Dance in Popular Theatre
Hester Booth (1680–1773)
Hester Booth was just 16 years old when she made her debut at Drury Lane theatre on 28 February 1706. Her speciality was the Harlequin dance and she was so popular that she had her picture painted on snuffbox lids. Harlequin, a character from the Italian commedia dell’arte was a hugely popular figure, a comic, clever servant who could manipulate a situation to his (or her) advantage. Harlequins wore costumes with brightly coloured patches that later became diamond shaped.
Hester Booth also took part in one of the most significant ballets of her day, creating the role of Venus in John Weaver’s 'The Loves of Mars and Venus', at Drury Lane in 1717. This was the first ‘ballet d’action’, in which mimed passages of ‘conversation’ alternated with danced episodes.
Hester Booth was not just a dancer but also a singer and a talented actress. Another role for which she was well known was Cordelia, the youngest daughter in Shakespeare’s play 'King Lear'.
In this picture Hester is portrayed as a female Harlequin. Usually Harlequin was a male servant but female Harlequins appear in France from about 1695. In her hand is the slap stick. This was Harlequin’s trademark magic bat, used for beating people in a comedy chase. It was also used to magically transform the scenery by hitting hinged flaps. ‘Slapstick’ comedy, the physical, buffooning type of humour, takes its name from Harlequin’s bat.
Nancy Dawson (1728–67)
Nancy Dawson did not appear on the stage until she was 29 years old. She is remembered for just one famous dance – the hornpipe – which she performed in 'The Beggar’s Opera' at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1759. Her hornpipe dancing has been immortalised by a ballad, sung to the tune of Here we Go Round the Mulberry Bush.
Of all the girls in our town,
The black, the fair, the brown,
Who dance and prance it up and down,
There’s none like Nancy Dawson.
Her easy mien, her step so neat,
She foots, she trips, she looks so sweet,
Her every motion is complete,
I die for Nancy Dawson.
See how the Op’ra takes a run,
Exceeding Hamlet, Lear or Lun,
Though in it there would be no fun,
Was’t not for Nancy Dawson.
Though Garrick he had had his day,
And forc’d the town his laws t’obey,
Now Johnny Rich is come in play,
With help of Nancy Dawson.
Dance in music halls and variety
By the 1890s there was a huge increase in the popularity of social and folk dance forms. Many working class dances were taken up by members of high society and dancing lessons became fashionable. Society ladies began to learn folk dances such as jigs, hornpipes, Spanish dance and step dancing.
Many different types of dance evolved on the stages of popular theatres in the 19th century. In the 1870s and 1880s skirt dancing was the fashion. Tap dancing and soft shoe routines were made popular by the black musical 'In Dahomey' and other American musicals to visit London.
For a time dancers dressed as Dutch girls and clog dances were popular, as was the adagio act. This was a mix of dance and acrobatics, where a girl was lifted, thrown or swung by her partners in an exhilarating but dangerous routine.
The term ‘eccentric dance’ on a music hall programme hid a wide range of styles. One emphasised the dancers’ legs, high kicking or out of control, often referred to as ‘legmania’.In the 20th century Max Wall was known for his out of control lanky legs. Wilson, Keppel and Betty, also qualified as eccentric dancers. They were two decrepit, extremely thin men who performed a spoof sand dance, in vaguely Egyptian or Oriental style, wearing what appeared to be short nightshirts with tea towel headdresses or a fez.
When they performed in Berlin in the 1930s, wearing shorter skirts, Goebbels complained that their bare legs were undermining the morals of Nazi youth. There were several Bettys (the original, her daughter and her daughter) who always had to appear glamorous, but Wilson and Keppel became more and more decrepit.
