The Castles Demonstrate the Polka for the Washington Times February 1, 1915

On February 1, 1915, the Washington Times ran the second in a six part series on modern dancing. This article’s headline ran: “According to Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle The Polka is Danced Like This.”

The Washington times., February 01, 1915, HOME EDITION, Page 8, Image 8

The Washington times., February 01, 1915, HOME EDITION, Page 8, Image 8

By 1915, the polka’s nineteenth century heyday had long since expired.  Still, Mr. Castle argues for its revival and modernization: “We have at present a leaning toward things old-fashioned.  This is most noticeable in the quaintness of the fashionable women’s attire…Possibly the most important excuse for a revival and modernization of the polka is because it is easy to learn and so enjoyable to dance.”

Mr. Castle states that the counting for the polka is 1-2-3-hop, or (for the gentleman) Left-right-left-hop, with the hop coming on the left foot.  He encourages the dancer to not exaggerate the hop.

The most intricate figure provided by Mr. Castle is the fourth figure, described as follows:

“While we are facing each other doing the ordinary polka step we change hands – that is, I take your right in my right and your left in my left, your right hand being behind your back.  Now to make the change I do two ordinary walking steps and you turn a little so that you (keeping on with the polka step) are at my side instead of facing me.  After my two walking steps we go into the polka again, and in the position seen in the fifth photograph….to get back again to the first figure, all I do is to take two more walking steps and take the original hand position.”

I am aware that the Castles ran a similar, perhaps identical, article in the October, 1914 issue of The Ladies Home Journal.  I hope to one day get my hands on it to make a comparison.  Susan DeGuardiola appears to have seen the original article, and discusses it here.

It is also interesting to note that Mr. Fred Astaire demonstrated a short bit of “Castle Polka” choreography in his penultimate film with Ginger Rogers, the 1939 RKO production The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.  Mr. Astaire’s version of the Castle Polka can be seen at minute 4:15 in the following Vernon and Irene Castle tribute video, created by youtube user Sharon Davis:

Mr. Astaire’s choreography greatly exceeds the four relatively simple figures provided by Mr. Castle in his Washington Times article.  This does not mean, however, that Mr. Astaire’s choreography was inauthentic.  While I currently have no means to validate the steps used by Mr. Astaire in this particular clip, it is worth noting that Mrs. Irene Castle was a consultant on the film, and that many of the other ragtime dances reproduced by Mr. Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle were historically accurate.  Mr. Astaire was reportedly a fan of Mr. Castle’s, having admired Vernon and Irene’s dancing at the height of their popularity, while Mr. Astaire and his sister were performing the vaudeville circuit.

The article was provided by Chronicling America.  The featured image was downloaded from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

An interesting aside: as evidence that way really does lead on to way on the internet, a very little bit of research informs me that Ms. Sharon Davis, cited above as presumed creator of the youtube Castle montage, appears to be a London based dancer specializing in jazz age dances.  You can check out her website here.

-D.T.

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