Anglo-American Couple Who Epitomized The Atmosphere Of The 1910s
Today, the Castles are as unfamiliar as the popular, but funnily-named dances that permeated 20th century American culture, such as the Bunny Hug and the Grizzly Bear. However, from the mid-1900s until the outbreak of World War One, western societies - and American society in particular - were swept into a dance craze that liberated it from the restrained and proper movements which characterized ballroom dance from the 1700s on. At the heart of the craze was a smart Anglo-American couple who epitomized the fizzing, rambunctious atmosphere of the 1910s - Vernon and Irene Castle. Through these dances and songs, the Castles, as well as other equally talented performers and composers, paved the way in loosening societies' relations between the sexes.
When 31-year-old Scott Joplin penned his music, there was little to suspect his syncopated rhythms would spark a music and dance craze which swept aside the light, airy classical music, sedate polkas and cotillions of the 19th century. Ragtime music existed prior to Joplin's compositions, through natural rhythms associated with the cakewalk. Originating under the antebellum, the cakewalk was created by black slaves as a means of mocking Southern aristocracy's dances and manners. Unaware of the dance's satirical roots, white plantation owners and their friends and family would prompt the slaves to perform the dance, during which the master's wife would gift the most talented "walkers" with a piece of cake or candy.
When minstrels became a popular act on the vaudeville circuit, the cakewalk made the leap from black culture to vaudeville and then Broadway. This usually involved actors of both sexes, black and white, blackening their faces and whitening their lips. These minstrel actors, in blackface, performed "coon dances" and sang "coon songs" in broad "slave dialect" in a way that stereotyped black Americans as lazy and ignorant. Ironically, the cakewalk became the performance of white entertainers in blackface who imitated a black dance created to lampoon whites. Nevertheless, the cakewalk became a national phenomenon and many black Americans participated in cakewalk competitions. Many of the best "walkers" competed at the National Cakewalk Jubilee in New York City, among other similar competitions, where the winners had the opportunity to win luxurious prizes.
The cakewalk also took high society by storm through the sheer popularity of Bert Williams and George Walker. The minstrel duo of Williams and Walker dominated vaudeville of the 1890s, and their popularity was such that Williams became one of the first black actors to perform on Broadway, performing comic dialogues, song-and-dance numbers, skits and humorous songs. Williams and Walker also performed the cakewalk on stage in 1896. Walker's wife, the former Aida Reed, an established singer and dancer herself, became their leading lady and choreographer. She was soon crowned "The Queen of the Cakewalk" and was inundated with invitations from society matrons to perform and teach the dance.
From the "coon songs" accompanying the cakewalk, ragtime was born. Music scholars suggest the origins of ragtime point to the joining of the syncopated ragtime rhythms with the march, made popular by John Phillip Sousa's military two-steps. Wherever ragtime originated, it was instantly popular the moment it was introduced to the general public at the Chicago's World Fair in 1893. It wasn't long before a few enterprising composers capitalized on the sensation the music evoked and the first ragtime in print was William Krell's Mississippi Rag in 1897, followed by Tom Turpin's Harlem Rag, which became the first instrumental ragtime publication by a black composer.
Ragtime's most characteristic element is its syncopated rhythm. When Scott Joplin was asked about the name of the genre, he responded, "because it has such a ragged movement. It suggests something like that." The second of six children, Joplin showed an ear for music at an early age. His parents scrimped and saved to provide the precocious youngster with a piano and lessons. It was his early music instructor, a German named Julius Weiss, who imbued Joplin with a love of classical music that fueled his later desire to compose "classical" ragtime tunes.
As an adult, Joplin's social and musical life was connected with Sedalia, Missouri's two black men's social clubs - the Black 400 Club and the Maple Leaf Club. There, he played the piano for the various dances the clubs sponsored, as well as sang and did other general entertaining. Despite there being more than a hundred rags in print by 1899, Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" caught the public's attention. He found initial success with the sale of two songs, "Please Say You Will" and "A Picture of Her Face", but it was in ragtime that his legacy endured. Joplin sold the "Maple Leaf Rag" to John Stark & Son, who provided him with an advance, a one- cent royalty on each copy sold, and 10 free copies for his own use. It promptly sold over one million copies, and it is estimated that Joplin earned more than 300 dollars a year from royalties.
With the astounding success of his first rag, Joplin moved his family to St Louis, where he composed other well-known classics, "The Entertainer", "Elite Syncopations", "March Majestic" and "Ragtime Dance". With the music in place, the emergence of dances to pair with the rollicking, jittery music soon followed.
In the 1880s, the waltz was considered a wicked, scandalous dance, especially in America. Unlike the waltz, most social dances at the time were group-based. Women and men were kept at arms length while they stomped and glided through turns and steps called out by a cotillion leader. The waltz challenged restraint, men and women were to touch, hold hands, and sway just inches away from one another. And since the waltz was a two-person dance that isolated couples from the rest of the dancers, it allowed them to have eyes only for one another. Etiquette books of the period admonished any unnecessary contact between the genders while dancing, scolding the "hand placed at the waist" instead of "below the shoulder blades", and instructing that a woman's "left hand" should rest "lightly on her partner's arm".
Indeed, the well-bred gentleman and lady of society were hemmed in by many other rules and manners of conduct, even to the point of outlining a proper conversation. Naturally, the debut of ragtime and its accompanying dances were viewed with relief by anxious youths and belles of major American cities.
From the 1890s to about 1910, the two-step shared center stage with the waltz; a sign of what was to come. With the success of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag", a march-like bass line and melodic syncopation, along with the 2/4 and 4/4 rhythm, simplified dancing, and Americans became dance mad. Suddenly, dances long-popular in the South and the West Coast rapidly infiltrated the drawing rooms and lobster palaces of the East Coast. These dances, known as "animal dances" for their animal-derived names, like Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, Monkey Glide, Chicken Scratch, Bunny Hug and Kangaroo Dip, permitted what was denounced as "lingering close contact".
Moralists were outraged, parents were horrified and pulpits shook with thunder from rousing sermons denouncing ragtime as "a wave of vulgar, filthy and suggestive music" that "has inundated the land". Condemnation of the dances hopped the Atlantic Ocean, where, in an anonymous letter to a newspaper, a British noblewoman described the Boston two-step as "the beginning of evil", and the Countess of Stafford agreed, saying "the so-called dances can only be compared to the wild, abandoned frenzies of some ancient Bacchantic revel". The hysteria reached ridiculous levels, with German aristocrats challenging young men to duels for asking their daughters to Turkey Trot or Bunny Hug, and arrests being made of dancers during raids on dance-halls. It reached the point where newly-elected President Woodrow Wilson cancelled his inaugural ball fearing the "indulgence in the turkey trot, the bunny hug, and other ragtime dances" would "thus provoke what might amount to a national scandal".
Such publications as 1892's "From the Ballroom to Hell", 1904's "The Immorality of Modern Dances", 1912's "From Dance Hall to White Slavery", "The World's Greatest Tragedy", and various pamphlets written by Dr. R. A. Adams, including "Fighting the Ragtime Devil", filled newsstands and bookstores. In 1910, Harper's Weekly published an article entitled "Where Is Your Daughter This Afternoon?"-most likely "trotting" to hell.
The changes these dances evoked were readily apparent with the relaxation of interaction between the sexes and the gradual shift away from the middle-aged towards the youth. Just as the steadily rising hemlines and shrinking silhouette of women's clothing that required a slender and athletic build were being embraced by the younger set, so too, were the dances. Vigorous and boisterous, dances such as the Turkey Trot, a fast, marching one- step, arms pumping at the side, with occasional arm-flappings emulating a crazed turkey, seemed tailored to energetic young people.
Unlike European societies, Americans prized a woman's ability to move about the country without much attention. But by the turn of the century, young men and women indulged in activities and pursuits without parental interaction. Whether it was cycling, or playing tennis or trips in a new automobile, opportunities for unaccompanied courtship were plenty. The emergence of ragtime dances and the public venues in which they took place only exacerbated the fact. Unable to staunch the tide of "immorality", members of the upper-class and disapproving clergymen felt helpless to the demands of the public for ragtime. To their rescue came Vernon and Irene Castle.
First and foremost, the Castles made the tango and other animal dances "aristocratic". They were popular and respectable because they were married, young and well-bred-particularly Vernon, who was of British ancestry. They cautioned potential ragtimers in their book of instruction: "Do not wriggle the shoulders. Do not shake the hips. Do not twist the body. Do not hop. Glide instead. Drop the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hug. These dances are ugly, ungraceful and out of fashion."
The Castles fell into acting, as well as fame, entirely by accident. Born in Norwich, England, Vernon Castle followed his actress sister to New York, where the easy-going young man promptly made a name for himself as a vaudevillian in the productions of theatre magnate, Lew Fields. In New Rochelle, New York, Irene Castle, nee Foote, nursed ambitions as a theatre dancer. When Irene and Vernon met, it wasn't love at first sight. Tenacious to a fault, Irene initially pursued an acquaintance with Vernon for his success on Broadway, but soon they fell in love and despite reservations from her family and Lew Fields, they married in the spring of 1911.
On a trip to Paris for a honeymoon, the couple performed what at first seemed an unsuccessful show, particularly when the first half of Vernon and Irene's revue failed to elicit any positive response. In the second act though, they broke out in a "wildly energetic and very American dance routine to the tune of "Alexander's Ragtime Band", that caused the Parisians to go wild. The dance itself was hastily improvised, and was a rough mixture of the Texas Tommy and the Grizzly Bear, that had Irene "in the air, more often than on the ground". Overnight, the Castles became a hit as dancers, and night after night, they danced in the famous Parisian Cafe de Paris, where customers tipped them generously to perform the unfamiliar animal dances.
