Dance Legends – Vernon and Irene Castle
It is my intention in the New Year to find as many dancers as I can, particularly ballroom dancers; who inspire us and shall we say, “bring something to the dance floor.” It is not only important to learn new dances but understand how they got to be the dances we know and love. Who are these people who make these dances famous and what is their story? It also impresses your friends when you know “fun facts” about the dances you are involved in. Perhaps no one could be on the top of that list more than Vernon and Irene Castle, when it comes to ballroom dance. They were a husband and wife team of ballroom dancers in the early 20th century. They are widely known for popularizing modern dance and here is their story.
Vernon was born in England in 1887. Irene was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1893. Vernon had a degree in engineering but he also enjoyed working as a magician in clubs and private parties. He moved to New York with his sister and her husband, who were both actors. Soon Vernon found himself performing as a comedian on Broadway. Irene was an energetic young girl. Irene rode horses and belonged to the swim team. She also studied dance. She appeared in amateur theatricals and even sang songs.
Vernon and Irene met in 1910 at the Rowing Club in New Rochelle, New York. At that time, New Rochelle was considered a popular place for people in the entertainment business to live. Vernon arranged an audition for Irene and a year later, they were married. After the Castles were married, they went to France
to perform in a French revue. The revue included a dance set to the music of a young songwriter, Irving Berlin. The song they danced to was Alexander’s Ragtime Band, making both Berlin and the Castles very famous. When the Castles were in Paris, they tried out a ballroom routine at the Café de Paris and were instantly noticed. Irene used to say, she credited their popularity to being, “young, clean, married and well-mannered.” But it was also Irene’s “girl next door” appearance and the Castles sensational ballroom dance skills making the dances look easy to do because they both loved dancing with each other so much. Hint: A good way to become a famous dancer: love what you do so much!
After six months in Paris, the Castles went back to New York. They got hired in the then fashionable Café de l’Opera and proved to be complete sensations. At that time, the Castles actually developed many dances, the Texas Tommy, Foxtrot, Grizzly Bear and others. The Castles started to notice the dance and musical style of African Americans become popular. The Castles were considered the first white entertainers to hire African American musicians.
As the Castles continued to get hired in various Broadway productions, in 1913 they started a dance school across the street from the famous Ritz Hotel. Vernon taught dancing to fashionable ladies during the day and continued to perform with his wife on Broadway at night. In 1914, the Castles made a silent film, The Whirl of Life, based on their own rise to fame. They also made a series of short films of their own dances. Irene became known as a fashion leader. If she bobbed her hair, millions of women also bobbed their hair. She also was famous for her “Castle frocks” and was photographed quite frequently. She was known for supporting fashion designs and sewing patterns, i.e., Ladies Home Journal.
As Vernon was a citizen of England, he felt it was his duty to serve in the Royal Air Force at the start of World War I. Irene continued appearing in sixteen more films before 1923. Vernon became an aerial photographer and was awarded for bravery. He was killed in an airplane crash at Fort Benbrook, Texas in 1918 while on a training mission with a student pilot.
After Vernon’s death, Irene appeared in Vaudeville and Fred Astaire helped create it. Her public career ended in 1923. Irene ended up being married another three times and had two children. In 1939, Irene acted as adviser to the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. She also performed in several summer stock plays. Her chief interest in later life was in the field of animal rescue work. Irene died in Arkansas in 1969. She is buried next to Vernon at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. How’s that for a romantic, ballroom dance story!
Thought Of The Week:
Life is a movie; you are the writer, the director, the producer but most of all, you’re the leading star. Your life can be a comedy, adventure, thriller, drama or a good ol’ fashioned love story. You choose. – Dr. Darrell Wolfe