Palace Theatre of Varieties
This programme from the Palace Theatre of Varieties for 19 March 1894 features a typical music hall programme, including singers, dancers, dramatic sketches, performing collies, an impersonator, acrobats and tableaux vivants. In tableaux vivants performers dressed and posed as 'living pictures', usually some well-known painting by a famous artist. Similar acts were 'living statuary' or 'poses plastiques', where the performers dressed in flesh-coloured all-over tights and stood in athletic or heroic poses. The programme cover features a dancer in a typical dress and pose. Several music hall programmes featured dancers on the covers as they were attractive and could be drawn in a variety of poses to give the impression of life and energy. Another part of the cover shows the pride of the theatre - its foyer and the smoking rooms, which, from the space devoted to them, were obviously a great attraction for audiences.
The Tivoli programme
The Tivoli Music Hall was built in the late 1880s on the site of the Tivoli Beer Garden and Restaurant. Its prime location on the Strand had long been an area of entertainment. In the 1600s it housed the New Exchange, where the shops and promenade played host to fashionable London society for a while, before the area fell into disrepute as a haunt of vice.
By the Tivoli's opening night on 24 May 1890 though, the Strand was once again a fashionable promenade. The new music hall was a 'handsome building', 'spacious and well planned and of elegant appearance'. The programme you see here is typical of an evening's mixed entertainment, as was the first night when The Era reported that Mlle Bertoto's 'transformation dances put the spectators in excellent humour', but the Sisters Leyton went down less well at the end of the bill. They danced well but 'will please more with their singing when they have learnt to sing harmoniously'.
Adagio dancing was a cross between dancing and acrobatics which involved lots of lifts and flips and required extreme flexibility. Usually the act was made up of one woman and one or more men, although there were occasional acts made up of two women. Variety shows on cruise ships are one of the few places where traditional adagio acts can still be seen today. Although adagio dancing is not popular any more, many of the moves survive in ice-skating and have even been incorporated into ballet. Similar throws and flips featured in American wartime dances such as jive and jitterbug and some Latin dances.
Topsy Sinden, cabinet card sepia photograph, Guy Little Theatrical Photographs, London, 19th century. Museum no. S.136:459-2007
Elsie's Step Toe Dancing on a Snare Drum
Music hall featured hundreds of novelty dance turns such as this one, which gave popular dance an extra twist. Step toe dancing involved tapping out the rhythm, as in traditional folk step dancing, but wearing point shoes, like those worn in ballet to help the dancer rise on tip-toe. These shoes sometimes had metal plates on the flat 'point', like taps on tap shoes, to increase the rhythmic sound.
Wilson, Keppel and Betty
Wilson, Keppel and Betty formed the greatest eccentric dance act of all time. Wilson and Keppel were two doleful, gangling, moustachioed, skinny-legged and obviously English men. They wore parodies of Eastern dress, usually a fez and a short nightshirt, revealing their scrawny legs. The third member of the team was the glamorous Betty. To the popular music ‘Egyptian Ballet’ by Luigini, they performed a sand dance based on poses familiar from Egyptian tomb art, with Betty as the central seductress. Their complete seriousness added to the hilarity. The dance only became funnier as Wilson and Keppel got older and more emaciated. Music hall spawned many comedy dance acts but no other has become part of the general public consciousness like Wilson, Keppel and Betty. A comedian or performer only has to turn in profile and raise a hand in ‘Egyptian’ style for audiences to know the reference. They even turn up (or their costumes do) as Gulli, Gulli and Betti in Terry Pratchett’s Jingo – once the fez and nightshirt were out of the bag, no reader needed the parodied name to get the reference.
Ballet at the Alhambra and Empire theatres
After the Romantic era, ballet was replaced by opera as the fashionable entertainment, and singer Jenny Lind became the new star. Ballet found a home in the music halls.
At the Alhambra and Empire theatres, Italian ballerinas appeared as guest performers. Male dancers did not feature on the stage and male roles were performed by women dressed as men. This was known as appearing en travestie.
By the end of the 19th century, ballet was a popular draw at the rival Alhambra and Empire theatres which stood on adjoining sides of Leicester Square, in London. These were full-scale ballets, and both theatres spent a great deal of money on bringing in famous dancers from abroad. Some of the ballets had topical and contemporary themes. Our Crown was choreographed for King Edward’s coronation and others had light-hearted themes such as Seaside and High Jinks.
The Alhambra stood on the east side of Leicester Square, a grand Moorish-style building with two minarets and a huge fountain under the central dome. Originally built in 1854 to display scientific discoveries, the Alhambra became a music hall in 1860. It boasted appearances by some of the most famous performers of the day: the tightrope walker Blondin and Jules Léotard with his new invention, the flying trapeze.
Like its rival the Empire, it became famous for its spectacular ballets and the prostitutes, who plied for custom in the auditorium. The playwright George Bernard Shaw described the Alhambra music hall as 'a huge circular theatre, lighted by small lamps arranged in continuous lines around the auditorium ... The atmosphere was hot, and flavoured with gas, cigar smoke and effervescing liquors.'
At the Empire, the ballets were overseen by the designer Wilhelm. Wilhelm also devised many of the story lines for his shows and was concerned that all the individual elements of a production were brought together in a stylistic whole.
The great star at the Empire was the Danish-born Adeline Genée. After Genée left the Empire she was succeeded by the distinguished Russian dancer Lydia Kyasht. In turn she was succeeded by Phyllis Bedells, the first English ballet dancer of the 20th century to become a star at a major London theatre.
Ballet at the Empire and Alhambra declined during World War I (1914–18), and both theatres were eventually demolished. The last dancers to appear at the Empire were Fred Astaire and his sister Adèle.
Adeline Genée in High Jinks at the Empire Theatre
For 12 years from 1897, Adeline Genée starred in the ballets at the Empire Theatre in London. Ballet had not been popular since the decline of the Romantic Ballet in the 1850s, but Genée restored it to public favour. A superb dancer, pretty, blonde and charming, she was idolised by the public. As the first president of the Royal Academy of Dance she later helped establish ballet in Britain.
Genée's hunting solo in the ballet High Jinks was one of her most popular dances. She danced both hunter and hunted, depicting the exhilaration of the rider and the nimbleness of the pursued fox. The designer Wilhelm meticulously recreated a riding habit for her, but Genée objected to the accurate but uncomfortable woollen breeches. She got her way and had them changed to silk.
Costume worn by Adeline Genée as Madame Prevost in La Danse
Costume worn by Adeline Genée (1878 -1970) as Madame Prevost in the ballet La Danse, designed by Wilhelm, Paris, France, 1912
Dame Adeline Genée DBE (1878–1970)
Adeline Genée’s style of dance suited the light-hearted nature of music hall ballet. She made her first appearance in London at the Empire Theatre in 1897 and was its star for ten years.
Trained by her uncle in Denmark, she danced in his touring ballet company as a child. When she came to London she had already danced as guest ballerina at the opera houses in Munich and Berlin. It is as Swanilda in 'Coppélia' that she is best remembered. Her style and technique were said to have been near perfection, and she was responsible for ballet becoming very popular in London. Diaghilev saw her dance in 1911, and was so impressed that he offered her a contract to dance with his company, but she declined.
In 1906 Adeline Genée requested that the Empire Theatre put on 'Coppelia' so that she could dance the role of Swanilda. As in the original French production, Franz was played by a girl dressed as a boy. Although London audiences loved ballet, there was great prejudice against male dancers – the public would only tolerate them in character roles, like Dr Coppélius.
In America Genée danced in musical spectaculars – ballet in its own right was unknown there at the time. She also toured Australia. In both countries she generated huge public interest in ballet. Adeline retired as a dancer in 1917. In 1920 she was active in setting up what is now the Royal Academy of Dance, to establish proper ballet teaching in Britain. She retired as president in 1954 and was succeeded by Margot Fonteyn, but remained on the committee till she died at the age of 92 in 1970.
Skirt dancing was made famous by Kate Vaughan in the 1880s. The dance was based on the graceful manipulation of the skirts, which could contain up to 12 metres of fabric.
Skirt dancing was thought to be refined, tasteful and tantalizing. It was said that the motion of skirts rippled like the froth on the sea (such were the voluminous underskirts that Victorian ladies wore). Because it was less specialised and more lady-like than many dance forms, society ladies were able to learn the skirt dance as drawing room entertainment.
Skirt dancing was developed by individual dancers each adding their own style to the dance. When Lettie Lind danced in America in 1888 the critics were surprised to see a dancer who did not show her legs and breasts. In the 1890s skirt dancing became wilder. There was a craze for the Can-Can and some skirt dancers, like Katie Seymour, incorporated high kicks into their routine. Some people thought this was a vulgar version of the graceful skirt dance. Lottie Collins devised her own cross between skirt dancing and the Can-Can in her performance of her hit song, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.
The manipulation of yards of fabric was developed by later performers, most notably Loie Fuller. She extended her arms using long wooden wands to which the fabric was fixed. When she moved the wands the lighting changed colour over the flowing fabric, creating beautiful shapes, that were immortalised as figurines and lamps by Art Nouveau designers. Other dancers used electric lighting within the costumes. Marie Leyton danced against a Black Background so that the illuminations in her costume could be seen. This was called the Electrical Serpent Dance.
Letty Lind's Skirt Dance
Letty Lind was born Letitia Rudge in Birmingham in 1862. She was one of five sisters, all of whom became well known performers. She first appeared on stage when she was about five, then appeared as a dancer in pantomime, and toured from the age of 12. She became famous as a skirt dancer of great charm and grace. Though technically her singing voice was limited, she used it with great skill and she later became a popular musical comedy performer. Skirt dancing, Lind explained, was an alternative school of dance to ballet, with its own distinctive steps and styles. Most important were the control and movement of the full silk skirts with their lace frills. Skirt dancing's advantage over ballet was that people could do it at home and it became popular among all social classes.
Letty Lind's Skirt Dance
Letty Lind was one of the few skirt dancers who had the technique of a ballet dancer. She started as a child performer, and had long experience in all branches of light entertainment before making her name as a dancer. One anecdote recounts that she only became a dancer by accident. When she was given a song to sing in one of her plays, she asked if she could do a dance instead because her singing voice was so weak. However, in the 1890s she became a star of the new musical comedy, where charm was more important than vocal strength.
Lottie Collins 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay'
Music hall performer Lottie Collins became a household name thanks to the song 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay' and the dance that went with it. She would begin the song slowly and quietly, and then at the end of the first verse she would leave a long pause, put one hand on her hip and launch into the chorus and a wild can-can dance. Her high kicks, accompanied by a big drum and 'an excited foam of lace petticoat' delighted or shocked audiences, depending on their sensibilities. The playwright George Bernard Shaw went to see her perform in 1892 while still in his 20s, and described how she did three low kicks on the 'Ta-ra-ra' and then a high kick on the 'boom'. He added admiringly: 'Miss Collins appears to be in fine athletic training.'
Newspaper article on skirt dancing
The article from the newspaper Daily Graphic in 1892 is another report on the display given by Miss Garratt's students. By the 1890s, girls were learning dances that developed grace and poise, including a version of the popular stage act, skirt dancing. The graceful manipulation of the skirts could be learned by everyone, but the real skill, as with all dancing, was to put meaning and emotion into the movements. Although the girls were learning social, not stage, dancing, ballet terms were used to describe many of the movements, such as coupée (a quick transfer of weight from one foot to the other), battement (a beating step) and glissade (a sliding step). Miss Garratt had been a pupil of the great ballerina Marie Taglioni who taught social dancing in London in the 1870s. Taglioni would have approved of the long skirts worn by the girls in the illustration. She had a particular dislike of the shorter ballet tutu that evolved in the late 19th century.
