness needed to understand the quote is exaggerated. I expect most people can get the gist just fine without knowing exactly who Houdini, Ginger Rogers, or Fred Astaire are. Yes, to understand at a very complete level is probably beyond younger Time readers, but on the other hand, I've asked people that use expressions about Houdini what or who "Houdini" is and often found out they don't actually know. I've never watched Jersey Shore but understood the quote quite easily. Aug 29, 2012 at 22:35
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    As a footnote, the Astaire/Rogers comment is not all that uncommon in American culture. I don't run across it every day, but I have seen it on bumper stickers and t-shirts from time to time. Allusions to that quote have also made their way into pop culture, such as this album title and this 2010 book.
    – J.R.
    Aug 30, 2012 at 0:44

It is a reference to this comic strip: http://www.frankandernest.com/search/index.php?kw=astaire+backwards

The quotation means that women have to work harder than men to get the same job. But even when they work harder than men, they don't receive the same rewards as men, such as recognition, pay, power, and job promotions.

Notice the movie poster in the comic doesn't mention Ginger Rogers. She is not getting the same advertising promotion as Fred Astaire, even though she and Fred Astaire were co-stars and dance partners in many famous movies (presumably including the movie poster in the comic strip).

As a woman, she had to learn the same dance moves as Fred Astaire, but "backwards," then she performed the dances while wearing high heels, which is more difficult than what the man has to do. Yet she did not get as much fame or credit (or pay) as he did.

Personally, I am impressed that a male comic writer published this in 1982. The quotation has become a popular reference in favor of women's rights (feminism).

The reader may apply this quotation more generally to all less-privileged groups. For example, people other than white men have to work harder for less; or women of color have to work harder than white women, etc.


I think the metaphor is meant to suggest that the Obama administration, Democrats or liberals are akin to Fred Astaire in defending and promoting "Obamacare". It is complex and difficult, just like his dance routines.

However, Justice Roberts is generally viewed as a staunch conservative and generally thought to be more aligned with Republican positions. As such, he had to take on the role of Ginger Rogers. He had to pull off the same routine overall, but in doing so, he had to work much harder to both salvage the legislation and maintain his ideological and logical principles. In effect, he is "dancing backwards in high heels". (It has also been pointed out that Ms. Rogers was often wearing about 30 pounds of beaded and sequined floor length dress as well.)

It is likely that the analogy will not resonate deeply with the Gen X and Y clans. However, Baby Boomers know Fred and Ginger from replays of their movies on TV, and the remainder of their parents surely have a vivid connection to the imagery. Boomers and older are groups that have a very high interest in health care and health care reform. They may be paying more attention to Roberts' analysis than most.

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