Waltz Pattern

The fourth, and last, part of the “Doing It by the Book” series takes us into the 1920s and the birth of the “Home Instruction by Mail” movement, a precursor of the many ballroom dance DVDs and YouTube videos that proliferate today.

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CJFrankIn 1919, curiously mustachioed dance instructor Charles J. Frank, left, who had previously taught from his home in Brooklyn and later in Washington D.C., opened the Inter-State Dancing Academy at 1109 Walnut Street. He offered private lessons in the newest versions of the Waltz, One-Step, Fox Trot and Peabody for 50 cents a half hour. The peppy ragtime One-Step would stay popular for a few more years, since it was perfect for the brisk rhythms of the  new jazz music. The Peabody was likewise a quick version of the Fox Trot.

By 1921, Frank had moved the studio to 1127 Chestnut Street, above the Acker Quality Shop, and renamed it “The Beacon Dance Academy.” A year later, he moved the Beacon to 1215 Walnut Street, next to the St. Francis Hotel. You can see what that section of Walnut Street looked like in that period in the photo, below, looking west toward the St. Francis.


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Frank FT Cover


Some time in early 1922, Frank had a new idea for teaching dance. He took the venerable dance instruction book one step further and began promoting a learn-at-home social dancing course, “dedicated to those who enjoy Dancing and wish to dance the New Dances more properly and gracefully, and also to those who know nothing at all about the Modern Dances.” The course was to consist of a set of four pamphlets, to be sent through the mail. The Waltz and Fox Trot instruction booklets, right,  were printed in July of 1922. A One Step booklet appeared in December of 1922. There’s no record of the fourth booklet ever having been published. We don’t know what Professor Frank charged for this course by mail, or if it was financially successful. The diagrams, using footprints marked “L” and “R,” were just complex enough to encourage the reader to come into Frank’s dance academy for further lessons and explanation (see sample diagram, below, left.)

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Double Drag

Frank was doing two things that were fairly innovative for 1922. He was using labeled footprints to show the progression and footwork of the dance and he was using the U.S. Postal Service to teach. At this same time, another American dance teacher in New York was launching a highly  successful dance course by mail that also used diagrams illustrated by labeled footprints. That teacher was Arthur Murray, below. Murray would go on to become an American ballroom dance icon, opening dance studio franchises across the country and earning millions. Charles Frank would sink into oblivion. Was Frank influenced by Murray or was Murray influenced by Frank? Did they even know about each other? Chances are, we’ll never know.

A Murray

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The Beacon Academy moved back to 1109 Walnut Street about 1935 and stayed there through the 1970s, as you can see by this photo, below, taken in 1971. The second floor of that building is office space today, and the first floor houses a Subway sandwich shop and a Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Professor Frank’s old 1215 Walnut Street space continued the dance tradition into the 1980s when it was home to three gay discos: Rainbows, the Loft and the Kennel Club. There’s a parking lot there now.

Walnut 1109 1971 copy

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1922 Summer Lit Bros

By 1922, women’s dresses for street-wear and dancing were reflecting the trends that would mark the rest of the ’20s; waistlines were dropping and hemlines were rising. In this Lit Brothers ad, above, from a July, 1922 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, fashionable  hems had risen to mid-calf. (As with all illustrations on the Philadelphia Dance History Journal, click on the ad to see a larger version.) They would rise to the knee by the end of the decade.

By 1924, the shortened skirts would allow women the range of motion to do a wild and energetic dance they couldn’t possibly have done in the 1910s – the Charleston.

F for Frank


Coll feet

Dancing is to the body what reading is to the mind. – V.G., Philadelphia, 1817


HowePeople have always learned social dances in many ways. For most, watching others dance out in public and imitating their moves was the easiest and most common way; a little practice at home and they were set to go. The advent of  movies and later, of television dance shows, like “American Bandstand” in the 1950s, added another dimension to this learning model.

Some would-be dancers spent a great deal of time and money in dance studios and academies studying with professional teachers. For others, the next best thing to studying with a master was buying his or her “Learn to Dance” book; Arthur Murray made his name and fortune through the mail order home-study dance courses he promoted in the early 1920s. It’s the published dance texts and their authors that we’re going to examine here.


