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The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, 1939

Fred and Ginger are dancing Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. Above, they are in Semi-closed Position, lunged to the side.

(click on any thumbnail for a larger view)

Butterfly
Handshake
Open
Shadow
Semi-closed
Reverse Semi

A sort of Butterfly

Shadow, partially wrapped
Half Open
Dancing The Last Waltz

The real Vernon and Irene Castle—

This photo is taken from Modern Dancing by Vernon and Irene Castle, originally published in 1914 by The World Syndicate Co., N.Y.

Neither had had much dance training. Vernon was a slapstick comic who had used some eccentric dance steps that showed off his thin and gangling physique. Irene was a hopeful actress. But they married and formed a dance partnership in 1911, at a time when ragtime dances, such as the Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, Monkey Glide, and worse were joyfully embraced by half the population and condemned as unsightly and immoral by the other half.

The Castles first danced together professionally in Paris in 1912. They did comic and acrobatic dances, such as the new American dance, the Grizzly Bear, in a revue at the Cafe de Paris. They danced in supper clubs and in the homes of aristocrats and nobility. They popularized the one step, hesitation waltz, tango, foxtrot, and the Castle Walk (pictured at right and a step taken from the comic Leon Errol). Most conspicuously, they eliminated the ragtime wiggles, shakes, arm pumping, and acrobatic dips, and achieved a smooth and stylish elegance that effectively sold these new steps and rhythms, wherever they went.

They obtained an agent, Elizabeth Marbury, and became extremely successful. In 1913, they performed on Broadway in The Sunshine Girl. During the summer, they went back to Paris and first danced to James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra and his version of Too Much Mustard. They opened Castle House in New York, a dance club and a dance school.

In 1914, they introduced the Maxixe, wrote their book, Modern Dancing, appeared in a film, Mr. and Mrs Castle Before the Camera, and performed in a huge American tour. Arthur Murray took lessons at Castle House, taught there for a time, and of course went on to great things. Irene bobbed her hair; women across the nation bobbed their hair.

In 1915, they performed on Broadway in Watch Your Step, songs by Irving Berlin, and made another film, The Whirl Of Life. In December, Vernon enlisted in the 84th Royal Canadian Flying Corps Squadron.

In 1916, Vernon went to England and then to the WWI front lines. He made many bombing runs and shot down his first German plane in November. He received the French Croix de Guerre. Irene continued in Watch Your Step with other partners and acted in a film melodrama, Patria. Castle House faded in popularity.

In 1917, Vernon crashed his plane in March and again in April. He was invalided out, back to the America as a flying instructor, first in Ontario and then in Texas. Irene acted in Sylvia of the Secret Service and a total of 18 movies through 1922. Scott Joplin died, Ragtime faded, Jazz was born.

In February, 1918, Vernon died in an airplane accident.So their professional life extended for only a few years, through the First World War. But they were extremely influential in the dramatic growth of ballroom dancing in the United States at that time.

"No one else has ever given exactly that sense of being freely perfect, of moving without effort and without will, in more that accord, in absolute identity with music…. There were no steps, no tricks, no stunts. There was only dancing and it was all that one ever dreamed of flight." —Gilbert Seldes, theater critic.

A few "danceable" tunes of the time:

  • Two Much Mustard, Cecil Macklin, 1911, played by James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra
  • Everybody Two-Step, Wallie Herzer, 1912, played by Mike Bernard
  • King Chanticlear, Nat Ayer, 1911, modern performance by Monte Suffern, including a little Ma, She's Makin' Eyes At Me?

Here, the Castles are demonstrating a nice Shadow Position, Vernon a bit behind and to the left of Irene, trail feet free.
Flick
Tango Embrace
A tango step called The Dip
PointDancing the Maxixe


Sources



dingbat




If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC . Past DRDC Educational Articles archived here.

Aditional articles and dance helps by
Sandi & Dan Finch
Richard Lamberty
Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid (see Notebook)



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