Lottie Collins’ song and dance act ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ is often remembered in Britain today as the act which ushered in the Naughty Nineties. There are many accounts which speak of it as a Bacchanalian frenzy in which apparently nude legs and Liberty silk knickers were revealed.
Back when it appeared in 1891-2, however, opinions differed about its raunchiness. True, some of the men who saw Collins perform it at the music halls or the Gaiety Theatre on the West End were mesmerised by her high kicks on the boom in the chorus’ ‘boom-de-ay’.
There were others, however, who denied that there was anything sexually edgy about it. ‘Lottie Collins had the invaluable instinct of knowing how far to go without ever once over-stepping the border-line of propriety’, J. E. Crawford Flitch later claimed. George Bernard Shaw similarly emphasised her self-discipline in the act, making her version less outre than others he’d seen.
Flitch and Shaw were right. There was nothing in fact very risque about Collins’ ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’. It was not even as if she spent most of the famous chorus kicking up her legs Can-Can style. For much of it, she twirled or ran or even jumped about the stage in deliberate disregard of the beat. It was her frenetic repudiation of feminine demureness in this chorus, her energetic abandon of any attempt to appear composed, that made audiences so exult in ‘Ta-ra-ra’.
New York audiences appear to have been expecting something less amusingly frenetic and rather more Moulin Rouge when Collins arrived there in September 1892. ‘Ta-ra-ra’ had been frequently performed in the Big Apple by then – most notably, in a revival of the titillating burlesque, The Black Crook, at the Academy Theatre. Perhaps the dancers in this theatre had performed it in a more come-hither style. They had certainly led the reviewer for the New York Times, at any rate, to anticipate something different to what he encountered from Collins at the Standard Theatre on 17 September.
This so-called ‘ornament of the London music halls’, the Times reviewer sneered, was ‘a mature woman, who is not beautiful or graceful, [and] whose singing voice is not pleasing. … Her dancing is simply jumping, and very poor jumping at that’. The Black Crook version was infinitely to be preferred. In the absence of anything especially naughty or cutting-edge it appeared that New York was beyond this performer, he concluded tartly: ‘London is the place for Miss Collins’.
On Collins in New York: ‘More London Gayety’, New York Times, 20 September 1892, 4.
Flitch, J. E. Crawford, Modern Dancing and Dancers (London: 1911), 96-7.
For examples of accounts emphasising the risque character of Collins’ act, see: Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (London, 1913), 31; W. Macqueen-Pope, The Melodies Linger On: The Story of Music Hall (London, n.d.), pp. 337–8.
On Shaw: see Amy Koritz, ‘Moving Violations: Dance in the London Music Hall, 1890–1910’, Theatre Journal, 42.4 (1990), pp. 421–23.
Bailey, Peter, ‘Musical Comedy and the Rhetoric of the Girl’, in his Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge, 1998), 187.
Above image taken from this resource on music hall.