Wilson - 5 positionsPrinted dance manuals are our primary sources for learning about the details of dances of the past. The social hierarchy that developed during the Industrial Revolution created a need for books of rules and regulations to help navigate the complex social landscape, so these handbooks proliferated through the 1800s.

The typical nineteenth century dance manual contained a brief preface on the history of social dance, an essay on the physical and mental benefits of learning to dance, a section on dance steps and technique, example, right, a reference section on specific dances, usually organized by type, and almost always a guide to ballroom behavior and rules of etiquette. Nineteenth technological advances in printing, such as the use of steam power and the invention of the rotary press, made made these books and pamphlets cheap to produce and affordable to more people than ever.


Durang bow 1856Dance masters and mistresses wrote these books for a number of reasons. Some did it specifically for their own students, some to publicize their classes and themselves, some simply for extra income. Many stressed that their books were meant as a memory aid and were not meant to replace personal classroom instruction.

Some authors simply translated popular European manuals of the time, (Americans were still very much influenced by European fashion). Even the ones who created new works borrowed heavily, even verbatim, from other dance manual authors, sometimes acknowledging them, sometimes not. The issue of copyright and intellectual property did not become much of a problem until the twentieth century.

Hillgrove two couples


These detailed dance manuals, although primary source for the study of dances of the past, have their limitations. Above all, they are still limited verbal descriptions of complex movements and interactions. Contemporary readers would have been familiar to some extent with the dances and the ballrooms they were done in; they didn’t have to work to place them in a long-gone aesthetic and social milieu the way that we do. Most manuals were written for a specific place and social class and all of them reflect the biases and limitations of their authors. Finally, there was then, as today, a difference between the rules and ideals that dance masters were prescribing and what was actually being done in private parties, dance halls and ballrooms. Every dancer makes a dance his or her own.



Over the next few posts I’ll examine the works of several Philadelphia dance masters who published books between 1817 and 1922. I’ll discuss the format and content of the books  as well as  details of the lives of the authors and the part they played in the fabric of Philadelphia’s changing urban life.

Next: The French Connection – Victor Guillou

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Schneider, Gretchen, “Using Nineteenth Century American Social Dance Manuals,” Dance Research Journal 14/1&2 (1981-1982)

“An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals,” The Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html (Last accessed March 3, 2013).

Blacks in Europe

Philadelphia has produced so many performers who have danced around the edges of history. Many contributed in a unique way to their special field and then disappeared, underrated and unremembered. African-American dancer, choreographer, composer and film actor Louis Winston Douglas was one of those Philadelphians.

Belle Davis 1919Louis Douglas was born in Philadelphia in 1889. Very little is known of his early life, but he began his amazingly long and varied performing career in Philadelphia juggling plates and dancing.  Somehow, as a child, he joined with the beautiful black music hall performer Belle Davis, right, who performed frequently in Philadelphia at the Park Theatre on Broad Street and Keith’s on Chestnut Street.  She’d deliver her songs surrounded by three or four young boy dancers as “Belle Davis and her Pickaninnies,” below. Davis, a Chicagoan, toured Europe from about 1901 until World War I, crisscrossing the continent and returning frequently to the U.S., part of the first wave of American black performers to engage European audiences. Douglas first travelled to London at the age of 14 with Belle Davis and her troupe in 1903, although he was officially listed as being 11. He stayed with Davis for about 5 years, then joined black impresario and singer Will Garland in a song and dance act. Next, he toured the continent as a solo until the beginning of World War I. During the war he based himself in London, starring in music hall revues and making a name for himself.

Belle Davis & Pickaninnies

After the war, he teamed with dancer Fernandes “Sonny” Jones, who had been one of Belle Davis’ “pickaninnies,” as “Douglas and Jones; Syncopated Black-Faced Comedians.” In 1921, they formed an act backed up by a chorus of a dozen women dancers billed as “The Shurley Girls” and took it to the Folies-Bergères in Paris.


louis_douglasWhile in Paris, Douglas, left, became involved as choreographer and chief male dancer with an all-black musical extravaganza that white Chicagoan Caroline Dudley Reagan was mounting at the Music Hall des Champs-Élysées. The show, called “La Revue Nègre,” opened on October 2, 1925.  Although critics wrote that Douglas “created veritable events with his feet,” the production made an instant hit of his partner, the beautiful and talented Josephine Baker. Baker shocked and mesmerized Parisians with her sexy caricature of American jazz dance. Revue Négre was so successful that it travelled to Berlin, where Douglas settled for a while, becoming such a popular icon that his face was used in advertisements for German cigarettes, below.