The Tiller Girls
John Tiller was born in Blackpool in 1854 and learnt to clog dance as a boy. He later started a theatre school in Manchester. By 1895 he managed several troupes of dancers. Each troupe was slightly different but all of them performed the same style of formation dancing in which the girls were grouped according to height. Each troupe had a distinct personality or theme. There was the Fairy Troupe, Tiller’s Troubadours, the Forget-me-nots, Tiller’s Mascots and the Rainbow Troupe. Dressed in similar costumes they all performed high kicks, cartwheels and the splits as part of their routines.
Tiller’s empire grew rapidly, such was the demand for his girls. He soon had two residential schools and almost 300 girls in training, mostly young, pretty and conscientious girls from poor backgrounds. In addition to training girls to perform in the Tiller Troupes he supplied individual dancers to troupes in Paris and Berlin. In 1912 the Palace Troupe appeared before the King and Queen at the first Royal Variety Performance.
The Tiller Girls appeared in variety shows all over Britain in the 20th century. Even when variety went into decline, they were a regular feature of the televised stage show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Betty Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons, was a Tiller Girl.
The Tiller Girls act in the 1960s
For over 50 years, there was hardly a country in the world without a Tiller Girls troupe. This photograph shows the discipline and precision for which they were famous. Although they danced in many different styles, they are primarily remembered for their high kicking precision routines. From the first troupe formed by John Tiller in Manchester in 1890 grew dozens of groups appearing throughout the world.
Each group was composed of girls who were perfectly matched for height and weight. Individuality was not encouraged. The important thing was for a girl to sink her personality into that of the group. This was difficult for the dancers, many of whom longed to express their own personalities. It was the discipline and group ethic that proved the act's downfall. In the 1970s new dance groups, like The Young Generation and Pan's People gave more freedom to individuals within the group and the day of the Tiller Girls was over.
The Tiller Girls about 1890
This photograph from the 1890s is of one of the earliest troupes of Tiller Girls. John Tiller first started a dance troupe in Manchester in 1890. The Four Sunbeams were four ten year old little girls, and from this small beginning at the King's Theatre grew one of the most professional chorus and dance ensembles in this country. John Tiller started out as a successful cotton merchant but when he fell on hard times, he decided to try to make a living in the theatre, his great passion. He noticed that the chorus, however beautiful, often spoiled the effect of its numbers through lack of discipline. John Tiller and his wife Jenny opened a residential school which trained girls to dance with the precision of a corps de ballet. By the turn of the century all the major musical comedy managers were employing 'Tiller Girls', and his pupils worked everywhere from Paris to New York.
The Tiller Girls in Ever Green
This cartoon published in the Glasgow Evening Times in 1930 features the highspots of the new Rodgers and Hart musical Ever Green. The Tiller Girls appeared as ‘Vanities’ in the revue ‘Eternal Youth’, which closed the first act of the musical. By the 1930s, The Tiller Girls were appearing throughout the world. They appeared in Hollywood films and at the Folies Bergère in Paris.
In Britain they danced in variety shows, pantomimes and summer shows. Each group was composed of girls who were perfectly matched for height and weight. Individuality was not encouraged. The important thing was for a girl to sink her personality into that of the group. This was difficult for the dancers, many of whom longed to express their own personalities. At one time, a girl could not be married and stay a Tiller Girl. As some girls were as young as 16, they were usually closely chaperoned, especially when they were working abroad.
Tiller Girls stockings advert
By the 1920s John Tiller girls were appearing throughout the world. They had become part of the public consciousness and many people, seeing an advertisement with a line-up of precision chorus girls like this, would have thought 'Tiller Girls'. Jack Buchanan sometimes employed Tiller Girls in his musicals. Stockings at this time were made of silk or lisle, a heavier yarn usually worn for every day. Nylon stockings did not become generally available in England until the 1950s.