Q: Who made sexy ragtime dances safe for the general public?
A: Vernon and Irene Castle.
The Castles were internationally famous for introducing dance styles that originated in African-descended communities in the US, Argentina, and Brazil. After first becoming famous in Paris, they toured the US and the world, teaching the foxtrot, the Castle Walk, the Turkey Trot, The Tango and the Maxixe among other dance styles. Although both were white, they hired James Reese Europe as their musical director, which helped expose Europe and his music to upper class white audiences.
Vernon Castle, born William Vernon Blythe in England, met Irene Foote while both worked as actors and dancers in New York. Collaborating frequently with Irving Berlin, the “King of Ragtime,” the glamorous and fashionable couple established both a restaurant and a school of dance, called the Castle House. James Reese Europe composed “The Castle House Rag” for them in 1914. For large fees, Vernon and Irene would attend parties and teach the affluent guests simplified and less earthy forms of ragtime dances.
You can see an example of the Castles dancing in this 1915 film, The Whirl of Life. It will not look like modern ideas of Tango, partly because the Castles tended to simplify dance forms for larger audiences.
To learn more:
- Eve Golden, Vernon and Irene Castle's Ragtime Revolution (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007).
- David W. Gilbert, The Product of Our Souls Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Find even more on this topic in our bibliography.