Returning to America flush with success and cash, the Castles conquered New York, where they demanded of Louis Martin, manager of the lobster palace Cafe de l'Opera, $300 a night. He paid. Nightly, the spotlight fell on the slim, fashionable Castles as they twirled about the small dance floor. And, just as with their fame and profession before, they created their famous "Castle Walk" by accident, when their exhaustion caused them to go up on the beat, instead of coming down. This dance increased the number of private lessons taught by tenfold. This would lead them into the arms of a high society searching for the next hot dance, as the animal dances began to wane in popularity. They soon became protegees of socialites Elizabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe. The exposure these ladies gave them created even more prestige, with society matrons, such as Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, endorsing the Castles and hiring their services for parties.
Besides setting new dance trends, the Castles, Irene in particular, set new fashion trends. Initially financially-strapped, Irene danced in slim, simple frocks, since that was all she could afford. When Elsie de Wolfe stepped into their lives, she introduced her to designer Lucille (Lady Duff-Gordon). Irene emerged in long, sleek gowns with low necklines and slit skirts, making other women appear overdressed. To complement this pared-down style of dress was Irene's short, bobbed hair. She had gotten into serious trouble as a teenager when she impulsively chopped off her locks while at boarding school, encouraging a similar revolt against long hair amongst her classmates. This in turn, sparked such outrage from parents and instructors that she ran away in fright. Now, as the famous Irene Castle, her "Castle Bob", adorned with the "Castle Band", a pearl necklace Irene placed on her head to keep her hair tamed or the Dutch lace cap purchased on her honeymoon, there was no censure from her inspiration of other women.
James Reese Europe soon joined the Castles, creating the ragtime music that has endured longer than their dances. Born in Mobile, Alabama, yet raised in Washington D.C., Europe developed his musical talent at an early age. He entered show business as musical director for all-black shows before conducting and composing captured his interest. In 1910, Europe helped found the Clef Club, a combination booking agency, "union" and social club, and by the time he crossed paths with the Castles, he was a star of New York City's musical circles. He rose to fame when the Clef Club Orchestra played at Carnegie Hall in 1912, 1913 and again in 1914. So popular was the Clef Club Orchestra, that they played for President Wilson's daughter, for the Governor of Virginia, at Boston's Copley Hall and the Manhattan Casino. When Europe's Society Orchestra signed with Victor Records in 1913, they became the first-known black orchestra to obtain a US recording contract. When Europe and the Castles collaborated, the combination of Europe's masterful music and the Castles' chic dances created a sensation.
The Castles, with Europe and his orchestra in tow, staged their next coup in 1913, when they opened their dance studio, Castle House. A modest, two-story brick house at 26 E. 46th Street, here society could take dance lessons from clean-cut, demure dance instructors hired for their apparent respectability. In the evening, from 4 PM to 6:30 PM, there was general dancing, at which the Castles occasionally appeared. Later, Vernon was persuaded to open a nightclub, which they christened the "Sans Souci". Unfortunately, the club fell apart as soon as it opened. Poor management and cheating waiters caused Sans Souci's quick demise. Four months after its debut, it was closed by the fire department. Castle House lasted until 1915, but in the meantime, Irene and Vernon expanded their "brand" into the growing medium of the cinema, filming their dances to the delight of eager cinema-goers.
When the Great War broke out in August 1914, the Castles continued to tour the vaudeville circuit and dance in the chicest nightclubs. Vernon, however, as a British citizen, itched to enter combat and by 1915, he was resolved to enlist. The end of the year saw him enlist in the 84th Royal Canadian Flying Corps Squadron and begin flying lessons. He passed his flying test February of 1916, and was granted a license that same month. He saw action in France as an aerial photographer on reconnaissance, and later, as a bomber. During Vernon's time in Europe, Irene embarked on a solo career, making a splash in silent films ranging from mysteries to romances. They were never to dance together again.
In 1917, it is said ragtime died, with jazz gaining pre-eminence and new dances, such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom, slowly traveling the same trajectory of the Turkey Trot and the Bunny Hug some 20 years before. The following year, Vernon was stationed in Texas to train fliers. Mid-February, he crashed his plane, perishing in the field hospital twenty minutes after the fall. He was thirty years old.
After her husband's death, Irene spent her remaining years as an actress, remarried and became a mother. She had no patience for the dances of the ensuing years, and jumped at the opportunity to recreate the frantic years of her success as one half of the Castles, when in 1939, Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures acquired the rights to produce a movie based on Irene and Vernon's life. The movie would feature that generation's "Vernon and Irene Castle", though Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire would become more famous. The movie was aptly titled, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Irene was brought on as "costume designer, technical advisor, and writer", and helped shape the movie of her life with Vernon. Though the finicky Irene moderately approved of the movie, and of Fred Astaire, she and Ginger Rogers would have their share of disagreements, most especially when Roger's refused to cut or color her hair. The Castles and their famous dances though, are best known through this somewhat accurate movie, which preserves a slice of long-forgotten American life that, nevertheless, parallels the rise and fall of dance fads.
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