The Poetry of Skirts

March 17, 2012

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In 1889 and again in 1891, the London Gaiety Girls descended on Philadelphia. They were the girls of the chorus line from London’s Gaiety Theatre – polite, genteel, well-bred young ladies. They introduced Philadelphians to a novelty dance originated by one of their members, Miss Kate Vaughn; see photo right. Kate had costumed herself in a long, black, accordion-pleated skirt which she swirled about as she danced around the stage, creating with it images of voluminous  silken butterflies, flowers and serpentine forms. Audiences were enthralled. “Skirt dancing” didn’t require years of ballet training and impeccable technique, it only needed a few dozen yards of silk, a lithe figure and some feminine gracefulness.

Within a few years Miss Vaughn had spawned hundreds of disciples, variations and imitations in England and America, including Letty Lind, Mable Clark, Chrissie Sheridan, Chicago’s Annabelle Moore and Philadelphia’s own Bessie Clayton.

In 1892, Lottie Collins, left, appearing at the Walnut Street Theatre, brought the house down by adding a little bit of the naughtiness of the  can-can, as she did her high-kicking rendition of the skirt dance to the immensely popular tune “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay!” Depending on the venue, the skirt dance could supply enough artistry to satisfy the ladies and enough glimpses of leg to satisfy the men in the audience.

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From about 1890 to 1910, skirt dancing was synonymous with dancing that was modern and artistic.  It captured both the spirit of the healthy, athletic, “New Woman,” and the aesthetics of the blossoming Art Nouveau movement, which celebrated the curving, sinuous lines found in nature; see William H. Bradley’s 1894 cover for the Chapbook entitled “The Skirt Dance,” below, right.

Soon dance masters in Philadelphia were teaching skirt dancing to every female in their classes between the ages of 5 and 45. Since it required more charm and gracefulness than technique, skirt dancing often showed up at recitals and soirées at the  homes of the social set all around the city. (The New York Times reported that a craze for skirt dancing even appeared among the pupils of a private boys’ school – Columbia University – until it was stopped by the officials of the college on the ground that “the exhibitions are not manly. There is something distinctly effeminate in the spectacle of a boy in girl’s clothing, talking and acting like a girl.”)

Here, the debutante who once entertained guests with tearful ballads warbled at the piano now displayed her terpsichorean skills in a parlor version of the skirt dance. The Philadelphia Inquirer had this to say:

“The muscles of the skirt dancer are so symmetrically developed that there is no touch of ungainliness about the physical form. The unattractive lumps that are painfully visible in the legs of the pirouetting French danseuse are replaced by the long slim lines that bend as gracefully as a reed.

The plump woman must bow to her slim sister’s superiority in this profession, as every teacher of the art will confess . . . her preferable weight is 96 pounds.”

This was, perhaps, the beginning of the 20th century American obsession with the slim, athletic woman and the death knell for the Victorian idealization of the hourglass figure.

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In 1891, Illinois born actress Loie Fuller appeared in a bit part in a vaudeville melodrama called “Quack, M.D.” In it, she portrayed a character who performed a skirt dance while under hypnosis. The play was a mediocre flop, but Loie was a hit. She soon found herself drawn more to dance than to acting. She began experimenting with costume design for her “Serpentine Dance,” using hundreds of yards of gauzy silk for her skirts and manipulating them with long bamboo wands, left.  She also created innovative lighting designs, bathing herself with electric lights, brightly  colored with gels and luminescent salts. Art Nouveau glassmakers were known to consult her about colors and dyes. Her stage craft innovations and effects, using as many as eight lighting technicians, multiple mirrors and projections, were so creative that they were featured in an 1895 issue of Scientific American; see illustration, right.  An article in Cosmopolitan Magazine entitled “The Poetry of Skirts” remarked:

The blackness of the night, the brilliancy of noon, the fluttering of the leaves in the forest, the undulation of the grass on the prairie, the yellow waves of a field of wheat, the tossing surf of the rocky coast, the gleam and glister of the frost on the deadened turf, the sweep of the blowing, blustering, billowing snow – all can be portrayed.”

Fuller found her most responsive audiences in Paris, who called her “La Loïe” and she became the first American expatriate dancer. She returned to the U.S. on  tour many times, however, performing to adoring crowds in Philadelphia’s Walnut Theatre and Chestnut Street Opera House.

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Fuller did something entirely new; she created a dance form that involved her entire body; she was entirely transformed into an abstract, evocative swirl of color and light. The effect was “unique, ethereal and delicious.” Before Ruth St. Denis and Isidora Duncan, whom she introduced to Parisian audiences, she abandoned corsets, danced in bare feet and trained a company of women dancers in her style. She lived openly as a lesbian in Paris for decades, continuing as a pioneer in both dance and technology. She proved that other types of dance than classical ballet could have an intense emotional impact and be perceived as serious art.  Her integration of music, movement, lighting and costume influenced theatre for years after her death.  Fuller had opened the door to 20th century modern dance.

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The beautifully hand colored silent film “Danse Serpentine,” below, was made in 1896 at the Lumière Brothers studio in France. The identity of the dancer on the stage is unknown, but she comes closer to capturing the style of Fuller than some of the dancers filmed by the American Edison studio around the same time.

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● “Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life,” Loie Fuller, 1913

● “The Poetry of Skirts,” Cosmopolitan, April, 1900

● “The Skirt Dance,” Scientific American, June, 1896

● “Skirt Dancing and Its Charms,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 3, 1895

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March being Women’s History Month, during the next few weeks I’ll highlight Philadelphia women in dance. History tends to ignore the influence of dance on popular culture and, in doing so, often keeps hidden the inspiring stories of daring, creative women.