Louis Douglas Germany


While in Germany the accomplished Douglas went on to dance and act in early German sound films. In Einbrecher, (The Burglar), a 1930 musical comedy, he appeared in several cabaret scenes, accompanied by saxaphonist Sidney Bechet’s jazz band. In the clip below, he appears first as a tap solo, then flanked by two female dancers:

Interestingly, in this clip, black and white patrons are filmed together in the cabaret, throroughly enjoying the music and the show, something that would not have happened in any film made in the U.S. at that time. In 1931, Douglas appeared in a dramatic role in Niemandsland, (No Man’s Land), a German anti-war film set during WW I. Both films had the distinction of being banned under the Nazis, Einbrecher because of its decadent American jazz, Niemansland because of its pacifism and both because they featured African-Americans in prominent roles.

Douglas made one final tour of Europe before debt drove him back to New York in 1937. In New York he worked with the legendary Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf. Louis Douglas died in New York in 1939 at the age of 51.


From 1899 until World War II, hundreds of African-American performers found full time employment in Europe. They also found fewer of the restrictions that the racist codes of American theatre and cinema had imposed on them. How they exhibited themselves onstage and how they were perceived by Europeans is a complex construct. Whether loved or hated, African-Americans and the American jazz dance and music they brought with them were rarely viewed with indifference. Louis Douglas often performed in black face and choreographed stereotypical pieces set in watermelon patches and plantations, yet somehow he transcended those stereotypes. Not everyone was pleased by those choices. The African-American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson, for instance, dismissed such performances as degrading clichés that pandered to white audiences.

Revue NegreMany Europeans, however, saw black performers through a skewed lens as somehow exemplifying primitive African energy filtered  through American modernism. German critic Ivan Goll wrote “Negroes dance with their senses, while Europeans can dance only with their minds.”  In the 20s, the racist sexuality that Europeans equated with blackness worked in the favor of African-Americans abroad and some, like Josephine Baker, used that to their advantage. She wildly gyrated onstage, clad only in a skirt of bananas, drawing both criticism and praise, at the same time slyly exaggerating and mocking the stereotypes.

Because they left America to seek fulfilling and rewarding careers in Europe, many African-American expatriate performers simply fell out of the U.S. popular spotlight and into the shadows. Unlike Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the truly amazing lives and accomplishments of performers like Louis Douglas are virtually unknown to American audiences and theatre and dance historians today.



Ivan Goll, “The Negroes are Conquering Europe,” Die literarische Welt, no. 2, January 15, 1926.

Larry Green, “Germans and African-Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange,” Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2011.

Clarence Lusane, “Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era,” Psychology Press, 2003.

William A. Shack, “Harlem in Monmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars,”  U of California Press, 2001.


A special thank you to Nick Cvetkovic from the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, who pointed me toward a publication called “African-Americans with German Connections,” available as a free download from the American Association of Teachers of German here.

I have a special fondness for Paul Colin’s explosive “Revue Nègre” poster above, a copy of which hangs over my home desk.

Ever since the 15th century, when the first dance manuals appeared to teach Italian nobles how to dance “correctly” at court, dance masters have been telling their students what and how to dance: “do point your toes,” “don’t shake your shoulders,” “do pay attention to the music,” “don’t show off,” and on and on and on. . .


By the end of the 19th century dancing in America was, in the eyes of some, in a sorry state. The intricate, European dances of mid-century–the polka, the mazurka and the waltz–were being slowly edged out by the simple twostep, a dance some referred to as the “idiot waltz,”  see sheet music cover, left. No one needed hours of study in a class led by a professional to romp the twostep. In 1879, alarmed at what they were seeing,  dance teachers from across the country formed the American Society of Professors of Dancing.  Four years later, in 1883, the National Association of Masters of Dancing was formed in Boston. In 1894 the International Masters of Dancing held their first convention in St. Louis and by 1905 there was a United Professional Teachers of Dancing.

