Posted: March 11th, 2023

HOBroadway Dance Written Response

Broadway: Revues and Runaway Hits

Copyright ©2010

The “Other” Revues

In addition to the musicals which opened in abundance, revues were hugely popular, and several producers–like Ziegfeld–ran revue series that offered a new edition each year.

George White

George White danced for Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., then broke off in 1919 to start his own revue. Like Ziegfeld, he had an eye for stellar talent. He lured Ann Pennington from Ziegfeld and also debuted Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger–who later play the Scarecrow in the film,
The Wizard of Oz. White was one of the first producers to shift focus from the inclusion of a ballet chorus to dancers that did straight “show dancing” (Grant, 2004), and he was the first producer to use one composer for an entire edition of his revue (Maslon, 2004). According to Maslon, George White’s
Scandals was the only revue series that rivaled Ziegfeld’s

Runnin’ Wild (1923)

White, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of
Shuffle Along, hired the show’s book writers, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, to write a new edition to be titled
Shuffle Along of 1923.

The company team would receive $2000 weekly, a hefty increase over their
Shuffle Along salary. The sudden defection of Miller and Lyles shocked and dismayed Sissle and Blake, who had been planning a new road edition of
Shuffle Along. The
Shuffle Along company sued White and successfully blocked his use of the show’s title. Miller and Lyles, however, were legally free to join White’s production. The suit fractured the unity of the
Shuffle Along crew. (Woll, 1989, p. 85)

Several performers from
Shuffle Along joined George White’s cast. The new musical was called
Runnin’ Wild. Like
Shuffle Along,
Runnin’ Wild was an all-black show.

White was a hoofer, who was always searching for innovative dance numbers (Maslon, 2004). He saw the Charleston in the Harlem play,
Dinah, and had a team of songwriters write a new song for the show. The show had its out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., on August 23, 1923. Featured performer, Elizabeth Welch, danced the Charleston with a male chorus.

The show opened at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D. C., on August 23, 1923, for its tryout run. Although the critics lavished praise on Miller and Lyles and Adelaide Hall, ticket sales languished. After a losing first week,…

White threatened to close the show unless the eighty-two member cast agreed to work without salary. The company, in an unusual show of solidarity, refused and called White’s bluff. Miller and Lyles negotiated a compromise and sacrificed their weekly $2000 in order to pay the ensemble partial salaries. This seeming violation of “the show must go on” was a realistic reaction. Black performers were learning that producers continually claimed poverty during the tryout period and early run of a show, and, consequently, demanded salary cuts. The truth of the matter was often in dispute. (Woll, 1989, p. 86)

Despite the advances made by Actors’ Equity, producer treatment of actors continued to be poor. In her autobiography,
His Eye Is on The Sparrow, star performer Ethel Waters, talked about the tricks producers used to cheat cast members out of money. She recounted her experiences while performing in a musical called
Oh Joy! in Boston:

In shows like that one, operating on short, sometimes non-existent, bankrolls, the producers often had to resort to legal but devious devices when payday rolled around.

You’d be called in by the management. “We have your money, Ethel,” they’d say, and they would very kindly show you your money. “But if we pay you off in full, sugar, we can’t pay the others. And if we can’t pay them, we’ll have to close the show. And you wouldn’t want to throw all those other poor, hard-working actors out of work, would you?”

So it would end up with you taking what you could get, fifty dollars or so to pay your room rent and other expenses. Now this routine always amused me. I can’t say it made me hysterical with laughter, but I’d leave smiling.

The other actors, waiting outside to talk to the producers, would see me with that smile on my face. And if the management told them I had insisted on being paid in full and consequently they would have to take a cut, they’d believe them. And they’d blame me for being selfish. At first I wouldn’t know why my fellow performers jumped salty on me, but later on they told me.

Or when the show had a rocky financial going the bosses would assemble everyone backstage and give them (instead of eating money) that old refrain, “If you can only hang on a little longer, we’ll pass the danger point and have a hit.”

When a producer decided to cop that plea he talked on and on. I’d never stay to listen, knowing that the only important point he was going to make was that we weren’t going to get our money in full and toto [sic]. Such apologies and explanations bored me.

If we’d been playing to crowded houses the producer would swear on his children’s bones that the house was almost all paper [complimentary tickets given out for publicity purposes or to fill seats]. If he wanted us to work our heads off he’d pass the word around that the Shuberts [wealthy, well-known producers] were going to take over the show, making us all rich and famous. And “Mr. Schubert” was catching the show that very evening!

He would pull in any frowzy-looking, ragged old white bum he found on the corner. He would dress the bum up, sit him in a box [seat, located high on the side walls of the theater], and that would be “Mr. Lee Schubert” for that performance. The actors would then go out and kill themselves [performing]. (Waters & Samuels, 1992, p. 152)

Shuffle Along,
Runnin’ Wild had integrated audiences. Considered a “black show,” the audience was often three quarters white. Also, like
Shuffle Along,
Runnin’ Wild ran midnight shows to entice black audience members, who worked during regular show hours (Woll, 1989).

Continued Racial Divisions

Many black shows opened in the 1920s, a reflection of the impact of the Harlem Renaissance. But even while advancements in black opportunities and integration were evident, and boundaries were expanded, walls between the white and black worlds still held strong. So did viewer expectations of black shows. Criticism from both black and white reviewers of Sissle and Blake’s new musical comedy,
The Chocolate Dandies (1923), illustrates this point:

The absence of spirited stepping, except by a lively group of eight chorus girls, looks as though it were deliberate in a plan to make the whole piece “high toned.” It is that, but the results are achieved at the expense of a genuine negro spirit…In short it is a negro piece for the most part uninspired by the native spirit… The whole business is “white folks” material of which there is plenty and then some in the show world, and not good darky entertainment, of which there is little enough of the best. (
Variety, cited in Woll, 1989, pp. 91-92).

Eric Walrond, a black reviewer, wrote this in

Setting out (it is obvious) to cater to the jaded desires of white comedy lovers [Sissel and Blake created something] that didn’t seem like a colored show at all… The life of the Negro as it is sketchily presented in a show like this is false. All those elements of vital spiritual and emotional content that distinguish it from that of other racial groups are taken out. A feeble half-white misanthrope is substituted. Anyone who is familiar with the vaudeville shows given at the Lafayette or the Lincoln in Harlem, knows that there is a reservoir of talent and of material up there lying waste that, if properly commandeered and utilized in a production like
The Chocolate Dandies, would create a distinct sensation.” (Cited in Woll, 1989, p. 92).

The popularity of nightclub entertainment during the 1920s related directly to the popularity of black musical revues on Broadway. Revues (having little or no plot) were at least as popular as musical comedies with a book [storyline]. Harlem nightclubs also proved to be rivals to black revues and musicals that were found lacking in the expected black entertainment elements. A Herald Tribune review of the musical Bottomland stated: “There is nothing in the show, except, perhaps, some meritorious tap dancing…, that you cannot see in more engaging performance at several of the Harlem night clubs” (cited in Woll, 1989, p. 118). The popularity of black entertainment in Harlem nightclubs, mentioned earlier, continued to build black and white audiences for black revues on Broadway. Many black dancing and singing artists made their reputations during this period.

Black Musical Revues

White expectations of the sensuality and “primitiveness” of black dancing enabled black performers to express themselves through dance in a manner that would have been shocking in white dancers. Bolstered by the attendance of white audiences at Harlem nightclub revues, producers felt confident in the reception of these audiences for the same sensual, jazzy entertainment on Broadway.

Hot Chocolates (originally
Tan Town Topics), was created and fine-tuned at Connie’s Inn–another Harlem nightclub–before it opened at the Hudson Theatre (1929 – 219 performances). As its title suggests,
Hot Chocolates was notable for its eroticism and double entendre as well as its straightforward, sensual songs. Jazz music and dance were the featured stars of the show.

Here is a telling review by Bide Dudley:

In the stepping division, one Jazzlips Richardson stopped the proceedings with his unique gyrations, and the very scantily clad young woman named Louise Cook shook and twisted until I was reminded of a certain sideshow on the Midway…at the Chicago World’s Fair. Little Egypt [an exotic dancer] had nothing on Louise Cook, who as indicated, had very little on herself.” (Bide Dudley, cited in Woll, 1989, p. 132)

Lew Leslie

The following reading examines one producer, Lew Leslie, and the way in which he capitalized on the craze for black entertainment. Pay particular attention to the threads of prejudice that weave through the quotes and through Leslie’s choice of creative teams, format and content of his revues.

Blackbirds of 1926

The 1926 edition of the
Blackbirds revue featured Florence Mills and made her an international star. The show opened in Harlem, then toured Europe.

Lew Leslie knew how to sell tickets. Content for
Blackbirds of 1926 was adjusted for each venue/tour:

After a sellout run in Harlem, Leslie moved the company to London, where it received considerable acclaim. Several changes were introduced for British audiences. “The average Englishman,” noted Leslie, “looks on the Negro singer as the real exponent of native American music. [He] thinks of a Negro show in terms of art and wants to hear spirituals sung… When I put on a review in England I have plenty of the ‘Old Black Joe’ and ‘Go Down Moses’ type of spirituals. Even the dancing is of the less lowdown type.”