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Throughout the 19th century, ballets in America most often served as diverting, if lightweight,  additions to opera and theatre. The eye-pleasing color and motion of  these “incidental dances”  relieved the often static staging of serious operas and plays; both the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera maintained a corps of dancers. In the complementary world of vaudeville and popular music houses, elaborately costumed dances were usually part of a kaleidoscopic program that might include songs, magic acts, trained dogs, pantomimes and clowns. There were exceptions, like Philadelphia’s own Mary Ann Lee and Augusta Maywood (more on them next time), but the ballet dancer, daring to expose her shapely limbs in “fleshings,” spangles and short skirts,  was generally seen as something closer to chorus girl than to ethereal fairy. In short, the “ballet-girl” was something no better than her wicked sister, the actress. The Daily Evening Bulletin described this scene from a ballet presented at the American Theatre in 1867:

“The dancers are dressed in an extreme ballet costumes, the majority of them are wearing the shortest possible skirts, with their extemities clothed in flesh colored tights . . .  The dance is perhaps no worse than many others of the same character that are given at other places of amusement, and yet it will scarcely be denied that its chief attraction was its lascivious character, and that the theatre was crowded nightly by men, who came her for the extreme purpose of seeing this dance, and the women who engaged in it”

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The person who did the most to publicize ballet and create new audiences in the early 20th century was without a doubt Anna Pavlova. It was for the frail-looking Pavlova that Michel Fokine created the solo The Dying Swan, the role with which she would become most closely associated. In an era before air travel, it was estimated that Pavlova logged over 400,000 miles while touring the globe. She first appeared in Philadelphia with the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets in 1910 to a house nearly filled by a curious public.  The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that “this form of entertainment possesses pleasurable possibilities which had not before been adequately realized in this vicinity . . . it did prove once more that the dance is entitled to be admitted to the company of the fine arts.” Indeed, Pavlova was to return to Philadelphia many times in the teens. Her face appeared on Wanamaker Department Store ads and, over eighteen weeks in 1915, The Evening Public Ledger published a series of  illustrated articles in which “Pavlowa, peerless dancer” would instruct Ledger readers  in her versions of the waltz, the onestep and the polka. The incomparable Pavlova had shrewdly used the mania for ragtime ballroom dancing to promote her company and classical ballet, widening her audiences and her appeal.

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Around the same time that Pavlova began appearing on Philadelphia stages, West Philadelphian Catherine Littlefield began studying at her mother Caroline’s dance school. Later, she studied and performed in New York, then in Europe with the Paris Opera. Returning home to Philadelphia, she began choreographing and dancing for the Philadelphia Civic Opera, of which her mother was ballet director, and the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company. Soon, she was teaching at the family’s Littlefield School of Ballet at 1815 Ludlow St., near Rittenhouse Square. From that school, in 1935, grew the Littlefield Ballet which quickly became the Philadelphia Ballet. Mother Caroline accompanied classes on piano, sister Dorothie was ballet mistress and brother Carl was enlisted to dance with the company.  (See Catherine rehearsing the Philadelphia Ballet in the Ludlow St. studio, right.) The New York Times wrote of the new company in December of 1935:

“With no fanfare whatever, but considerable promise of success, a new ballet organization has slipped into the American field with Philadelphia at its centre and Catherine Littlefield as its director. Though it came into official existence no longer ago than Oct. 25 with a modest suburban performance, it is already worthy of attention for several reasons. In the first place, it is a healthy step in the direction of breaking down the centralization of all dance activity in New York . . . In the second place, Miss Littlefield’s procedure is eminently practical, devoid of all pretension and Barnumism, and based on the good old fashioned principal of making haste slowly.  . . At present the repertoire consists of three pieces composed by Miss Littlefield with a very definite end in view. They have been designed to make an appeal to audiences which may never have seen any kind of dance before, and at the same time to be in every way up to the best standards of dance.”

Appealing to a wide audience was just what Littlefield did. The Company performed where they could find an engagement – in high schools, women’s clubs and athletic associations.  The company was fresh, young and full of enthusiasm. They performed pieces set to classical European music choreographed for them by Littlefield, such as Bolero to music by Ravel, Viennese Waltz to Strauss melodies and a full length Sleeping Beauty. However, they also performed American themed pieces like Barn Dance, which popularized American rural themes before Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo and Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (see photo, below); The Rising Sun, an historical piece marking the 150th anniversary of the Pennsylvania constitution and Cafe Society, a spoof of the nightclub scene. The company performed to acclaim in New York, and later with the Chicago City Opera. In 1937, Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet became the first American company to tour Europe.

In the early 1940s Littlefield lost too many men to the war draft  to maintain a performing company – she had always stressed the importance of strong, athletic male dancers. She spent the rest of the decade choreographing ice shows and making significant contributions to musical theatre. Littlefield crackled with energy yet was calmy focused; a contemporary commented, “She was dry ice–fiery and cool.” Cancer ended her life in 1951.

The short career of Philadelphia dancer, teacher, choreographer and director Catherine Littlefield, as well as the fact that she was a woman artistic director in what had been a man’s game, only make her accomplishments more extraordinary. Like Pavlova, she widened the audience for dance with her commitment, high technical standards and personal vision. An amazing woman,  Littlefield’s story is a significant, if forgotten,  chapter in the history of 20th century American dance.

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