Initially, the goals  of these associations were admirable. They aimed to standardize the steps that were taught across the country so that a dancer would be able to dance a waltz whether in Baltimore, Cincinnati or Boise. This tinkering with old steps inevitably led to trying their hand at choreographing “acceptable” new dances to introduce to the public.  The associations also wanted to clean up the vulgar sloppiness and slouching that had crept into ballroom dancing, right. In 1893, they deigned to view the performance of Little Egypt and her danse du ventre (bellydance) at the Chicago World’s Fair. They wrote:

“The style of movements practiced by those so called Algerian and other women is something too objectionable for people of refined taste to countenance. It is a depraved and immoral exhibition. It may well be styled an outrage to allow such an exhibition and rate it under the head of dance.”

After 1900, with the appearance of the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the shimmy and finally the charleston, dance teachers found their work cut out for them. With the bewildered public not sure of what kind of dancing was acceptable and what was not, dancing masters  found themselves in a crucial new role.  If they couldn’t continue selling the profitable lessons necessary to learn the old fashioned complex ballroom dances any more, teachers discovered that what they could sell was good taste. Each season they would decree what dances were no longer fashionable, which new dances were totally unacceptable always promoting a few new dances that they themselves had devised. Newspaper articles from those years tell the story:

“Professors of Dancing Bring the Waltz to Near Perfection”

“Dance Masters Decree Hugging Must Go”

“Dancing Experts Try to Reform Their Art”

“Dance Masters Fight Jazz”


Smaller organizations and chapters sprang up to combat problems on a local level. In 1893, the Philadelphia Association of Teachers of Dancing announced that they had enrolled nearly all the prominent dance teachers in the city. At their meetings during the summer, often held at the Jersey shore, they would announce what dances would be fit to grace Philadelphia ballrooms that fall season. In 1894, for instance, they introduced “The A l’Avenir,” “The Waltz Lancers,” and the “Chautaqua Square.” In 1914, they took it upon themselves to take on the newest dance, the foxtrot, and agreed to standardize five easy to learn figures. They dealt as decisively with the other ragtime dances that flooded ballrooms in the teens. They wrestled with  the hesitation, the maxixe, and the onestep, and reduced them all to scientific formulas. Philadelphia dance master S. Wallace Cortissoz demonstrates the “onestep maxixe” for the Inquirer, above, left. The Philadelphia Association was soon seen as a model organization for the rest of the country. As the 1915 photo, below, shows, it indeed comprised all the most eminent dance teachers in the city. Mr. Cortissoz is second from the left in the top row of the photo.


It’s difficult to assess whether either the Philadelphia or the national associations realized many of their goals. They were making a valiant effort to take control of their field, all the while promoting themselves and their services.

Did they “clean up” the dances? Nagging couples about dancing too closely, or about hopping too much seemed all too much like simply taking the fun out of dancing. Teachers could demand strict posture and decorum in their classes, but monitoring what actually went on out in public was another story. Usually, the things they objected to were exactly what made new dances they tried to ban so appealing.

Did they standardize dances? When the tango was introduced about 1913, a dance master complained that he had read over 120 variations of tango steps! Certainly, reducing dances to a manageable number of steps and figures made them easier to teach; standardization had its good points. However, just the fact that there were multiple national dance associations shows that in a large country like the U.S.A., there would always be regional tastes, styles and differences. Standardization of dances was much more successful in a small country like England, where dance masters from all over that nation taught identical curricula. Their success at standardization is one of the main reasons that the English became the main force in international competetive ballroom dance  by the 1930s. It explains why competitors on Dancing with the Stars, a show created by the BBC,  do British jive and not American swing dance.

Did dance masters introduce new dances to the ballroom that caught on with the public? Hardly. It seems that dance associations were even less successful in selling their choreographies to the public than they were in banning dances they didn’t care for. At each convention, dance teachers would submit their own choreographies and the best new dance would be chosen by vote.  In 1915, the Philadelphia Dancing Masters created the “Philadelphia Six Step,” above, right, for which I would love to find music and directions. In 1920, they tried to replace the popular Shimmy with a dance they invented called the Radnor. In 1921, in a misguided attempt to appease anti-dance Methodists, the Dancing Masters named one of their new dances for the season “The Wesleyan.” The Methodist Conference was so insulted, they issued a statement calling the action of the Dancing Masters “an outrage against decency and an offense to every Methodist.” The Dancing Masters Association withdrew the dance. At best, the dances the associations created had limited popularity among their own students. The fact that we have never heard of the “Philadelphia Six Step,” or of the “Waltz Lancers,” “Radnor,” “Chautaqua Square,” or almost any other dance association creation for that matter, says a lot.