After the tour of the continent was completed (and after the death of Mills), Leslie put on
Blackbirds in his nightclub, Les Ambassadeurs, on West Fifty-seventh Street. Revisions were again necessary: “Americans think of Negro revues in terms of fast dancing and swing songs. They seem to prefer the traditional Negro comedian with burnt cork make-up, big shoes and a razor, who plays craps and steals chickens.” Leslie emphasized these characteristics in his advertisements for
Blackbirds. (Woll, 1989, pp. 124-5)

Although Leslie’s revues offered employment to many blacks, Lew Leslie’s
Blackbirds presented blacks in non-threatening stereotypical ways that provided “the same comforting effect for white audiences in the ‘20s and ‘30s as they had in the days of minstrelsy, allaying fears of a vigorous black community just uptown” (Jones, 2003, p. 73).

Blackbirds of 1928 and the Loss of an International Sensation

Blackbirds of 1928 was originally meant to feature Florence Mills, but in a tragic loss to the musical theatre stage, Mills died of tubercolosis-related illness in 1927. A doctor had warned Mills that she needed a rest, but professional and personal commitments postponed her checking into the hospital. By the time she did, even surgery couldn’t prevent her death on November 1, 1927. On her deathbed, Mills’ final words were: “I don’t want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always.” Her funeral in Harlem was the largest that community had ever seen. It is said that flock of blackbirds flew over the funeral procession.

The show went on.
Blackbirds of 1928 opened on May 9, 1928, and “became the longest running black musical show of the 1920s” (Woll, 1989, p. 125).

Lew Leslie often scouted talent from high profile Harlem clubs and vaudeville theaters. He had no qualms about appropriating performers from other shows. For
Blackbirds of 1928, he recruited/lured/stole Aida Ward from Connie’s Inn and Adelaide Hall from her Broadway show,
My Magnolia. But it was Bill Robinson who stole the show with his closing act and helped the show to a 518-performance run.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Bill Robinson is one of the most famous tap dance entertainers in American history. He brought recognition to the Negro performer through his many appearances in movies and on stage. Robinson danced with clear and percussive rhythms, and he changed the future of tap by changing the placement of tap steps from full foot to the ball of the foot.

Robinson was born in May, 1878, in Virginia. When his parents died, young Bill and his younger brother went to live with their grandmother, Bedelia. She did not want them. She went to court to argue against taking custody of the children. The brothers ended up living with the judge who heard the case. This living situation may have been for the best. Bedelia was a former slave and a religious Baptist, who believed dancing was evil. She would not allow Bill to dance in her house or even say the word “dance” (Haskins and Mitgang, 1988).

Robinson began his dance career by trying out steps on street corners to get pennies. He ran away from his home at the age of 12, stowing away on a train to Washington, D.C.

Bill’s first break came when the impresarios Whallen and Martel hired him for their show The South Before the War around 1892. Eddie Leonard had used his influence to get Bill a job as a pickaninny [in this context, a young black child performer whose job it was to be “cute”] with the show, which was advertised this way:

Don’t fail to see Whallen and Martel’s The South Before the War, the greatest production of the century, not excepting Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In ante bellum times—before the war—the colored people assembled from the various plantations for the annual festivities, and “Cake Walks,” “Wing and Buck Dancing” and other characteristic sports were introduced.

These are all faithfully reproduced in the great picturesque spectacular “The South Before the War.”

A colored camp meeting, surely a great treat to attend. Those who have never witnessed it can see its real life depicted—the shouting, the singing, the exhorting of dominoes, the drawing of razors, the firing of pistols, the dancing of quadrilles to the accompaniment of a tin horn band, are all introduced in this show.

What can be more enjoyable than listening to the singing, by genuine colored people, of the good old fashioned melodies which were sung on the plantation years ago. Such tunes as Nancy Teel, Hard Times, Yellow Rose, Rose Lee, and many others, accompanied by the old-fashioned sheepskin banjo and the home made fiddle.

Hear whoops of terpsichorean ecstacs [sic], shrill whistles, catcalls, the rhythmic clapping of hands, and see the colored folk shuffle their enormous feet on sanded floors, do live gigs, sing, and do comical antics of niggerdom.

Within his lifetime, he [Bill] would be stabbed, slashed and shot, but he never missed a performance on account of the wound. He had a quick temper and admitted that he fought freely when it was necessary. Bill was almost always armed with a gun, but he is not known to have inflicted any critical injuries. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 43-5)

Robinson used dance and vaudeville skits to change the tide of racism. Sometimes the methods he chose to forward his goal were quite astonishing:

Around 1902, Robinson teamed up with George W. Cooper, a well-known black vaudevillian. Cooper and Robinson performed on the Keith circuit, the biggest and most well-known vaudeville touring company.

Their skits were heavy on ethnic humor—Negro, Jewish, Irish…They once dressed up like “Hebes” (Hebrews) and did a heavy dialect. They were not alone in relying on the lowest ethnic humor to get laughs. Comedy routines burlesquing “micks” and “kikes” and “wops” were almost as common as “coon” routines in the early years of the century… Such practices were so offensive to ethnic communities in Boston and New York that both municipalities passed ordinances banning racial epithets on stage. According to Tom Fletcher, Cooper and Robinson’s act “Yoi Yoi Yoi Yoi Mary Ann” was introduced not long before these ordinances were passed: “Many people give Cooper and Robinson credit for speeding up the passage of the ordinance through their introduction of this particular number. Bill’s own shrewdness in meeting and overcoming the problems of racial and religious prejudice subsequently helped to strengthen the suspicion that the number was introduced for that purpose. Bill has never said.” (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 59-60)

Robinson also had another method for progressing racial tolerance—he never wore burnt cork.

Robinson made very good money on vaudeville tours. While on tour, he received a telegram from Lewis Schurr, who was casting a new musical,
Showboat, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Schurr was confident in Bill’s talent and in casting him for a role in the new show, writing, “kindly advise immediately how soon you will be available and what is your salary” (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 181). Robinson turned down the show and stayed on the vaudeville circuit.

Robinson’s dancing and dazzling smile won him the admiration of audiences wherever he traveled. In this reading, Constance Valis Hall describes the innovative Bill Robinson-style of dance:

When the next offer from Broadway came, Robinson’s agent jumped at it. Broadway fame came with the all-black revue,
Blackbirds of 1928, in which he sang and danced “Doin’ the New Low Down.” Success was instantaneous. He was hailed as the greatest of all dancers by at least seven New York newspapers.

Robinson also recorded “Doin’ the New Low Down” for the radio. As mentioned earlier, Broadway hits were often appropriated by established recording stars for release on the radio. This fact—when coupled with Robinson’s race—made his recording of the hit a rather historical event.

Blackbirds of 1928 also featured what was by then a signature Robinson dance: the Stair Dance. This dance, and others like it, became a staple of the Broadway stage. [Remember the video from Will Rogers’ Follies?]

Video: Bill Robinson Stair Dance (filmed in 1932)


Blackbirds of 1928 established Robinson as a Broadway star and gave him the publicity he needed to ensure an international career. He dealt diplomatically with racial biases in the industry. He publicly thanked “Mr. Leslie” for giving him a shot (although Leslie had pursued Robinson) and gave minor credit to white influences for his tap dancing. But Robinson was also known to have a short temper.

When Lew Leslie asked Robinson to go on tour with
Blackbirds, Robinson demurred. He was able to make much more money touring on his own. Lew Leslie hired Eddie Rector to fill Robinson’s place in the show.

Leslie wanted [Rector] to do a stair dance. Bill sent Rector a telegram: DO MY STAIR DANCE AND YOU DIE. Leslie insisted that the stair dance be used, and it was. Bill was furious with Leslie, and most sources say that this was the incident that started a long feud between them. Marty Forkins Robinson’s agent] arranged to book Bill against
Blackbirds in each town it played, and everywhere, Bill outdrew the show. Years later, Bill also got back at Eddie Rector, who was famous for dancing on drums. In the film
Stormy Weather, he imitated Rector by dancing up and down a staircase of huge drums. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, pp.191-2)

When it came to inhumane treatment, Robinson had a short fuse. U. S. Thompson, widower of the legendary Florence Mills, remembered one night during a performance of
Blackbirds, members of the audience…

…were making fun of the girls—“I’ll take this one and that one’s got pretty—and that one’s got skinny—and I don’t like that one and—” they were making a lot of noise and interrupting the performance. So when Bill came on—he was way down in the last part of the show—he told the orchestra to stop. And he told those fellows, “Now, you wouldn’t do that at Ziegfeld’s and you ain’t gonna do it here no more! If you do, then I’m putting you out.” They started making noise again, and Bill jumped down off the stage and carried them out. When he got back, he told the orchestra to begin again, and they did. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 189)

Robinson was a member of many clubs and civic organizations, and he was a staunch and public advocate for equal rights. He was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America. His participation in benefits is legendary, and it is estimated that he gave away well over $1 million dollars to charities. During his long career he never refused to play a benefit, regardless of the race, creed, or color of those who were to profit by his performance.

Claiming to have taught tap dance to Eleanor Powell, Florence Mills, Fayard and Harold Nicholas and Fred Astaire, Robinson also profoundly influenced the younger tap dancers at the Hoofers Club in Harlem, where he gambled and shot pool. Robinson’s gambling problems were as well-known as his dancing. However, Robinson was an honorary member of police departments in cities across the United States. When kidnappers were arrested for the kidnapping of Harlem’s chief black racketeer, Bill Robinson’s name was found to be second on the list of “future prospects.” “Not long afterward, the men of the 132nd precinct in Harlem presented Bill with a pearl-handled, gold-plated revolver and a magazine filled with gold bullets. It was, in Bill’s opinion, the greatest honor he had ever received” (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 190).

Robinson was such an inspirational figure in New York, that he was named the “Mayor of Harlem” in 1933. “To his own people,” Marshall Stearns wrote in
Jazz Dance, “Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps.”

When Robinson died in 1949, newspapers claimed that almost one hundred thousand people witnessed the passing of the funeral procession. The founding of the Copasetics, a fraternity of male tap dancers formed the year Robinson died, ensured that his excellence would not be forgotten. (Gates & Higginbotham, 2009, 430)

The Harlem Renaissance

The new Cinderella and leisure-time musicals reflected the lifestyle of middle class Americans in the 1920s—middle class,
white Americans. But whites were not the only race who experienced relative financial affluence. Waves of African Americans from the south—where lynching was still a terrifying and common reality—and immigrants from the West Indies came to Harlem in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s to take advantage of wartime jobs and the real-estate boom. In Harlem, a surplus of apartment buildings were built and remained unoccupied. Many of the people who flooded into Harlem were able to save money and buy their first homes. In the 1920s, the population of Harlem grew from 80,000 to 200,000 people.

In addition, the influx of blacks into Harlem created a community that began to celebrate black achievements. In the early 1920s, “The Harlem Renaissance” erupted in a tide of artistic and intellectual creativity in the form of poetry, writing, music, dance and visual arts. The cakewalk and the ragtime music craze had given whites a taste of African American entertainment. Now black artistry became the new chic in New York.

In this new era of art and recreation, the pulse of jazz music and the corresponding response of jazz dancing could not be separated. Black dance reflected the innovative energy of American jazz music.

Langston Hughes credited the all-black musical,
Shuffle Along with giving a “scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan” known as the Harlem Renaissance… “’It gave the proper push—a pre-Charleston kick—to the vogue that spread to books, African sculpture, music, and dancing (cited in Woll, 1989, p. 60).

Shuffle Along (1921)

The popularity of black social dances [discussed later in this unit] and a growing appreciation of jazz music may have primed Broadway audiences for the entrance of
Shuffle Along. Written by black songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle for black performers,
Shuffle Along has been heralded as the break-through musical that forced white audiences to recognize black contributions to Broadway musical theatre.
Shuffle Along showcased the best in black talent. The show launched the careers of both its cast members and creative artists, and it opened the gates to a flood of black musicals in the 1920s.

Prior to the opening of
Shuffle Along, there had been no successful all-black musical for years. Even
Shuffle Along had financial difficulties during its pre-Broadway tour. Creators Blake and Sissle left unpaid bills scattered in the wake of the show. When
Shuffle Along arrived in New York City, it opened in the dilapidated 63rd Street Theatre on the fringes of what was considered “Broadway.” The lack of financial resources impacted the production value of the show. Reviewers noted both the hand-me down costumes (borrowed from a recently closed show) and the less-than-lavish sets. The show was also criticized for its thin revue-type plot, which was often interrupted by unrelated skits and dances.

Criticism of the show did nothing to stem the tide of audience members who flocked to see
Shuffle Along. New York City was forced to convert 63rd Street into a one-way street, due to the traffic that continuously rushed towards the theater (Woll, 1989).

Combined with a score of hit songs were an enormous variety of dances that audiences had never before seen in one show on a Broadway stage. The sheer force of these songs and dances, performed by an extraordinarily talented cast, made
Shuffle Along a hit. The thin storyline had been created to showcase the individual talents and acts of the cast. Song and dance acts were changed often:

Miller and Lyles, two lead performers, incorporated comedy and acrobatics into a “Fisticuffs” skit that featured a flipping and tumbling fist fight.

Charlie Davis, a featured dancer, was expert in fast tap dancing and the Buck and Wing [footwork that included stamps and chugs accompanied with waving arms (Knowles, 2002)]. Two of his tricks included “Over the Top” and “Trenches,” steps he borrowed from Toots Davis, a dancer he admired from the
Darktown Follies.

Tommy Woods was a featured dancer, who “did a slow-motion acrobatic dance. ‘Everything he did was in tempo,’ says Sissle. ‘He’d start with a Time Step [traditional stamp and shuffle tap dance step] and go into a flip, landing right on the beat’” (Stearns & Stearns, 1979, p. 134). Woods borrowed his acrobatic-type dancing from vaudeville, incorporating jazz music to make it “swing.”

· Other acts included eccentric dancing, Soft Shoe tap dancing [a form of tap dancing that emphasizes elegant style and is performed in shoes with no taps] and legomania.

The following video talks about the significance of
Shuffle Along and includes writer Eubie Blake in his 90s playing and singing bits of songs from the show:

Shuffle Along…Again!

In 2016, a reinvention of
Shuffle Along came to Broadway.
Shuffle Along: The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed revisited the amazing contributions of
Shuffle Along!

CBS Sunday Morning (2015)

Social Issues

Social issues continued to play in the theatre. Woll argues that the original
Shuffle Along forwarded both positive and negative legacies to black musical theatre. [Sound familiar?] The show stirred up enthusiasm for black shows, songs and dances. In doing this, it created many opportunities for black performers to work on Broadway. But the songs, dances and book did little to dispel white perceptions of blacks as simple, primitive people. It became clear from the reviews and ticket sales for the black shows that followed that black actors and dancers were still expected to perform in certain characteristic boxes.
Shuffle Along was aptly named. Small strides were taken away from the prejudicial legacy of minstrelsy, but the expectations of white audiences and critics severely limited freedom of creative expression and the full expression of black person-hood on the Broadway stage. White audiences still expected to see “darky” entertainment elements like those seen in minstrel shows. They expected to see the cast make fun of stereotype versions of themselves.

The two male leads in
Shuffle Along, Flourney Miller and Aubrey Lyles–who wrote the book for the musical–appeared in blackface. In an interview, Miller said, “When we were starting out in the early teens, …we had to black up to get a job—to make audiences think we were two white men blacked up. Lyles had straight hair and my skin was light, so I left my wrists uncovered” (cited in Stearns & Stearns, 1979, p. 133). Anyone who asked was told that the two men were white. By the time
Shuffle Along came shuffling along, Miller and Lyles were well-known performers. They kept the blackface as part of their recognized “schtick” [comic gimmick].

Creators Sissle and Blake took a chance with their unprecedented portrayal of black romance in the show. Prior to
Shuffle Along, black romances were comical caricatures of white stereotypes. Black “relationships” between men and women usually showed an exaggerated play between a bossy woman and her pleading lover. Sissle and Blake wrote a song for the show called “Love Will Find a Way.” It was a ballad, declaring a straightforward love interest between performers Lottie Gee and Roger Matthews. The slow, melodic music and earnest lyrics could not be mistaken for a clumsy comedy romance:

Come, dear, and don’t let our faith weaken,

Let’s keep our love fires burning bright.

Your love for me is a heavenly beacon,

Guiding me all through love’s darkest night…

Sissle and Blake, along with producer, Harry Cort, also used
Shuffle Along as their own vehicle on the road to racial integration. Author Allen L. Woll tells the story of the slow integration of the show’s audience:

Variety assumes that the show would attract a black audience: “A few blocks westward is a Negro section known as San Juan Hill. The Lenox Avenue colored section is 20 minutes away on the subway, so
Shuffle Along ought to get all the colored support there is along with patrons who like that sort of entertainment.” Yet, when Variety sampled the audience in November, 1921 (after the price hike), the reviewer found the clientele almost 90% white.

What was surprising about the
Shuffle Along audience is not the absolute number of black patrons but their placement in the theater. James Weldon Johnson credited
Shuffle Along with breaking the rigid barriers of segregation in New York City’s legitimate theaters that restricted blacks to the balcony.
Variety’s critic noted on opening night that “colored patrons were noticed as far front as the fifth row,” as though he were surprised by such a site. While the show brought black customers into the orchestra, it did not end segregation entirely. Two thirds of the orchestra was reserved for whites, and blacks were seated in the remaining third. Once again, the box office controlled the seating patterns. Variety calmed its readers by noting that “the two races are rarely intermingled.”

Shuffle Along marked the beginning of the end of segregation in New York City’s legitimate theaters. With each succeeding black show produced during the 1920s, seating restrictions gradually disappeared. (Woll, 1989, pp. 72-3)

Black Stars of the 1920s

The careers of many of
Shuffle Along’s company were launched during the run of the show. Besides those performers mentioned above, two female dancers took first steps towards international performing careers when they danced in
Shuffle Along. One was a leading lady, and one started out at the end of the chorus.

Florence Mills

In 1922, Florence Mills replaced the female lead in Shuffle Along, and became an immediate favorite with audiences. The combination of her energetic dancing and emotional expression won both black and white hearts. Mills spoke of her dancing:

I belong to a race that sings and dances as it breathes. I don’t care where I am, so long as I can sing and dance. The wide world is my stage and I am my audience. If I didn’t feel like that I wouldn’t be an artist. The things you do best for other people are the things you would do just as well for yourself.

Our singing and our music are part of our history and tradition. We put a “folk-spirit” into everything we do. We have no great symphonies. But in our songs palm trees grow and the sun shines through them. The jungle grows dark and grows light. It is our laughter and our tears; it is our home and our exile. It’s getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. When I sing and dance on the stage of the theatre, I am often a million miles away. Maybe I’m down south, maybe farther away than that. When I work the hardest I often see folks sleeping in the sun and places lazy with heat, where it’s quiet and still. (cited in Egan, 2004, p. 270)

Author Bill Egan wrote about Mills, “A revival of the memory of Florence Mills does more than present an inspiring story. It provides a valuable role model today for younger African Americans struggling to understand their history and define their sense of identity. In an earlier era [the 1920’s], many African Americans held an optimism that reason and logic would in time prevail over the injustices of racial persecution and discrimination…Florence Mills never wavered from her belief that persuasion and leading by example could overcome prejudice. Her life and its remarkable achievements are a shining testimony to this truth” (2004, p. xvi).

