Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dancing with the Castles

Irene was idolized for her dancing, fashions and bobbed hair.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

LOVE "DANCING WITH THE STARS"? It's just the most recent cultural sensation to popularize ballroom dancing.

A century ago, Irene and Vernon Castle were the "it" couple in American dance, not just conquering Broadway, vaudeville and motion pictures but popularizing such American favorites as the foxtrot and the turkey trot.

Soon the couple capitalized on their success, opening a restaurant, a nightclub and a dancing school (at which they sometimes charged $1,000 a lesson for particularly demanding clients); wrote the instructional book, Modern Dancing; and endorsed myriad products — from cigars to shoes.

Interestingly, their commercial success didn't mean they shied away from controversial choices, or perhaps it afforded them the luxury of making those decisions. After hearing the James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra at a private party, the Castles hired Europe's African-American orchestra to accompany their dance performances. They also hired Elisabeth Marbury, an open lesbian, to manage their dance team.

So popular were the Castles that even 20 years later — following Vernon's death while serving during World War I and Irene's several subsequent marriages — Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in the major motion picture, "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle." For a quick peek, check out this video.