Sunday, 10 March 2013

Dance, Dancers and Marathons in the 1930s

Dance was a popular mode of entertainment and escape in the 1930s. Dancers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were a big the on the silver screen, everyone wanted to dance like them!

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Fred and Ginger in ‘Swing time,’ 1936

Other famous dancers, ballet, tap, modern and jazz, of the 30s included Harriet Hoctor, Josephine Baker (The Black Pearl) and Tamara Toumanova, while girls like Lena Horne and Anise Boyer were just getting their start.

Harriet Hoctor , 1930s

Harriet Hoctor (1905—1977) was a ballerina, dancer, actress and dance instructor from New York State. George Gershwin composed an orchestral piece (Hoctor's Ballet) specifically for her in the 1937 film Shall We Dance, which also featured Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Josephine Baker, 1930s
 Josephine Baker (1906-1975), was known as the "It girl who danced her way through the 20's and 30's only dressed in bananas". A dancer, singer, actress and a comedian all in one, Josephine Baker was is noted for being the first woman of African descent to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world famous entertainer, known also as "Black Venus,” "Black Pearl" and "La Baker” in her adopted country of France. Her acts were both outrageously funny and quite sexy. She was a star of stage, screen and recordings, a civil rights activist and an honoured military woman during World War II.


Lena Horne 1930s

Lena Horne (1917–2010) was an African American singer, actress, civil rights activist and dancer. She joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of sixteen and became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood. She had small parts in numerous movies, and more substantial parts in the films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. After the 1950s her left-leaning political views and the communist threat found her blacklisted and unable to get work in Hollywood.  She continued to work as a performer, both in nightclubs and on television, however, and in 1981 starred in a one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway and earned her numerous awards and accolades. She continued recording and performing sporadically into the 1990s, disappearing from the public eye in 2000.

Tamara Toumanova in 1932

Tamara Toumanova (1919 – 1996) was a Siberian born ballerina and actress whose parents escaped Russia during the Russian revolution. She made her debut at the age of 10 at the children's ballet of Paris Opera and was soon made the star of performances that travelled to the United States. While most of her career was dedicated to ballet, she also appeared in six Hollywood films between 1944 and 1970, always playing dancers. She made her feature film debut in 1944, in Days of Glory, playing a Russian dancer being saved from the invading Germans in 1941 by Soviet partisan leader Gregory Peck.

Anise Boyer

Anise Boyer was considered a child prodigy when it came to dancing, and began her career as a chorus girl at the age of 15 at the famous Cotton Club, dancing alongside Lena Horne in the chorus line. With her baby face beauty, sweetness, petite figure, energetic personality and the talent of knowing how to dance any dance, she danced at Harlem's most popular nightclubs and at the Apollo theatre and then at some of the U.S. and Europe's prominent cabarets, nightclubs, and theatres. In 1932, at the age of 18 Anise starred in "Harlem Is Heaven." In the mid-1930s Anise teamed up with Alan Dixon and they became known as Anise and Aland, “the best of the adagio dancers” because of their exuberance and athletic dancing. Their dancing varied from tap, ballroom, swing and jazz  and sometimes they put it all together for a spectacular performance. In 1936, Anise and Aland were two of the stars of Lew Leslie "Blackbirds of 1936" that opened in London and they received excellent reviews for their versatile dancing. Anise and Aland stayed together until the early 1940s. Her last movie was "Look Out Sister" in 1947, and there it’s difficult to find more information, or photos, on her.

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The Nicholas Brothers, a famous African American team of dancing brothers, also got their break at the Cotton club, in 1932 when Fayard (1914–2006) was 18 and Harold (1921–2000) was eleven, after starting in Vaudeville. They combined tap, ballet and acrobatics into a style sometimes called acrobatic dancing or "flash dancing." The brothers made their Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and also appeared in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's legendary musical Babes in Arms in 1937.  By 1940, they were in Hollywood and featured in Down Argentine Way with Betty Grable and Don Ameche – a fabulous movie if you haven’t seen it. For several decades they alternated between movies, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, television, and made extensive tours of Latin America, Africa, and Europe. They continued to perform on stage, film, and television well into the 1990s.

Dance groups, ballet and modern, were also springing up everywhere, especially in Hollywood.


Albertina Rasch Ballet, 1930

Dance camps for girls also began.  Rockbank Dance camp in Carolina is still going today.

1930s Rockbank
Dance marathon’s, started in the 1920s became even more popular in the 1930s. Anyone could enter, and vie for the chance to win fame and fortune. Destitute couples would try to win prizes by outlasting everyone else, and for the time of the contest, they where also provided with food and shelter.
One notable account of marathon dancing comes from the early chapters of Anita O'Day's memoir, High Times Hard Times: "It seems unbelievable now but there were once fifteen thousand people-- promoters, emcees, floor judges, trainers, nurses, cooks, janitors, cashiers, ticket-takers, publicity agents, promotion men, musicians, contestants and even a lawyer-- whose main source of income over a number of years came from endurance shows."


World Marathon Dance Champions, Merry Garden Dance Palace, Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1930

Although some did win big, others were used and exploited by unscrupulous dance marathon organizers who would often rig these events and sometimes push the dancers to near death. The dances were colloquially known as “bunion derbies,” and “corn and callus carnivals. These guys, may be suffering from sore feet, judging by their faces.

A dance marathon in 1923

In 1935 Horace McCoy, who was a bouncer at several dance marathons, published a book about them called They Shoot Horses Don’t They’, referring to the fact that they shoot horses when they break a leg to put them out of their misery, but they let broken-down people continue at dance marathons. The book was made into a movie in 1969, starring Jane Fonda and Suzanna York, which encouraged students at America’s Pennsylvania State University and North-western University to create charity dance marathons in the early 1970s – which are still held yearly today.

The story has also been produced as a play or dance on occasion. Here is the North Carolina Dance Theatre in a scene choreographed by Mark Diamond.

North Carolina Dance Theatre

In Australia, dance marathons were still popular in the 1960s – my parents went in a few. Some nights in the late 80s we would dance all night, but I don't think I could make 24 hours - what about you?

Deb xxx

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