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was fourteen or fifteen when she first auditioned for the chorus of
Shuffle Along. Laws at the time stated, however, that she had to be sixteen to be hired. Within months, she had snuck into the chorus of a tour of the show. In her position at the end of the chorus line, she called attention to herself with her comedy antics, crossing her eyes and purposefully mixing up steps when she danced. Audiences roared with laughter. Sissle and Blake rewarded Baker with an offer to bring her chorus end-girl routine to Broadway, and they paid her $125 a week. She was the highest paid chorus girl of her time.

Harlem Clubs and Contributions to Social Dance

As mentioned earlier, nightlife thrived during Prohibition. In New York City, white residents turned their eyes and their shiny new automobiles north to Harlem to bask in new “black” experiences. Jazz music and jazz dance became the latest, greatest pastimes. And white America’s growing obsession with jazz cracked the door open for racial integration. The black poet and activist, Langston Hughes [remember him?] wrote:

White people from downtown began coming to Harlem to sit in the bars and cabarets, to watch the black dancers, to stare at black people.

The lindy-hoppers at the Savoy even began to practice acrobatic routines, and to do absurd things for the entertainment of the whites, that probably never would have entered their heads to attempt merely for their own effortless amusement. Some of the lindy-hoppers had cards printed with their names on them and became dance professors teaching the tourist. Then Harlem nights became show nights for the Nordics. (2002, p. 177)

Prohibition and pleasure-seeking drove both black and white revelers into Harlem clubs, in which dancing to jazz music, drinking and watching the local talent were the only nightly obligations. For the first time, white clientele heard live performances of jazz music that expressed anger, joy, frustration and sexuality to a beat that was impossible to ignore. And the dancing in black clubs expressed the same emotions. White enthusiasm for black music and dance stretched racial barriers. In many ballrooms and clubs, black and white dancers mixed on the dance floor, but when the music stopped, the races separated.

As the popularity of Harlem entertainment grew among white audiences, clubs catered to all levels of racial tolerance:

The Cotton Club (Opened: 1922)

· Owned by white mobsters

· Exclusively white clientele

· All-black wait staff

· Known for extravagant shows that featured a chorus line of “high yeller” (racially mixed with very light skin) female dancers, all under 20 years of age and over 5’6”

· Strictly enforced race boundaries. Performers never mingled with customers

Small’s Paradise (Opened: 1925)

· Clientele was an integrated mix of Harlem locals, visiting blacks and well-to-do whites from downtown

Savoy Ballroom (Opened: 1926)

· Integrated clientele sometimes even danced together

· The “place to be seen” for aspiring professional dancers, who often got jobs teaching white clients who wanted to learn how to do the black dances

· Duke Ellington and his band performed.

· Drummer/band leader Chick Webb became known for his musical connection to dancers

The new relationship between white and black patrons in clubs was a fragile one. Another nightclub—this one downtown—was the Douglass Club, on West Thirty-first Street. Tom Fletcher, author of One Hundred Years of Show Business, called it “the favorite ‘slumming’ place for the city’s wealthy and famous” (cited in Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 47). Black entertainers performed there for tips, and they enjoyed a lifestyle experienced by few blacks during that period. At the same time, there was never any doubt about their “place” in the social order. Though the entertainers were highly admired by the white clientele at the club…

…when racial tensions were high, they were as endangered as ordinary blacks, and sometimes in greater danger by virtue of their fame. In the summer of 1900, a fight between a white man and a black man on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street touched off a riot act after the white man was killed. A vengeful white mob massed outside the clubs and theaters where well-known black entertainers were performing. “Get Cole and Johnson!” “Get Williams and Walker!” the mob shouted. Instead of trying to help the blacks who were being beaten by the mob, white policemen joined in the beating. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 49)

Floor shows at the clubs often forwarded racial stereotypes. Female dancers were usually light-skinned, and themes sometimes shamelessly reflected a white perspective on black entertainment. The 1981 musical,
Sophisticated Ladies, spotlighted Duke Ellington’s music and the entertainment of the jazz age. This number “The Mooch” showed a typical revue theme, black “jungle” dancing–utterly politically incorrect by today’s values.

(Kultur Video, 2005)

Jazz Music

(Farris, 2010)

Harlem nightclubs and national radio helped to spread the popularity of jazz music like wildfire.

[Note: “Jazz” is a general term referring to music with characteristics described below. HOWEVER, there are many types of “jazz” music and this American music genre has a history and evolution of its own. This very brief summary is offered to provide you with a basic definition, so that you can better understand the relationship of jazz music to dance.]

Jazz is a music genre that was born in America. And like jazz dance, jazz music had its foundation in the lives of African-American slaves. Although music in Africa varied widely from country to country and from tribe to tribe, jazz music was heavily influenced by “five characteristics shared by the various tribes that distinguish their functional music cultures from European tradition” (Waterman, cited in Martin & Waters, 2006, p. 6-7):

Jazz music has:

1. A steady pulse/regular beat.

2. Call-and-response: A solo drummer, instrumentalist or vocalist plays/sings a line of music and the group answers back.

3. Syncopation: Unexpected emphasis of a beat that is not in sync with the steady pulse.

4. Percussion: Use of drums and use of instruments or even body parts as drums is dominant in African music, where often there are no other instruments.

5. Polyrhythm: Multiple, different rhythms played at the same time or added in to increase the complexity of the music.

These five characteristics differed greatly from the elements of imported European styles of music. Compare the music—and social dance—in the first video below to the music in the second. [Listen to about 30 seconds of each if you are short on time.]

Video 1:

Video #2: Music from Ghana

Imagine the impact that Africanist music and rhythmic elements had on dance.

Jazz Dance: Major Characteristics

Like jazz music, “jazz dance” is a general term applied to dance that has most or all of the characteristics below. The term has been debated in the world of dance for decades! Especially controversial among dance teachers and historians is the application of the term to dance forms that many insist are not jazz, such as the “jazz” dance offered in many regional dance studios–which often uses pop music–and the “contemporary jazz” fusion that follows the creative flow of the individual choreographer, rather than following jazz characteristics that evolved from African American dance.

Jazz dance

1. A connection to the earth: In contrast to ballet, where the dancer “pulls up” and elevates, jazz dancers feel a pull from the ground, with moves in extended/consistent bent knee position or with upper body bending towards the ground. Movement is centered in a gravity of the pelvis, which gives jazz dance a sensual aesthetic.

2. Freedom of movement in the spine: Jazz movement makes use of the whole body and exhibits a freedom of movement in the spine that is very different from European dance styles, where the body is held upright, in a restrained posture. [Like the prim and proper Quadrille!] This is a physical, rather than sociological, characteristic. This characteristic shows a physical element that you can see, and it should not to be confused with “free-spirited” dancing or a performer’s feeling free to express himself. It is very specific to the whole body’s movement in dance, especially as that relates to a loose use of the spine. After centuries of rigid, proper, western European posture, African Americans brought upper body and pelvic movement to dance. The head, chest and pelvis respond freely to the movement of the rest of the body as opposed to remaining upright.

3. Isolations: Individual body parts move independently from others, e.g. shoulder rolls or isolated hip pulses. [Note: arms or legs moving are not generally considered isolations.]

4. Syncopated rhythms: Movement incorporates the unexpected emphasis of a beat that is not the steady pulse that keeps the tempo of the song. When you count music with the bass drum beat: “1, 2, 3, 4” an example of syncopation would be a surprise movement between those beats, e.g., “1, 2


3, 4.”

5. Call-and-response: A variety of dynamics [explosive, powerful, percussive, subtle] is incorporated in movement that responds directly to those dynamics in the music. This characteristic speaks to a dancer’s showing the instruments DRAMATICALLY through movement. You can “see” specific notes and rhythms speaking through movement. In “call-and-response,” an individual note, phrase or section of music impacts the movement so strongly, that it looks as if the dancer is channeling the instrument, (e.g., a trumpet BWAP! corresponds to an electric ZAP! in the dancer’s body) OR calling back to it. This characteristic goes beyond matching dancing with music. Dancers from the beginning of time have, hopefully, danced along with the music, matching their steps to the beat and style of the music. “Call-and-response” goes beyond music framing the dancing. It is a dramatic response of the body that displays a dramatic musical impulse so strongly that the move wouldn’t really make sense without the music.

The five jazz dance characteristics are all physical characteristics that you can see, as opposed to something the dancer feels or a message the choreographer tries to convey. For example, “freedom of movement” is a body characteristic, not the feeling of freedom or freely moving around the stage.

Clarification of Jazz Dance Characteristics

A Match Made in America

Compare the jazz dance characteristics to those of jazz music. They are heavily intertwined. Jazz music and jazz dance incubated together in the heat of the south. Plantation owners, worried that slaves could communicate long distances with their traditional African drums, prohibited slaves from owning them. Body slapping, clapping and stomping became new percussion sounds.

So began the evolution of American music and dance. Traditional African forms were brought to America by slaves, then enough traditional European elements were adjusted and new elements added that the music and dance were slowly transformed into the distinctly American art forms of “jazz music” and “jazz dance.”

“The instruments of early jazz are virtually all European…Despite the prominence of rhythm as a key ingredient of African music, the basic instruments of the jazz drum set—snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals—are those of the European marching band” (Martin & Waters, 2006, p. 9).

Two other European elements that contributed to American jazz music are musical harmony [two or more complimentary notes played or sung at the same time] and musical form. Form refers to the length of parts of a song, in which a line of music comes to a predictable close at the end of 8, 16 or 32 measures of music. [This sounds complicated if you haven’t studied music, but listen to almost any song on your iPod, and you automatically know when the “end” of a line is coming. If the song has lyrics, the line often ends in a rhyme of the line before. The number of beats of music for each line is usually 8, each part of the song is set and usually matches the other parts.]

The blending of elements from many sources matched America’s new, high energy blend of cultures. Critics of jazz music at the time also said the music reflected the brash, young, rebellious qualities of Americans.

It was no accident that jazz dance showed a similar evolution. As slaves’ actions were limited by chains and by rules set by plantation owners, their dances changed to adapt to the limitations. Additional elements were incorporated by slaves who watched white southerners dance at events. This blend of African-American dance with European elements became American jazz dance. Distinct jazz dances were developed in different territories by slaves who had different white influences and fewer or more limitations on freedom.

European musical form added repeated patterns and predictability to the passionate undercurrents of African rhythms, allowing jazz music to accommodate formalized, commercial dance and making the counting of music and musical phrases accessible to dancers of all skill levels. The excitement of jazz music ignited new dance styles. And the popularity of dance, aided by the invention of the radio, spread across the country like wildfire.

To tie this back to the stage, we need to remember that the early American stage dancers often choreographed their own dances, incorporating anything they could use to entertain their audiences. So jazz dances appeared on stage here and there with black performers who performed the dances they knew from the South. Other dances were “theatricalized” for maximum audience impact. [Remember the Cakewalk from
In Dahomey?] In addition, tap dancing—though it was not called “tap” until the 1910s when Ned Wayburn added metal taps to his dancers’ shoes— had been a staple of the American stage for decades. For the most part, however, jazz dance, prior to the 1920s, was primarily black social dancing in response to jazz music played in dance halls, clubs, and at family gatherings. Take a look at this video and you’ll see why black social dances gave a high voltage shock to white audiences in Harlem clubs and why they provided new possibilities for the Broadway stage.

Video: Black Social Dance


The 1920s Broadway stage became the site from which jazz dance was popularized and delivered to the nation. Social dances from Harlem, theatricalized for the stage, were featured in black musicals viewed by both black and white audiences. In addition, professional white chorus dancers and dance stars raced to train with black teachers to learn the latest jazz dances. White financial backing enabled “black” dance studios to open. White versions of black social dances began to appear in musicals. Black dancing grew because of the increase in white Broadway shows. It was the utilization of black dance and jazz music which transformed musical theater into a unique, American art form.

According to Danielle Robinson, a dance historian and professor of dance cultural studies, the white appropriation of black jazz dancing limited the opportunities for black Broadway dancers. At the same time, the jazz dance craze and the quantity of white dance professionals who wanted to learn the latest dances created a new career in dance for blacks: professional dance teacher.

It was the…plentiful performance opportunities for white dancers who could dance “jazz” that were the catalyst for this new profession. White jazz dancers, especially female ones, were the primary clients of the black Broadway studios, not professional black performers. Furthermore, it was white celebrity women who were most able to market black dances (such as the Shimmy, Charleston, and Black Bottom) directly to the American public through films, magazines, sheet music, and theater shows. Black dances, not black dancers, were the stars of the Jazz Age—a fact that may have limited the success of any visibly black dancers, while simultaneously enabling the careers of black dance teachers, working behind the scenes. (2006, p. 25)

So was this new relationship between black teachers and white students a step towards increased racial understanding? Or was it a continuation of an historic relationship in which whites viewed blacks as subservient members of society? Robinson argues that it was a little of both. She believes that black teachers were empowered with a new career, but “black jazz teachers formalized a relationship between black and white dancers that reified the notion that black people, bodies and dancing existed to support white pleasure and profit” (2006, p. 21).

Charlie Davis, a Broadway performer from the musical
Shuffle Along, was the first black teacher to open a studio. Billy Pierce also opened one on 46th Street, and as we discussed earlier, Buddy Bradley taught and coached many of Broadway’s most famous white stars.

I strongly believe it was during this decade that theatrical adaptations and formalizations of jazz dances created the “theatrical jazz” [also called “Broadway jazz”] genre still used on stage today.

The development of theatrical jazz mirrored the development of jazz music. With a strong foundation in African styles and steps, European formatting was incorporated to present the dances. Remember, these dances were social dances done in clubs. There were no positions in which the dancers stood to dance. There was no one direction that all the dancers faced. Dancing was improvised in the moment to whatever song the band played. So added elements like lines, formations, and patterns of step combinations transformed the key steps and styles of the social jazz dances into performable and watchable dance numbers set to specific songs.

This formalization may also add further insight into the path that these dances took from Harlem clubs to the Broadway stage to the films that delivered them to the general American public. When black dancers performed the dances, the upper body and hips were relaxed and responsive to the movement of the legs and feet, often making the dancer look “out of control.” When white dancers performed newly learned jazz dances, centuries of erect posture were displayed in their bodies. Taking the jazz dances and “whitewashing” them with repeated step patterns and upright posture may have made them more “user-friendly” to the general public. In addition, the formalization of the dance style made possible the idea of “training” jazz dancers for the stage.

Let’s take a closer look at the 1920s…

The 1920s evidenced a very clear connection between what was happening in American society and what showed up on the Broadway stage. The following is a simplified diagram showing the flow of events that impacted and were impacted by Broadway dance:

Social Issues (World War I, Prohibition, Women’s Rights, Technology) –> Social Dance Craze & Harlem Renaissance –> Broadway –> Social Dance Craze –> Harlem Renaissance –> Social Issues (New “American” Art Forms)

Historic Events and American Society

1919 began an optimistic, celebratory American decade. Americans found themselves with extra time and money to spend on recreation. With a booming national economy, high employment rates and an excess of goods available, the country’s focus was fixed on extravagant lifestyles and superficial pleasures. Pleasure-seeking and leisure became priorities.

The American socio-political climate was set by three powerful events: The end of World War I, Prohibition and the right of women to vote. Two significant events impacting the 1920s actually happened in 1919: The Treaty of Versailles [peace treaty] was signed in 1919, ending World War I; and the prohibition of alcohol was written into the Constitution under the 18th Amendment.

[So many issues came to play on the Broadway stage and on dance in the 1920s. It may seem as though we are veering far from the road, but go along for the ride, and it will all make sense soon!]

World War I

World War I was tremendously influential in the lives of women, blacks and immigrants in the United States. These “minority” groups worked in the stateside jobs vacated by fighting soldiers. Factories that made supplies for the war provided enough employment for almost everyone. Women achieved a measure of financial and social independence. Many African Americans and immigrants from the West Indes were able to work, save money and buy a home for the first time.


With bolstered confidence, women’s coalitions that had been simmering now exploded. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union “helped elect a Congress sympathetic to the prohibition of alcohol” (Jones, 2003, p. 44). On January 16, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution—passed in 1919—went into effect. This Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, transport, import and export of alcoholic beverages. The Volstead Act—also enacted by Congress in 1919—“defined ‘intoxicating liquor’ as any beverage containing a minimum of one-half of one percent alcohol, and outlined specific provisions for enforcing the amendment” (Drowne & Huber, 2004, p. 13).

Prohibition gave a boost to Broadway:

At midnight on January 16, 1920, New York City officially went dry…It had very little effect on Broadway. Shows might make fun of Prohibition, but certainly no musical was ever closed because of it…Harlem, where liquor could be more easily purchased in effervescent nightclubs owned by white mobsters, became a new center for singing and dancing entertainment… Prohibition allowed Manhattan nightlife to flourish. The Broadway musical was still the main event for a night on the town, and the decade saw an exponential increase in the number of shows, with the highest number in history—264 plays and musicals—debuting on the 1927-28 season… Almost 20 new theaters were constructed in the Theater District… Now there were more stars, more producers, more songwriters and, more crucially, more backers with ready money than the American theater had ever seen, or would ever see again. All those forces would combine to create the decade that defined Broadway for the rest of the world. (Maslon, 2004, pp. 68-9)

Women’s Rights

The Suffragists, who had fought for years to secure the rights of American women to vote, finally achieved their mission with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment by August 18, 1920.

Dance in America

Both social dance and Broadway dance were hugely impacted by Prohibition. Prior to the 1920s, drinking was primarily an individual act. Couples enjoyed a cocktail before dinner, and blue-collar workers stopped by the neighborhood pub for a beer after a hard day’s work. By making alcohol illegal, National Prohibition gave the embibing of alcohol a new glamour and secret appeal that it had not previously enjoyed. In short, drinking became a tantalizing, social event.

Forced to choose between running a legal or an illegal establishment, club owners saw a change in clientele.

Prohibition led to a huge increase in commercial entertainments that catered to adults. Dance halls, movie theaters, and amusement parks stopped serving liquor and became places where families could take their children and where adolescents could court their sweethearts. Burlesque houses, taxi dance halls [in which female dancers were hired to dance with clients who paid a dime for the length of one song], and speakeasies increasingly functioned as refuges for an older crowd in search of more exciting adventures. (Clement, 2006, p. 177)

Newly empowered, adventurous women made up a large part of the clientele, drinking and dancing in shorter hairstyles and shorter dresses.

“Dating” as we know it today, began in the 1920s, and it was no accident that prohibition led to the popularity of dating and the widespread popularization of dance across America. With the removal of alcohol from many dance clubs, younger clientele became a major new consumer of nightly entertainment, with a voice and opinion strengthened by their numbers. Dance contests became common draws, and Broadway became a popular dating destination.

The Impact of Technology

Technology would prove to be a huge contributor to the extravagance of the 1920s. The beginning of commercial radio broadcasts in 1920 added fuel to the flames of the dance craze. It became possible for Americans to dance to the latest music in their living rooms. Broadway songs were some of the most popular with listeners. But audio recordings of Broadway hits were usually recorded by big bands or radio crooners, not by the Broadway stars who originated them.

The pulse of America began to pound to a new beat that had been growing for decades. And the new music was unmistakably American. Though, in various forms, it had existed for years, jazz music made its presence known to the country through the medium of radio.

Americans were hungry for anything new. With time on their hands and money in their pockets, they clamored to be the first to own the latest, greatest American products. They turned on their radios to listen to the latest, greatest songs. And they went to Broadway for the latest, greatest entertainment offerings.

On Broadway

With plenty of funds for recreational activities, audience attendance at Broadway shows flourished, and the musical theater industry responded with a cornucopia of offerings. Many of these new musicals featured dances that would become new rages in public entertainment.

In order to understand the evolution of Broadway dance as a distinct American art form, it is important to continue our discussion of the two segregated dance entities: white dance on Broadway and the growing presence of black dance during the 1920s [discussed at length in upcoming sections of the course content].

As mentioned in the last unit, World War I directly impacted Broadway. When patriotism skyrocketed American audiences turned their backs on European theatre imports such as operettas and waltz music. Musical theatre historian John Bush Jones theorized that the shunning of European music and musical theatre opened the doors wider for jazz music and “American musical theatre” (2003).

Shorter working days and weeks combined with higher wages brought relative “wealth” and leisure to middle class Americans. Bargain matinee seats in the balcony allowed more middle class audiences to view Broadway shows on a regular basis. “Indeed, the 1920s was one of the last decades of the century when ticket prices rose so slowly that the incomes of working-class and middle-class Americans could more than keep up with them” (Jones, 2003, p. 61).

Rather than escaping into musical entertainment, newly affluent audiences saw themselves represented in the affluent characters and rags to riches stories onstage.

With extra time on their hands, middle class Americans found new ways to spend time and mark their new, affluent status. Leisure activities formerly reserved for the wealthy were now enjoyed by the working class. Country club membership became synonymous with financial and social success, and golf emerged as a necessary activity for every businessman. Horseracing and boxing became widespread pastimes and both sports showed up in Broadway musicals.
Honey Girl, (1920), even had a live race, with horses running on treadmills!

Once again, Florenz Ziegfeld acknowledged current trends onstage:
Kid Boots, produced by Ziegfeld, was “the first golf-and-country-club musical” (Jones, 2003, p. 62).

It’s a Girl!

As a direct result of the increased female workforce and the American woman’s newly acquired power to vote, musical themes began to feature stronger female characters. Female heroines took center stage as Cinderella musicals expanded to include Cinderella’s career. Broadway audiences watched as the “typical” American girl achieved all of her dreams.

Irene was the longest running musical of the 1920s. The show told the story of a determined girl [yes, female singers, actresses and dancers were called “girls” back then] and her journey from slums to a career as a dress designer. Of course, in the end she gets the boy, too. In the typical Broadway entertainment format of the time, the lead character danced en pointe in her toe shoes as she followed her dream.

One word girl-name shows continued to open on Broadway in the early 1920s:

Sally (1920 – 561 performances):

Sally was a musical produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, written for Marilyn Miller, about a girl who tries to make it into the Ziegfeld
Follies. Of course, Sally became the star of the
Follies. [There were two revivals, but both closed within a month.]

Mary (1920 – 220 performances):
Produced by George M. Cohan.

Sally, Irene and Mary (1922):
Produced by the Shubert Brothers [a powerful duo throughout musical theatre history], this show capitalized on the success of the three shows in its title. The story included all three leading characters, though it didn’t use the original stars. The show ran for 313 performances.

Rosalie (1928 – 335 performances):
Produced by Ziegfeld and choreographed by his dance director, Seymour Felix, the show starred Marilyn Miller as Princess Rosalie.

1910s: Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.

Copyright © 2010

Helpful Hint:

This week, begin keeping a list of Dance Influences that you will add to each week. In the content, we discuss many dancers, choreographers, dance styles and shows that profoundly impacted the Broadway dances that followed. So, when you view a dance, you will likely see hints or blatant examples of past dances. Here is our list so far:

· Vaudeville

· Minstrelsy influences: Cakewalk, George Walker,
In Dahomey, Darktown Follies

· William Henry Lane/”Master Juba”

· John Durang

· African American dancing

· Ballet

World War I

“On June 28, 1914, the shots fired in Sarajevo woke up Europe, but smug isolationist America continued to snooze” (Jones, 2003, p. 36). Until 1917, when America joined what would later be known as World War I, Americans took little notice of the events in Europe. Officially, the U.S. was neutral. But “neutral” implies knowledge of both sides of an issue and an active decision to remain impartial in action. In reality, the war did not much affect the day to day lives—or thoughts—of most Americans. When the war continued to escalate, America was forced to respond. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration of war.

Broadway was quick to react. “Within twenty-four hours, George M. Cohan had written ‘Over There,’ the war years’ most popular song” (Jones, 2003, p. 7).

Musicals of the 1910s reflected the shift from apathy to empathy. Broadway continued to incorporate and capitalize on social issues and political events. Anti-German sentiment caused by the sinking of the Lusitania turned audiences against European style operettas. [The Lusitania was a passenger oceanliner. When a German U-boat sank it in May, 1915, over two thirds of the 1,959 passengers drowned.] “By winter 1917, Broadway entirely banished European operetta from its musical stages until nearly a year after the Armistice” (Jones, 1987, p. 48). Diversionary musicals and revues became the preferred forms of Broadway entertainment.

One producer, in particular, had an amazing ability to produce entertainment that moved to the beat of America’s heart.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and the Ziegfeld

“Everyone who writes about Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., feels compelled to portray the man with superlatives. Broadway’s greatest showman. Impresario extraordinaire. Perfectionist. Eccentric. Glorifier of the American girl. Heartless womanizer. Talent scout supreme. Compulsive gambler. These descriptions, each accurate in its context, have been repeated countless times, but taken individually or even in aggregate, the list misses the crucial point. Above all else, Ziegfeld was an artist” (Ziegfeld and Ziegfeld, 1983, p. 12).

Ziegfeld could arguably be called the most famous contributor to the world of musical theatre. Since Ziegfeld’s reign on Broadway–he produced shows on Broadway from 1896 to 1932!–many musicals on stage and screen have emulated the extravagant, sparkling, spectacles that Ziegfeld produced year after year. Musicals such as
Will Rogers Follies and
Follies paid direct tribute to the artistry of the Ziegfeld
Follies. Ziegfeld bestowed glitter and glamour to the Broadway stage, elevating dancing girls from their unified role as background scenery to moving works of art. Ziegfeld also spotlighted and nurtured some of the biggest song and dance stars of his time. He had a keen, innovative commercial instinct. In addition to showcasing bold, new artistic and production elements, Ziegfeld’s shows were a moving newspaper, incorporating each year’s events and inventions.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was born in Chicago in March of 1867. His ability to creatively publicize entertainment was apparent at an early age. “He went a bit too far when he sold kids tickets to see a school of ‘invisible fish’ that turned out to be nothing more than a glass bowl filled with water. The resulting fuss taught him a valuable lesson. In his adult career, he always tried to build his publicity around the best talent he could find” (Kenrick, 2002-4, “Florenz Ziegfeld: A Biography”).

Video: Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.

Play media comment.

(Dupre, et al., 2004)


Ziegfeld produced several Broadway musicals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1900s, during a slow time in his career, Ziegfeld was hired at $200 per week to produce vaudeville acts at the New York Theatre Roof’s Jardin de Paris. Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s star dancer, suggested he produce a revue. Inspired by revues he saw at the Folies Bergere club in Paris, and seeing nothing like them on Broadway, Ziegfeld opened the
Follies of 1907 on July 8th of that year.

Said Ziegfeld, Jr: “The stage of the New York Roof being so shallow and so placed that you could not see the side of the stage upon which you were sitting, no elaborate scenery could possibly be used…Because of this cramped condition in the early shows, we spilled our attraction a good deal over the theater. This was something of an innovation then and was much commented upon” (Ziegfeld & Ziegfeld, 1983, p. 41). The first
Follies starred Anna Held and the Anna Held Girls, a chorus of girls who danced behind her. Ziegfeld took credit for bringing the musical revue to Broadway, but this was not the case. His instinct for picking and showcasing talent just got his revues more attention than most. He had no qualms about getting rid of acts and replacing them with others when he found new talent. And he knew how to create a public buzz.

During the run of one of Ziegfeld’s early musicals, “…the newspapers reported that on October 9, 1896, a milkman named Wallace filed suit against Held for not paying a $64 tab on forty gallons of milk. Ziegfeld, the story said, refused to pay because the milk was sour. Reporters jumped on the item when they heard Held’s reasons for wanting the milk: ‘Ett eez for to take zee beauty bath.’ Before long, beauty-conscious women across the country were bathing in milk. Only later did the press learn that Ziegfeld had taken it for a ride” (Ziegfeld & Ziegfeld, 1983, p. 30).

