In the two decades before 1892, when Lottie Collins danced ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in London, the skirt dance was à la mode. With its ‘swift rushes and billowy undulations’, its romantic use of drapery and rapid swerves across the stage, it struck a balance between the classical ballet and the athletic step-dances beloved of the music-hall crowds.
The skirt dance was first performed by the dark-haired Kate Vaughan in a performance of The Ballet of the Furies at the Holborn Ampitheatre in 1873. She played the part of the Spirit of Darkness, swathed in a long black skirt much embellished in gold and palely lit from the front, as if by moonlight.
Shortly afterwards, she was performing other versions of this dance in gauzy skirts at John Hollingshead’s Gaiety Theatre on the West End. The popularity of her sweeping skirts there attracted hordes of imitators, the best-known being Alice Lethbridge and Letty Lind (another Gaiety performer).
In spite of its popularity, not everyone was enamoured of the skirt dance. According to George Bernard Shaw, the long dress worn by skirt dancers covered a multitude of sins. Due to the vogue for this terpsechorean mode, he wrote, ‘we soon had young ladies carefully trained on an athletic diet of tea, soda-water, rashers, brandy, ice-pudding, champagne, and sponge-cake, laboriously hopping and flopping, twirling and staggering, as a nuclei for a sort of bouquet of petticoats of many colours’. How could one appreciate the dancer’s training and willowy thighs while wrapped in half the haberdashery from Marshall & Snelgroves?
Where would we be without the images available on Wikipedia Commons, the source of that photograph of Letty Lind above? A gorgeous carte de visite of Alice Lethbridge performing the skirt dance is held by the National Portrait Gallery, London, and can be viewed here. I can’t show it to you, though, because correspondence with the Gallery staff revealed that it would cost me £135.
J. E. Crawford Flitch, Modern Dancing and Dancers (London: Grant Richards, 1911), 72-8.