They invited polite society to join in the fun
TO a generation that knows little about touch dancing, Twyla Tharp's choreographic re-creation of the ballroom era, ``Nine Sinatra Songs,'' came as a surprise. Tharp exchanged her trendy hard-rock dances for lyric melodies that invited swaying to the music by men in tuxedos and women dressed in sequin-trimmed gowns. Glamour and romance replaced cool and tough in the Tharp lexicon of theatrical styles. The audiences sighed at the beauty of the movement, grew nostalgic, and then cheered each time the work was performed. But at each performance of ``Nine Sinatra Songs,'' a phantom couple hovered in the offstage shadows. Two world wars, a depression, and Vietnam have passed since Vernon and Irene Castle polished up some Broadway routines and brought them onto the dance floor. They taught their dances to a whole nation and exported them overseas, as polite society was invited out of their homes into public where everyone could join in the fun.
Before World War I and the brief period when the Castles were performing together, social dancing in America was a segregated pastime. The rich folks could dance at private balls, by invitation only. Townsfolk in rural communities held socials for their neighbors, while the blacks danced together, inventing new steps and rhythms that others could envy but not emulate.
Gradually Tin Pan Alley and Broadway assimilated the black jazz rhythms and dances. The Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, and many others were adapted for musical shows.
Vernon and Irene Castle made their dancing debut in an act that was hastily put together for a nightclub in Paris in 1912. They copied one of Blossom Seeley's numbers from ``The Hen-Pecks,'' in which Vernon had also appeared and set it to the music of ``Alexander's Ragtime Band.'' The French patrons of the Caf'e de Paris loved the Castles, and their career was launched. After six months, they returned to New York and for the next few years were here, there, and everywhere in Broadway shows, appearing at their own nightclubs, teaching, dancing in a film about their own life entitled ``The Whirl of Life,'' and on tour throughout the United States, when they conducted dance contests in every city they visited. Among the dances they popularized were the Maxixe, the Castle Polka, the Tango, the Hesitation Waltz, and the One-Step, renamed the Castle Walk.
Irene Castle described the Castle Walk in the instruction manual, ``Modern Dancing,'' published in 1914: ``Now, raise yourself up slightly on your toes at each step, with the legs a little stiff, and breeze along happily and easily and you will know all there is to know about the Castle Walk.''
The Castles succeeded in integrating ragtime and Latin elements into popular social dancing. They were the first white performers to use a black orchestra directed by the celebrated musicians James Reese Europe and Ford Dabney.
In later years, Irene Castle attributed their success to the fact that they were ``young, clean, married, and well-mannered,'' but the style and grace of their dancing and their infectious gaiety charmed everyone. Irene Castle, with her slim, boyish figure and simple frocks, became a style setter. When she cut her hair, American women rushed out to the beauty parlors to copy the Castle ``bob.''
The Castles were starring on Broadway in Irving Berlin's ``Watch Your Step,'' written especially for them, when Vernon, a British citizen, left the show in 1916 to join the Royal Flying Corps. After flying 100 aerial photography missions over enemy lines and being awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery, he was killed on a training flight in 1918. His wife made 17 silent films and attempted a vaudeville tour with another partner before she left the stage in 1923 for marriage, children, and a lifelong commitment to animal rescue work.
The next phase in American social dancing -- the flapper era -- was set in a society changed forever by the aftereffects of the Great War and prohibition.
The 14-year-old Fred Astaire had been on the stage for eight years when he and his sister, Adele, saw the Castles in their 1913 Broadway hit, ``The Sunshine Girl,'' nine times. Astaire translated some of the elegance and spontaneity of the Castles into his dancing both on stage and in the films, especially in the series he made with his partner Ginger Rogers in the 1930s, ending with ``The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle'' in 1939, in which he paid tribute to his mentors.