Follies ran from 1907 to 1936.

Midnight Frolic (1915 – 1921)

When the dance craze hit America in the early 1900s, Ziegfeld was quick to capitalize on the trend. He opened a nightclub on top of the Amsterdam Theatre called the Danse de Follies. There audiences could go to dance and drink after seeing the Follies in the theater downstairs. The club was a success. Ziegfeld created the
Midnight Frolic to entertain patrons. A bandleader played ballroom music for dancing before and after the show. The roof was small with no stage. Entertainers performed on the dance floor in the middle of the tables. Later, innovative stage pieces were added, including a narrow platform fitted against one wall with a flat arch over it and steps to walk down to the main floor. Ned Wayburn–the dance director for eleven editions of the
Frolics, including the first–commissioned a telescopic stage that could be pulled out onto the dance floor, raising up the all-female chorus and featured entertainers so that the audience could see them.

Ziegfeld’s American Chronicle

Behind the extravagance of Ziegfeld’s vision lay a keen perception of popular culture. A look through the progression of Ziegfeld’s shows reveals a theatrical chronicle of current inventions and events.



Ziegfeld Show


Automobile becomes publicly popular

Papa’s Wife – Anna Held exits the stage in an 1899 model motorcar


Taxis crowd New York streets

Follies “contained a taxicab number, with twelve showgirls dressed as cabs, sporting lighted signs, meters, and headlights” (Jones, 2003, p. 14).


Airplanes gain publicity
Theodore Roosevelt goes on safari.
The sixteen battleships of America’s Great White Fleet return from their goodwill cruise around the world.

Follies – Lillian Lorraine sang “Up, Up in My Aeroplane” from a small plane that circled above the heads of the audience.

Follies – Girls dressed as animals, dance around Harry Kelly performing as Roosevelt in a hunting number.

Follies – “ ‘The Greatest Navy in the World’ … pageant featured a harbor backdrop…, in front of which paraded the Ziegfeld showgirls, dressed to represent the various states. Each wore on her head a miniature replica of one of the battleships in the U.S. fleet…The ladies threw switches concealed in their costumes, thereby lighting up the portholes and ‘searching spotlights’ in their nautical headgear” (Jones, 2003, p. 17).


Opening of the Panama Canal
Women fight for voting rights

Follies – Ziegfeld girls dance through the “locks” of the Panama Canal

Follies – Suffragettes are mocked in a number called “The Ragtime Suffragette.”


Germans sink the Lusitania

Follies – A red, white and blue production number called “America” featured dancers representing each branch of the armed forces.


World tension continues

Follies – Reenactment of a naval battle, with a war ship, submarine, and aircraft.

The Century Girl – Patriotic production numbers: “Uncle Sam’s Children” and “When Uncle Sam is Ruler of the Sea”


America declares war

Follies – Included “I’ll Be Somewhere in France” and “Can’t You Hear Our Country Calling?”

Finale: Part 1 – A trip through history to meet important American figures, such as Paul Revere (an actor riding a live horse on a treadmill) and several presidents. “Woodrow Wilson” reviewed his “troops” for war readiness. Showgirls dressed in Continental Army uniforms of red, white and blue performed precision drills. Dancers also roamed the stage dressed as other important American figures. Ziegfeld “dared show one of his statuesque showgirls with a breast exposed. The patriotic tableau gave him an excellent opportunity to do this, for who would dare criticize it on any grounds?” (Churchill, cited in Jones, 2003, p. 40).


World War I continued

Follies – Patriotism a major theme.


Prohibition of alcohol

Follies – Revue sketch included the issue.


WWI ended, age of luxury and women’s independence

Sally – Rags to riches musical about a dishwasher that make it big and becomes a star of the Ziegfeld Follies.


The Harlem Renaissance – Influx of blacks from the South and the West Indes brings black art and culture to the forefront of the New York scene.

Show Boat – Musical about blacks, whites and miscegenation (mixed race relationships).


Broadway hits peak of popularity

1929 – Showgirl – Backstage musical about a strong woman who becomes a Ziegfeld star.


The Great Depression

Follies – Bankrupt, Ziegfeld produces his final follies.


Billie Burke puts up two more editions of the Ziegfeld
Follies, hoping to pay off some of Ziegfeld’s debts.

What Makes A “Ziegfeld Girl”

by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.

The article below was published under Ziegfeld’s byline in 1925 by
The Morning Telegraph, a now-defunct New York City newspaper. While there is no way of knowing if he actually wrote the piece, it is not unreasonable to assume that he at least approved the text.

Beauty, of course, is the most important requirement and the paramount asset of the applicant. When I say that, I mean beauty of face, form, charm and manner, personal magnetism, individuality, grace and poise. These are details that must always be settled before the applicant has demonstrated her ability either to sing or dance. It is not easy to pass the test that qualifies a girl for membership in a Ziegfeld production, but I am frank to say that once she has done so, much of the element of doubt is removed so far as the future success of her career before the footlights is concerned.

There is a prevalent impression that once a girl is enlisted under the Ziegfeld standard, her troubles are over and her hard work is ended. What a mistake! Let us hope that for many it does mean the end of trouble so far as earning a livelihood is concerned, that it means happy and comfortable home living honestly earned. But there are other troubles ahead for her, and plenty of hard work.

A Ziegfeld production is no place for a drone or an idler. Often are the times when you who read these words are just opening your eyes in the morning or are enjoying your breakfast and the early news of the day, that the girls of a Ziegfeld production are busy as bees on the stage of an empty theatre, if indeed they have not already put in an hour or more in striving to come nearer to perfection in that which is expected of them before the footlights. Yes, there is plenty of hard work for them in addition to that which they do when they appear, smiling and happy, when the curtain goes up. Giving a performance is the least of their worries.

How little the public realizes what a girl must go through before she finally appears before the spotlight that is thrown upon the stage. How few there are who succeed from the many who seek this method of earning a livelihood. And, I may add, from what totally unexpected sources come many of those who from the comparatively modest beginning in the chorus rise to the heights of really great achievement in the theatrical profession. I venture the assertion that there is not one honest, wholesome walk of life from which they have not come to some one of the numerous Ziegfeld productions. The society girl, tired of that life, the school teacher wearied with the duties of her daily grind, the one whose life has heretofore been devoid of purpose, the stenographer, cashier or even the waitress. Maybe she is a chambermaid, but if she has the necessary talent and qualities a place awaits her in the Ziegfeld ranks.

Let us grant that a girl qualifies for one of my productions. It is interesting to note what follows. First, it is clearly outlined to her what she is expected to do. She may be impressed at the outset that the impossible is required, but honest application and heroic perseverance on her part plus skillful and encouraging direction by experts very seldom fail to achieve the desired results. But it is only through constant, faithful endeavor by the girl herself that the goal eventually is reached.

It is not the work of a fortnight, a month or several months to train these girls for the work expected of them. It is the task of several months and it is a fact that a girl, either while rehearsing or actually playing, may be training for some character or feature in some future production not yet definitely fixed even in my own mind. Of course, she is also doing this without knowledge herself of the fact. To illustrate what I mean, an apt dancer may be in thorough unison with the others in that particular group, and at the same time reveal a difference in dancing temperament, rhythm or technique; she may phrase, accentuate or actually interpret differently. Not only may she unconsciously register a favorable impression with my associates and me, but she may also suggest something by her work that will lead to some new and novel feature in a forthcoming production. (Kenrick, 2002-4, “Ziegfeld Defines the Ziegfeld Girl”)

Ziegfeld’s Women

Ziegfeld loved women. As seen above, he had a well-defined vision of the “perfect” girl. He also had an eye for strong, provocative dancer-performers. At least three times, he was so struck by a woman that he worked tirelessly to fulfill two great desires – he made her into a star and he made her fall in love with him. Though they were famous in their time, the complex association of these stars with Ziegfeld binds their names with his in every documentation of their careers.

Anna Held

Born in Warsaw, Held insisted that she was a native of Paris. She was performing at the London’s Palace Music Hall in 1896 when Ziegfeld first saw her. He was so enamored of her beauty and talent, that he immediately invited her to come to New York. He bought her out of her contract at the theatre. Ziegfeld produced eight musicals to showcase Held, and it was she who eventually gave him the idea for the Follies. Ziegfeld and Held never married officially, though they were considered married by common law.

Held was known for her seductive sweetness when singing a song. The combination of her flirtatious lyrics, beautiful face and curved figure made her a star attraction in New York and on tour.

Ziegfeld’s relationship with Held suffered difficulties when she discovered that he was having an affair with Lillian Lorraine—another dancer—and had set Lorraine up in an apartment in Held and Ziegfeld’s building. Held gave Ziegfeld an ultimatum, and he used the opportunity to leave her.

Lorraine was quickly replaced. At the end of a fight at a party, she marched out of the room just in time for Ziegfeld to notice Billie Burke—an actress and singer—coming down a staircase.

Billie Burke Ziegfeld

Both Burke and Ziegfeld felt a spark, and they were married in 1914. Burke and Ziegfeld had one daughter, Patricia. Burke stayed with Ziegfeld through the rest of his life, consulting on the movie The Great Ziegfeld as a tribute to Ziegfeld after he died in 1932. She also co-produced two posthumous editions of the Ziegfeld Follies on the stage (1934, 1936), in the hopes that she could pay off some of Ziegfeld’s debts.

