Category Archives: Dance

Circassian Beauties dancing the polka

Circassian

Circassia used to be a country in the North Caucasus until, in the early 1860s, the Russians won the Russian-Circassian war and ethnic cleansing followed. Sochi, famous for the 2014 Winter Olympics, was its capital. Circassia was legendary for its beautiful women. On the above cover of Victorian sheet music John Brandard depicts two of them dancing ever so lightly the popular polka.

Diderot wrote in his Encyclopédie: ‘Circassian women are renowned for their charms and rightly so.’ Apparently he was quite the connoisseur. ‘They are blessed with white skin, rosy cheeks and raven hair’. So they must have looked like Snow White.

Circasian Polka
Detail from the ‘Circassian Polka’ (composed by Khue Lindoff)

Even Voltaire adds to the mystique of the attractive Circassian women: ‘The Circassians are poor, but have beautiful daughters; and indeed, it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish beauties for the seraglios of the sultan of Persia, and others who are rich enough to purchase and to maintain this precious merchandise.’ Our enlightened philosopher explains that the girls were trained in the art of seduction as Caucasian geishas: ‘These people bring up their children in virtuous and honourable principles, to flatter the male part of the creation; to master the art of effeminate and lascivious dancing; and lastly how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed.’

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P. T. Barnum’s troupe with on the left side two Circassian Beauties.

Romantic tales of beautiful white sex slaves in the Orient inspired the circusman in P. T. Barnum. He tried to buy a real Circassian slave for his freak show, but in vain. So he started exhibiting Circassian Beauties of his own making. He hired local, light-skinned girls with a weird bushy hairstyle that was skillfully created with a comb and some beer. He told his audience that these young Caucasian women had escaped from a Turkish sultan’s harem where they had been enslaved after their kidnapping. A contemporary journalist compared their afro hairdo with a boll of a ripened dandelion. Soon Circassian Beauties became common in sideshows all over America. Their success lasted until the early 20th century. On stage they wore oriental trousers and slightly revealing dresses. They often sat cross-legged sucking a hookah, thus tintillating the male audience.

Circassian Beauties
Circassian Beauties

The merchandising included the sale of exotic photographs with tropical plants and animal skins as decor. Also offered were pseudo-biographical pamphlets of the women. These stories held an explanation for the ladies’ excellent English skills and how they lost ‘their native tongue’.

To be a genuine Circassian Beauty your stage name needed at least one Z: Zalumma Agra (the first Circassian Beauty ever displayed on stage), Zoe Meleke, Zobeide Luti, Zolula Legrand, Aggie Zolutia, Zula Zarah, Zolrebia Tisseah, Zoe Zuemella, … According to British sheet music they could also dance Ze Polka!


Reading: The Circassian Beauty and the Circassian Slave: Gender, Imperialism, and American Popular Entertainment by Linda Frost

The Kinkajou, one of the many dance crazes of the Twenties

A kinkajou is a small mammal native to Central and South America with nocturnal habits and related to raccoons.

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Kinkajou

The name of this cute little animal was used for a dance novelty in the late 1920s. An article of the Examiner in 1927 explained how to dance the Kinkajou: ‘You must sway the shoulders, tango like a sailor manipulating a gangway, and then change from one foot to the other as though in pain, lifting each foot well off the ground.’

While the dance originated in the 1927 Broadway musical Rio Rita, there was a serious disagreement in Paris on who created the original dance routine: the dance teacher Jean Mesnard, the beautiful Irvin Sisters or Albertina Rasch? In fact, all three of them contributed to the pseudo-craze.

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Music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, cover by Würth
The Albertina Rasch Girls illustrated by Würth
The Albertina Rasch Girls, as illustrated by Würth
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The Albertina Rasch Dancers in costume for Rio Rita (1927).

It was Albertina Rasch,  leader of her own troupe The Albertina Rasch Girls, who choreographed the Kinkajou for the original Ziegfeld production on Broadway. The Albertina Rasch Girls also performed the Kinkajou dance routine at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, together with Harry Pilcer.

Strangely, at exactly the same period Publications Francis-Day edited another version of the Kinkajou sheet music, also by Würth. This time Würth chose not the stage of the Moulin Rouge as the central theme, but drew a highly stylised close-up portrait of the two main actors.

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Also in 1927 Paddy & Zez Confrey composed The Black Kinkajou. Although the manager of the Irvin Sisters insisted they had nothing to learn from a dance teacher and that they could very well invent their dance routines themselves, it was Jean Mesnard who choreographed the dance moves that were presented by the Irvin Sisters at the Concert Mayol in Paris.

A lot of quarreling for nothing, because the Kinkajou was never really succesful…

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The Black Kinkajou, illustrated by Pigeot

Pigeot, the illustrator of The Black Kinkajou had presumably never heard of a kinkajou and thought a drawing of a cat might do as well.

In 1929 the stage musical Rio Rita was made into a film. A rare excerpt with the Kinkajou dance routine made it to YouTube: