Saturday, March 30, 2013

Vernon and Irene Castle


Vernon and Irene Castle embodied Ragtime Dance. They weren't the only dancers of the time; they weren't the best dance teachers; and they didn't last long, but they really captured the spirit of the age.

They were in the public eye for about 8 years, from 1911 to 1918.

Vernon Castle was born William Vernon Blyth in England, took on a classy sounding stage name, moved to New York and was working as an actor. Irene Foot, the daughter of a middle class family, was a wannabe actress when the two of them met. They married in 1911 and signed on with a show that left for a stint in Europe.

When the show closed unexpectedly early, the Castles found jobs as dancers in nightclubs. They were an immediate hit. When they returned to America they continued to get jobs as performing dancers. They were very popular with their audience. They were young, slender, elegant and athletic and they were clearly in love.

They were also comfortable with up-to-date technology. There are more photographs, movies, newspaper and magazine articles about them than any other social dance couple. They lived big and drove fast and spent money as quickly as they could.

Irene is a bit reminiscent of an F. Scott Fitzgerald heroine without being noticeably bi-polar. She was ambitious but lazy, genial but self-centered. Irene's memoirs make Vernon look like a carefree spendthrift but I think he was also a bit of a workaholic.

As I said, they weren't the only performing social dancers. One thing that enabled them to get the jump on the competition was their manager Elizabeth Marbury. Marbury was an established literary and theatrical agent, and had friends throughout New York society. Marbury was the mastermind behind the Castles' dance clubs, their patronesses, publicity, and even Irene's clothes. Another advantage they had was their orchestra, led by James Reese Europe. Europe wrote some of the best dance music of the time, and his orchestra was truly fabulous.
Vernon and Irene Castle 1913

The reign of the Castles was short. They were hugely popular in 1914 and 1915, then Vernon left  in 1916 to join the Royal Air Corps and fight in the First World War. He made it safely home, but was killed in an accident while training American pilots in early 1918.





Saturday, March 9, 2013

Dancing Shoes for the Civil War Period


Slippers owned by Empress Eugenie, Bowles Museum, 1862

If our goal is to dance as they did during the mid-nineteenth century, we need to wear the clothes and underpinnings that were worn at the time. We also need the right shoes. We really need the right shoes, because the wrong shoes can make it impossible to perform the steps the way they were done in period.

Our fallback shoes are ballet flats for women and dance oxfords for men. The dances require shoes that are lightweight, stay on the foot and do not stick to the floor. These shoes are easily available, fulfill the main requirements, and are unobtrusive.

Good modern alternatives
Let's look at some original shoes to see what we're aiming for. These men's shoes show that oxford style shoes existed in the period.

Men's Shoes, 1848

Men's Shoes, 1800-50

I haven't seen extant evening shoes for men, but here is a fashion plate showing some. It looks like a man's pump with a dark sock, or more likely, a shoe made of two materials that mimic a pump with a lacy dark sock.

 Gentleman's Magazine, January, 1856



There are a lot of extant women's evening shoes. The mid-century is when heels begin to come back into fashion, so you have the choice of wearing small heels (1/2 to 3/4 inch) or no heels at all. This is also the time when American women go from wearing only light weight slippers for day and evening, to wearing boots for day and slippers for evening. Slippers for dancing should either be tight fitting enough to not slip off, or should have little ribbons to cross over the instep and tie around the ankle.

First, let's look at some shoes that are not ideal for the ballroom. Boots in delicate fabrics can be worn in elegant contexts, but are not really formal enough for the ballroom.
Boudoir slippers, made of leather with fancy embroidery and insets, were only worn in private. They were something a woman could slip on when she was relaxing. Even though they look beautiful to our eyes, they were considered too comfy and casual to ever show up in a ballroom.

White satin boots, MFA, 1850               Boudoir slippers, Bata, 1860s


Now, here are some lovely original slippers that could have been worn to dance the night away in the 1850s and 1860s.

Wedding slippers, V&A, 1854

Slippers with heels, MFA, mid-19th


Black slippers, MFA, 1845-1865
Black slippers trimmed with blue, Les Arts Decoratifs, 1850s

Pink slippers, Met, 1830-45

Green slippers, Met, 1835-45

Striped slippers, Met, 1840-49

Striped slippers, Met, 1860-1870

White slippers, Met, 1844

Black slippers, MFA, 1860

Wedding slippers, Met, 1835-45

Wedding slippers, Met, 1865














Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Masquerade vs. Fancy Dress Balls


Masquerade Ball at the Ritz Hotel, Paris Raimundo de Madrazo 1909
This painting proves that people really have a good time when they dress up in costume and dance. Look at those dancers chasing each other through the rooms and knocking over chairs!

I suppose that the title of the painting is incorrect, since no one here is wearing a mask. Strictly speaking, masquerades involve masks, fancy dress balls do not involve masks. Rudolph Radestock explains it:

There is one class of balls which forms a distinct series, and takes the form of Masquerades, Fancy Dress Balls, and Fancy Calico Balls. The first-named indicates that the persons attending such assume all kinds of grotesque imitations, so as to hide their persons and faces; in fact, make recognition almost impossible. This class of balls occurs most frequently on the Continent, and affords a great deal of amusement, and, as a rule, are highly enjoyable.

A Fancy Dress Ball permits you to assume a character of any description, or any nationality you like, but you must expose your features. In both kinds, when inscribing your engagements on your programme, you don't insert your name, but simply (if, for instance, as a masked party, you represent a bear) you might write "bear;" and if in Fancy Dress, representing a hussar, you write "hussar." It must be observed that at Masquerades the masks are taken off at twelve o'clock.

Calico Balls have been introduced, and the meaning of such simply is that your entire dress must be made of calico. Very effective costumes can be furnished by introducing or imitating a pack of cards, viz., four Queens, and four Knaves, or Kings, &c. (Rudolph Radestock. The royal ball-room guide and etiquette of the drawing-room, containing the newest and most elegant dances and a short history of dancing. London: W. Walker and Sons [pref. 1877] p. 36-37)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Brilliant Lighting in the Ballroom


Chandeliers in the ballroom, Palais Palavicini, Vienna

When you hold a ball, it is best to provide soft, but bright light. Modern people tend to think that ballrooms of the past were dim, romantic places, but remember, balls were meant to be sociable occasions.


Too high an illumination is scarcely possible, for brilliancy is the desideratum. (Edna Witherspoon, The perfect art of modern dancing. London, New York: Butterick Publishing Co., 1894, p.60)