The tension between systemization and spontaneity, between doing what is correct and doing what is fun has, I think, led to the extreme dichotomy of social dancing today, where we have highly technical and stylized competitive ballroom dancing on one hand, and the uninhibited and unstructured but socially engaging dancing done at weddings, parties and bars in the real world on the other. On Dancing With the Stars, when the couple voted off go out on the floor and do a final, unrehearsed farewell dance, do they break into a foxtrot, a samba or a jive? No, they just rock back and forth, exactly like you or I do.

Philly on Tap: Part II

July 30, 2012

Baby Edwards – of all the girl dancers . . . she’s the best I’ve seen. But she didn’t get the breaks . . .  Shirley Temple’s good. But she wasn’t as good as Edith. I’m not talking that for color. I’m talking about what I see.

– John Hart

        There are so many African American women dancers who never got the recognition they deserved: Cora La Redd, Harriet Browne, Ludie Jones, Tina Pratt, Lois Miller, Juanita Pitts, Alice Whitman, Libby Spencer, Edwina Evelyn, Mildred Thorpe, Louise Madison, Jeni LeGon and Philadelphia’s Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt. The list could go on and on. These women competed in the traditionally male world of tap and challenged the conventions of what it meant to be a woman dancer.


        Edith Edwards, left, was born the youngest of seven children in South Philadelphia in 1922. She always gave credit to her brother Harry who taught her and other neighborhood kids to tap dance in their kitchen. “I danced more like a boy,” Edith said about her training. By the time she was 3, she was performing as “Baby Edwards,” winning amateur kiddie contests at places like the Standard Theatre on South St. and the Gibson on Broad St. She’d be the first black performer to dance on the Sunday morning “Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour” radio show. She became a regular performer there, singing and dancing on the show for about five years. Below is a photo of performers from the Horn and Hardart Show from 1934. Baby is in the second row from the top, second from the left, the only African-American in a sea of white faces. The photo is from the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia.

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        It was hard to make it as a solo tap act, but even harder if you were African American and a woman. Despite that, in the ‘30s, Edith performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, above, sharing a stage with Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Billie Holiday. She’d do a song and dance solo in front of the chorus. In 1939 she performed on Broadway in  Swingin’ the Dream,  a jitterbug and swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


        In the ‘40s  she teamed up with Willie “Span” Joseph to form an act they called Spic and Span. The duo toured the African American club and theatre circuit and did USO shows in Europe. They’d perform an energetic series of flash and rhythm steps, usually including her specialty – dropping into a front split as Willie did a side or “straddle” split in the air over her, right.

         By the 1960s, “Baby” had largely retired, taking care of her mother in Philadelphia and teaching tap through the Philadelphia Recreation Department. In 1995 she was one of the featured performers in Stepping in Time,  a celebration of the long tradition of Philadelphia African American performers at the Arts Bank on south Broad Street. Edith died in 2000, at the age of 78.

        Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt has been described as a truly charismatic performer. She was a great tap dancer, but it was said that she simply had to appear to get applause; audiences just loved her.


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here: http://www.folkloreproject.org/folkarts/resources/documentaries/plenty/plenty.php

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge: http://www.phillytapchallenge.com/  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a short clip of “Baby” performing. The clip is undated, but it’s probably at “Stepping in Time” in Philadelphia, in 1995, when she was 73:

Philly on Tap: Part I

July 19, 2012

Did they just do it faster in Philly? To be sure, there is an impressive short list of tap dancers hailed as having “the fastest feet in the business” who had come from Philadelphia. They include Honi Coles, Earl “Groundhog” Basie, Teddy Hale, Charlie Rice, Henry Meadows, LaVaughn Robinson, Steve Condos and the Condos Brothers, the Clark Brothers and (if you count their five-year residency in Philly when their parents directed the pit orchestra band at the Standard Theatre) the Nicholas Brothers.

 – Constance Vallis Hill, from “Tap Dancing in America.”