Billie Burke is best known for her role as Glinda in the film The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Marilyn Miller

Billie Burke discovered Miller when she was performing at the Winter Garden Theater. Out of the group of women with whom Ziegfeld had love affairs, Marilyn Miller was the greatest star dancer. Her personality delighted audiences and she could do all styles. Miller danced in both the
Midnight Frolic and the
Follies of 1918. She starred in three Ziegfeld musicals:
Sally (1920), which ran for three years,
Rosalie (1928) and
Smiles (1930).

Follies continue…

Florenz Ziegfeld dominated the Broadway scene for two decades. With his knack for finding, nurturing and displaying the very best talent of the times, Ziegfeld dazzled audiences with his
Follies and titillated them with his
Midnight Frolics. Ziegfeld’s antics–both on and off the stage–were the talk of the town. Ziegfeld forced his cast and his audience to address social and political issues such as war and racial division. One could argue, however, that commercial hunger, rather than racial expansiveness, influenced his decisions about hiring controversial minority performers.

Multicultural Broadway

In 1910, Ziegfeld hired Fanny Brice and Bert Williams for his
Follies of 1910. Both created controversy–Williams because he was black, and Brice because she was Jewish and did not fit the usual Ziegfeld beauty criteria.

Brice’s looks and background were soon overlooked by the cast. Her comic timing, facial expressions and strong voice stopped the show. The
Follies cast was not as understanding about Williams.

Video: Bert Williams “Nothin’ to Nobody”

Play media comment.

(Dupre, et al., 2004)

In the
Follies of 1911, Bert Williams broke through a substantial racial boundary when he appeared onstage with white male performers.

Ziegfeld also hired Eddie (Israel Iskowitz) Cantor for the
Midnight Frolic in 1916. Cantor was a blackface song and dance man. In 1917, Cantor joined the
Follies, performing with Bert Williams, also in blackface.


In addition to
Frolics and
Follies, Ziegfeld produced many musicals. In 1927,
Show Boat opened. With its compelling story, moving music and lavish scenery,
Show Boat is widely recognized as the show that changed American musical history. The storyline was the master of the musical numbers and script, making the show the innovator of the integrated musical. Ziegfeld, known to force his cast and his audience to address social and political issues such as war and racial division, pushed the boundaries of American society when he presented this show about miscegenation [interracial relationship that includes “mating”]. A married couple—a white man and a woman who is discovered to be part black—struggle to overcome their society’s prejudice. Even with this laudable theme to his credit, Ziegfeld’s motives have been questioned.

In a musical of otherwise scrupulously authentic mixed-race casting, the original Queenie–the main female African-American character–was played not by a black woman but by white Tess Gardella, a popular blackface entertainer who performed so consistently as “Aunt Jemima” that Ziegfeld’s programs credited Aunt Jemima, not Gardella, as playing Queenie. Ziegfeld was obviously going for some measure of star power rather than racial authenticity. (Jones, 2003, p. 77)

Dance Directors

Ziegfeld used dance directors to stage his shows. “Generally, producers hired the dance director to audition and train the chorus dancers, devise novel and exciting dance backgrounds to enhance the stars, and dream up the elaborate costumes, sets, and special effects that distinguished the dance routine from others like it. No art here” (Kislan, 1987, p. 42).

This opinion, stated by 1940s choreographer Jack Cole in a
Dance Magazine article from April 1949, was very common. But nothing was further from the truth. It may be true that Broadway dance was largely “eye candy” during this era, and dance numbers were very loosely tied to the plot of musical. However, dance directors were tasked with the responsibility of creating dynamic, innovative visual spectacles that would stop the show and send audience members home buzzing with excitement. The dance directors of the 1910s and 1920s significantly impacted Broadway dance for decades, and their legacies also influenced dance in Hollywood musicals

The term “dance director” was used for many years on Broadway. “Choreographer” was reserved for the world of concert dance. Opinion is divided on the identity of the first named Broadway “choreographer.”

Star performers danced daring and athletic numbers for many years, but groups of girls [common usage term]—male chorus dancers were extremely rare—had been used largely for live scenery. Chorus girls formed lovely artistic tableaux or paraded around the stage in elaborate costumes. In the 1900s, chorus girls began to move! Precision dancing in geometric formations became a star attraction. In addition to physical beauty, dancers were now required to have technical prowess and a wide variety of dance skills. These new criteria sent many girls running to dance schools. To ensure a supply of dancers that reflected the qualities deemed essential for their shows, dance directors often opened their own training schools and brought their own lines of chorus girls from show to show.

Julian Mitchell

Julian Mitchell was a dancer before he became the first dance director of Ziegfeld’s
Follies. He is credited as being the first important dance director on Broadway. Mitchell choreographed energetic dances and demanded professional behavior from his dancers.

Ned Wayburn

At the age of 25, Ned Wayburn was hired as dance director for a tour of
The Governor’s Son starring the Four Cohans.

“Wayburn counted his work on
The Governor’s Son among the earliest of the 150 featured acts, musical comedies, reviews, and prologs [sic] that he would stage between 1899 and 1932 as a dance director and choreographer who developed the tap dance routine structure for solo, team, and chorus performance” (Hill, 2010, p. 32).

With a background in math, music and vaudeville, Wayburn was particularly interested in incorporating syncopation into his dances. Around 1910, Wayburn put metal taps onto the soles of dance shoes for the first time. Until the mid-1910s, Wayburn used his hybrid of tapping, stepping, and clog dancing only for solo or duo specialty acts because it was difficult to get a clear tap sound from many simultaneously tapping feet. His development of techniques for chorus tap dancing began…

…to take form during the “soldier” numbers that appeared in reviews during World War I (1914-1918). He recognized the advantage of integrating tap and stepping sounds into the actual marching of the dancers, instead of just adding it conventionally through the percussion section of the band or orchestra…He set about to devise a technique in which the footwork in tap dance would be further articulated, eventually spelling out six different ways the shoe made contact with the floor. Wayburn also incorporated “tap” steps into other dance idioms, such as modern Americanized ballet, character dance, eccentric dance, ballroom dance, and legomania, thus codifying tap dance. (Hill, 2010, p. 33)

Wayburn ran his own dance studio and employment agency. “At one time he had the names, addresses, and measurements of 8,300 chorus girls” (Ziegfeld & Ziegfeld, 1993, p. 316). According to Richard Kislan,

He divided his girls according to height and function and gave each category a name. For “showgirls” he chose tall, willowy girls of exceptional facial beauty. Although he expected them to know how to dance, he preferred in them an ability to sing and to wear the fabulous costumes he designed for them only. The shortest girls were known to everyone in the business as “ponies.” “Ponies” danced, often and well. Sandwiched between the extremes were categories of dancers he called “chickens” and “peaches.” Whatever the category, Wayburn insisted that his dancers possess an inherent sense of rhythm abetted by professional training—preferably his. (1987, p. 53)

Wayburn “staged” eleven editions of Ziegfeld’s
Frolics and seven of the
Follies beginning in 1915. He also staged editions of
The Passing Show, another revue series that ran for several years.

The act I finale, “Capital Steps,” in
Passing Show of 1913…as staged by Wayburn, featured specialty and chorus dancers performing ballet and tap steps up, down, and across flights of stairs…The finale, “Inauguration Day,” involved the scene’s entire cast of seven soloists and forty-eight female dancers tapping in rows, down the staircase, in lines and V-formations, stretching from the stage floor to the level of the balustrades and covering the entire staircase. (Hill, 2010, pp. 51-2)

John Tiller

John Tiller and his “Tiller Girls” were famous before they arrived in New York. In England, Tiller was known for his military-style precision dances. His school produced girls that were hired out in groups for London revues and musicals. Tiller is widely recognized as the “artistic godfather” of the chorus line. He imported several lines of girls to the United States, beginning in 1910. “The Tiller Girls were the original model for the Rockette-type chorus line in which each girl’s movement is exactly matched with each other’s in geometrical precision” (Grant, 2004, p. 217). Tiller was also known for the high expectations of professional behavior that he held for his dancers.

Chorus Girls: From Scenery to Stars

The Black Crook and
The White Fawn—with dances choreographed by ballet director David Costa—were credited with introducing the iconic dance chorus to musicals. However, the high kicks and precision drill team dancing often associated with chorus lines came later, and both were imported from Europe. The Folies Bergere, which opened in Paris in 1870, tantalized audiences with its now famous chorus of barely-clad dancers energetically frolicking and displaying their synchronized high kicks. The geometric beauty of “precision dancing” traveled to America from England in the 1910.

John Tiller contributed precision dance lines of chorus girls. Ziegfeld standardized beauty and sensuality in the chorus. And Ned Wayburn put taps on the bottoms of shoes and categorized girls by height and function.

After seeing The Tiller Girls, Russell Markert claimed, “If I ever got a chance to get a group of American girls who would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks… they’d knock your socks off!” (Radio City Rockettes, n.d.). Markert later founded the “Missouri Rockets.”

All of these men expanded the characteristics of the ideal chorus girl.


History was made–and the evolution of the chorus line culminated in a commercial treasure–when Samuel Roxy Rothafel brought the Missouri Rockets to New York City. He showcased the chorus line as the main attraction in each of his shows, rather than as a side or back-up act.

The Rockettes were installed at Radio City Music Hall on 6th Avenue between 50th and 51st street in New York City—a block and a half east of Broadway. The Rockettes are included in this discussion of Broadway dance due both to the type of dancing that they perform and the historical significance they hold in the evolution of Broadway dance and the life of the Broadway dancer. To this day, audiences fill the 3,000 seat theater to see the Rockettes.

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