The First Professional Ballroom Dancers – Irene & Vernon Castle

  • Irene and Vernon Castle were the first ballroom superstars. Early in the 20th century ragtime music became popular in the United States and with it new and liberating styles of dance emerged. Contrasting the stiff and formal schottisches and quadrilles of the past, variations on the Foxtrot became popular known collectively as American Ragtime dances. Although the Castles’ rise to fame was quick, it wasn’t immediate. Early in their marriage the Castles auditioned for Broadway mogul Lew Fields and were flatly dismissed. Fields told them, “Who’s going to pay to watch a man dance with his wife?”

    They then travelled to Paris and gained quick notoriety for introducing the new dance forms to the French. Upon their return to New York in 1912, their success reached new heights. Soon after their debut performance, they were in high demand. By 1914 they had opened a ballroom dance school called “Castle House” where they taught high society by day, and a nightclub called “Castles by the Sea” where they performed to sell out crowds by night.  Private dance lessons were in such demand that Vernon reportedly charged $1,000 an hour to his most demanding clients!

    Later that year the Castles starred on Broadway in Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step, in which they refined the basic Foxtrot, which then soared in popularity. The show went on a lengthy tour and brought the Foxtrot to the consciousness of the entire country. They held dance competitions along the way and culminated the tour at Madison Square Garden where they performed along with the winning ballroom dancers from each competition.

    Ballroom dancing wouldn’t become stylized for another twenty or thirty years. This gave the Castles tremendous freedom and influence as they created styles and standards themselves. They disliked the “animal dances” that were the current trend. They considered dances such as the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, and Chicken Scratch to be simplistic, coarse and “out of fashion.” Instead they developed dances that were more refined and often technically more difficult. Among other dances, they developed a “hands-free” Tango they called “The Tango of Today.”

    The Castles were famous vaudeville stars and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. The pair starred in a newsreel entitled Social and Theatrical Dancing and in the 1915 film Whirl of Life. They also published an instruction book called Modern Dancing, which quickly became a best seller.

    At the same time Irene became a fashion icon, debuting a bobbed hair cut and shorter skirts a full decade before the “flapper” style became in vogue. Their stardom was encouraged by those rallying against conservative members of society who, alarmed by what they viewed as the lascivious nature of the new dance craze, tried repeatedly to legislate it. In particular, theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (whose clients included Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw) was impressed with the Castles and began to spotlight them as a wholesome, married couple who embraced the new dances with sophistication and a healthful attitude that emphasized “courtesy and ease of manner.”

    With the breakout of World War I, Vernon enlisted with the British Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, while training student flyers, he died in an accidental plane crash. He was 30 years old. Irene memorialized him in her 1919 memoire My Husband.

    In 1939 Irene published a memoire about her life with Vernon entitled Castles in the Air. Shortly thereafter Hollywood made it into a film called The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Irene was a technical consultant on the film, but was frustrated with Rogers who refused to cut or color her hair, or wear replicas of dresses Irene had designed herself. Irene was known to hit the dance floor well into her seventies. She passed away in 1969 at the age of 75.