Ballroom dancing in 1912-13 was very different from the arched-back, sometimes cheesy smiles and sequins that we see today. It was WILD. There was no one version of the foxtrot – or even the waltz. The origins of the fotxtrot are debatable but it might have developed from the signature dance of a famous vaudeville performer of the day, Harry Fox. While it doesn’t really matter if he did or if he didn’t, was DOES matter is that people – all sorts of people – were inventing new dances every single day. Henry and Anna in SYNCOPATION are caught up in the whirlwind of invention and construction that gave birth to the world’s first skyscraper city, New York arising around them. They create their own dances throughout the play – and we watch them do it – from the comical “Dowager’s Walk” to the strangely sexy “Model T” to the powerful “Radical Rag” based on Henry’s march on a factory for better working conditions.
Socially, people were looking for a way to dance to the hot ragtime that filled theatres, ballrooms, blared from Victrolas and got under their skin. But, there were no “white” dances for ragtime. The cakewalk and other dances associated with African Americans could be adapted but, at the same time, were lampooned in minstrel shows - not considered a socially acceptable source by many. The middle class wanted dances that didn’t inhibit them from enjoying the music (and their partner) but could be done in a socially acceptable way. Enter the beginning of modern ballroom dancing – and specifically, Vernon and Irene Castle.
“The Castles” were some of the first media superstars and their success glimmers in SYNCOPATION. Their fame came from formalising the foxtrot, the grizzly bear, the turkey trot, the maxixe and even the tango into dance steps that most anyone can learn and apply directly to their favourite dance number without being uncouth. Hotel Ballrooms, dance contests, vaudeville all flourished with live bands and “society orchestras” playing the latest hot ragtime – music that even the most reserved person can find difficult to resist shifting in one’s chair or tapping the table to these effervescent rhythms.
While the Castles were starting to tame that “demon ragtime”, even they employed one the great early jazz musicians and bands led by the African American James Reese Europe as their demonstration orchestra at Castles House. SYNCOPATION includes two of Europe’s compositions. Castles House was a multi-studio ballroom school and salon. Here, royalty, dignitaries, politicians, socialites and businessmen came to learn ballroom. Irene Castle became a fashion icon with women and girls around America adopting her latest hair bob, the new colour of her dress, the new style of her hats. She even started a clothing line due to her popularity.
For more information about the Castles, check your library for a copy of Modern Dancing written (complete with diagrams and photos) by Vernon and Irene Castle. Also, see the Hollywood movie musical called THE STORY OF VERNON and IRENE CASTLE starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Irene Castle personally supervised the authenticity of the film.