Category Archives: Dance

The Dolly Sisters: Art Deco gold diggers

Gold Diggers illustrated by Boullaire
Gold Diggers illustrated by Boullaire

Gold Diggers is an appropriate title for the fox trot danced by the Dolly Sisters. They surely knew something about gold digging, not as in ‘gold mining in Klondike’ but as in sweet-talking sugar daddies. The Dolly Sisters were hot during the jazz age and everybody wanted to be seen with them, even royalty.

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The Dolly Sisters in their flamboyant costumes

Jenny and Rosie Deutsch had immigrated from their native Hungary to America where they began performing on stage at an early age. They were identical twins and they accentuated this by synchronising their movements and by wearing identical costumes. The Dolly Sisters soon became famous both in Europe and in the States. They had a penchant for plumes, jewellery, money, and older men but above all for gambling.

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The Dolly Sisters in gypsy costume.

The best known of their sugar daddies was Harry Selfridge, who founded the first ‘shopping is fun’ department store in Oxford Street, London: Selfridges. In his later life he became so besotted by the Dolly Sisters that he catered for their every wish. He bought them diamonds, flew over their favourite food and sat next to them at the gambling table, his wallet wide open. This would eventually hasten the downfall of Harry Selfridge: he lost his entire fortune and his beloved department store.

The Dolly Sisters’ exuberant partying lifestyle came abruptly to an end when Jenny was injured in a car accident. She never recovered from it and sadly hanged herself in 1941. Rosie retired from public life and also tried to take her own live. She passed away in 1977.

The Dolly Sisters were wildly famous during their heyday, but it was not an enduring fame. Now this is interesting. We still know Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier or Charlie Chaplin, but not the Dolly Sisters. Maybe long-lasting fame has to do with persistence and talent. The Dolly Sisters’ career span was rather short. As for their talent we can get a glimpse of that in a recently published YouTube fragment. They are performing in a pantomime of a traditional children’s tale Babes in the Woods, although not in their usual identical costumes.

In an iconographic way the Dolly Sisters simply breathed Art Deco. Their ornate costumes and lavish acts are the quintessential image of the Roaring Twenties as can be seen in some of our Dolly Sisters sheet music covers.

Dolly Sisters, illustrated by de Valerio
Dolly Sisters, illustrated by de Valerio
Charleston Dolly, illustrated by Jack Roberts
Charleston Dolly, illustrated by Jack Roberts
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Three covers illustrated by Loris with Maurice Chevalier between Jenny and Rosie.

Furthermore statuettes, porcelain figurines and boudoir dolls accompanied the Dolly Sisters’ rage and success. In 2012 a bronze and ivory statuette of the twins by Chiparus sold for almost 350.000 € .

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Large bronze and ivory statuette of the Dolly Sisters, by Demetre Chiparus
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Goldscheider figure group, the Dolly Sisters, 1925

 

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Boudoir dolls of the Dolly Sisters, courtesy of Frau Wulf, http://frauwulf.blogspot.be

The twins also inspired László Moholy-Nagy for his modernist photomontage Olly & Dolly Sisters. Moholy-Nagy transforms their normally cheerful disposition by a vast emptiness using light, monochromatic colours and simple geometric shapes.

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Olly & Dolly Sisters by László Moholy-Nagy, circa 1925, Gelatin silver print (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

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.

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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: