Skirt dancing was made famous by Kate Vaughan 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.
Letty Lind's Skirt Dance, sepia photograph, late 19th century
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.
Skirt Dancing in 1892, Pall Mall Budget (publisher), magazine, April 1892
Letty Lind's Skirt Dance, photography by W. and D. Downey Company, postcard, late 19th century
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.
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, Charles Sheard and Company (publisher), mass-produced colour lithographic print, about 1891
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.'
Article on skirt dancing, The Daily Graphic (publisher), newspaper cutting, 14 April 1892
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.