        No city in America could beat Philly for tap dancing talent in the 1920s and ’30s. It seemed that every street corner along South St. and in South Philly was alive with rhythm. Dancers would show off their tap skills trying to outdo each other with “over-the-tops,”” barrel turns” and “wings” on street corners for an appreciative audience that would shower them with money. Everyone staked out and fought for their own spaces, the best dancers claiming the corners nearest to Broad St. Local black tappers could find plent of inspiration on the stages of Philadelphia’s venues for African-Americans: the Standard Theatre (right) at 1124 South St. and the Royal at 1524 South St., or the Gibson at Lombard and Broad Sts. Philadelphia would generously send out all that talent to fill the stages of New York and to light up the silver screen in Hollywood.

         It would be easy to devote an entire blog to the incredible array of tap dancers that Philadelphia gave birth to in the first half of the 20th century. I’ll write about more of them over the next few weeks, but this post is devoted to Charles “Honi” Coles.


          Charles “Honi” Coles (left), was born in Philadelphia on April 2, 1911, the son of George and Isabel Coles. It was on the music-filled streets of Philadelphia that he learned to tap dance. He was also influenced by performers he saw on Philly stages, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. In 1931, at age 20, he’d leave for New York, performing there as one of the Three Millers. When he discovered his partners had replaced him, he returned to Philadelphia for a while to hone his technique, practicing for long  hours to add speed and complexity to his steps. He returned to New York in 1934, and at the Apollo Theatre and the Harlem Opera House, he gained a reputation for being one of the fast tappers in the business. At 6’2”, he was tall, lanky, precise and elegant.

        He then toured the country with the best  ‘30s big bands like those of Count Basie, Cab Calloway  and Duke Ellington. While with Calloway, he met and partnered with Charles “Cholly” Atkins. They’d perform everything from exquisitely slow soft shoe to precision high-speed tapping, (right). Through the 1940s, they appeared with almost every band in America, as well as on the Broadway stage. Their partnership would last 19 years.

         In the 1950s, even as tap was declining in popularity, Honi Coles opened a dance studio in  New York. He survived by working as a stage manager at the Apollo Theatre and also served as president of the Negro Actors Guild. In the 1970s, when America was rediscovering tap, Coles would help lead that revival, partnering with tap exponent Brenda Bufalino, (below). He’d go on to teach master classes at Yale, Cornell and Duke Universites. In the ’70s and ’80s, he’d appear on Broadway in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” impersonating the legendary Bert Williams and in “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune and Twiggy.

         In 1988, Charles “Honi” Coles was given the Capezio Award for lifetime achievement and in 1991, a year before he died, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.  In 2003,  he was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame.

It was Lena Horne who said of Coles: “Honi makes butterflies look clumsy. He was my Fred Astaire.”


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here: http://www.folkloreproject.org/folkarts/resources/documentaries/plenty/plenty.php

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge: http://www.phillytapchallenge.com/  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a 1949 clip of Coles and Atkins about the time they were performing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”:

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     This month I’ll concentrate on dance crazes that swept Philadelphia: the waltz in the late 18th century, the polka in the 19th century and the ragtime mania of the early 20th century. Click on any image for a closer view.

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In 1914, Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote a memoir called “Our Philadelphia,” which her husband Joseph illustrated.  In it, she recalls her childhood in the late nineteenth century, her grandfather’s house on Spruce and 11th Sts., right, and the Philadelphia world in which she moved. Here she describes the sometimes frustrating predictability of  Philadelphia society and dancing during her youth at the end of the 19th century:

“Philadelphia had a standard for its parties, as for everything, and to deviate from this standard, to attempt originality, to invent the “freak” entertainments of New York, would have been excessively bad form. You danced in the same spacious front and back parlors . . . to the same music by Hassler’s band; where you ate the same Terrapin, Croquettes, Chicken Salad, Oysters, Boned Turkey and Ice Cream, where the same Cotillon began at the same hour with the same figures and the same favors and the same partners. There was no getting away from the same people in Philadelphia. That was the worst of it.”

She had grown up in that timeless post-Civil War Philadelphia where  “good” Philadelphia families, meaning those residing south of Market Street, sent generations of children to the right dancing school, i.e. Solomon Asher’s Academy at the venerable Natatorium at 219 South Broad Street, below, to learn the correct Philadelphia deportment while doing the correct quadrilles, waltzes and two-steps.

