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.
Palace Theatre of Varieties programme, 1894
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 Music Hall printed programme, London, England, 1908
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 dancers, black and white photograph, United Kingdom, early 20th century
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, sepia photograph, late 19th century
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, black and white photograph, October 1939
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.