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Those same proper Philadelphians were far from prepared when the “modern” ragtime music and dance craze swept across the Quaker City in the 1910s just as it did across the rest of the country. These new dances didn’t come from the elegant Paris and London salons that had been regarded as the ideals of taste and culture for so long, but from the dance halls and honky-tonks of the notorious Barbary Coast in San Francisco. They were a veritable menagerie of dances like the Grizzly Bear, (left), the Turkey Trot, the Chicken Scratch and the Bunny Hug. First seen as novelty dances on Philadelphia vaudeville stages, they soon swooped, loped and trotted their way into Philadelphia society. They were raucous, they were lively, they were fun and they were truly American in origin, but were they “decent?” Philadelphia wasn’t sure. At first, the New York Times reported,

“The Turkey Trot has invaded Philadelphia’s most exclusive dancing circles. ‘Everybody is doing it this season,’ Mrs. Drexel Biddle said, ‘and I am doing my best to learn it . . .  It is a hard dance to do.’”

Within a month, though, the city’s taste makers thought better of it, and in a total about-face, headlines now read,

“PHILADELPHIA BANS THE TROT! The turkey trot and grizzly bear will no longer be tolerated in society here. It is understood that the two dances have all but caused several scandals in some of Philadelphia’s best families.”

Within the next few months universities, clubs and churches all over the Philadelphia region vied in banning these new dances.

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To make matters worse, 1913 saw the introduction of the most insidious, controversial and exotic dance of all – the tango.  The tango came to Philadelphia from Argentina by way of Paris. The Pope in Rome immediately forbade all Catholics from dancing the tango, but Philadelphians took more time about making up their minds. Some condemned it without ever seeing it, some ran to be the first to take lessons. Within a few months, however, restaurants and hotels were clearing spaces for  late afternoon “tango teas” so that downtown shopgirls and secretaries could spend an hour or two practicing the latest steps –and imbibing a cocktail or two– before heading to the trolleys and trains that took them home. Wanamakers, Strawbridges and Lit Brothers sold “tango shirts” and “tango shoes” for men  and “tango sashes,” “tango hats” and even flexible “tango corsets” for women. Bolts of brilliant orange fabric that had sat unsold in dry goods stores flew off the shelves when the color was dubbed “tango.”

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The number of studios in the city teaching the “modern dances” tripled within a year. The Inquirer and the Evening Ledger competed to print whole series of articles describing the latest steps and the newest dances; the Hesitation Waltz, the Castle Walk, and something called the Foxtrot.  Advertisements for locally made Victrola gramophones assured Philadelphians that they could now practice their tango variations in the privacy of their homes, even on Sundays, when Pennsylvania Blue Laws forbade public dancing. Respectable ballrooms and “dance palaces” appeared in the city for the first time. (In 1918 The Roseland Ballroom would open on Market Street, long before its more famous other location in New York.)

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Riding on the crest of this dance mania were the first American ballroom stars, Vernon and Irene Castle, right. The Castles removed all the objectionable elements from ragtime dances, and shrewdly marketed themselves, their dances and their elegant New York studio to the best society in the city. They warned “Do not wriggle the shoulders. Do not shake the hips. Do not flounce the elbows. . . Remember you are at a social gathering, and not in a gymnasium. Drop the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hug, etc. These dances are ugly, ungraceful, and out of fashion.” When they appeared at B.F. Keith’s vaudeville stage at 1116  Chestnut Street in November 0f 1914, the house was sold out and many were turned away as Philadelphians thronged not only to see the newest dances performed by America’s ballroom dance stars, but to catch a glimpse of Irene’s bobbed hair and latest, fashion-setting gowns.

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America’s entrance into World War I put a sober end to that incredible “modern dance mania.” When the doughboys returned after the war, something called “jazz” had taken the place of ragtime music.  But in those amazing few years before  the war, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear and the Bunny Hug had shaken up traditional Philadelphians, forever changing the way they danced and the kind of music they danced to. As the story of Marguerite Walz, January 22 post, below, shows us, in the 1920s jazz music and jazz dances like the Charleston along with the impossible task of enforcing of National Prohibition would create new scandals and problems for Philadelphians.

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●  “Our Philadelphia,” Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1914, illustrated by Joseph Pennell

  The Philadelphia Inquirer 1911-1916

●  “Modern Dancing,” Vernon and Irene Castle, 1916

  The New York Times, December 22, 1911 and January 5, 1912

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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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