Get ready to tap your toes with our newest online exhibit, Shall We Dance? Three Centuries of Dance in America. The beauty of virtual shows is the ability to breathe new life into a previous exhibit with supplemental material and preserve it in a new format for people to enjoy for years to come. When I first revisited the original exhibit’s label copy, my initial thought was to follow the same arrangement (material by century to show sweeping stylistic changes), but I realized quickly that a new approach might be more compelling to present online. While keeping many items from the original show, I reviewed, researched, and added new material from our extensive museum and library collections. The virtual show offers new interpretative sections on learning how to behave at and what to wear to dances as well as the du Pont family’s dancing activities.
Although the exhibit features numerous items from the 1700s and 1800s, for this blog post I thought it might be interesting to focus on the most recent items (at least in our world) from the 1900s to emphasize the strength of library collections from this period. And, given the popularity of shows such as Dancing with the Stars, I thought it might be fun to focus on the international dance sensations Vernon and Irene Castle.
In the original exhibit, a few items were displayed featuring the Castles, whose influence was felt throughout the 20th century. They popularized new dances by combining ballroom steps with those of early ragtime and jazz. New material acquired since 2006 has been added, such as the 1914 book Modern Dancing by the Castles wherein they used film stills to demonstrate the many dances they invented and transformed. Another new acquisition, sheet music from a Broadway production, helps to further round out the history of the Castles, who dominated the 1910s by appearing in movies and plays, writing dance manuals, promoting products, and teaching dance at their New York studio, Castle House. Vernon’s untimely death in 1918 ended their brilliant run, but their lives were immortalized in the 1939 film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle starring another exceptional dance team, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Castles also taught lessons to a teenager who turned to dance as a way of overcoming his shyness. Quick learner that he was, he was soon hired as a dance instructor by the Castles and went on to sell mail-order dance classes with footprint instructions, star in a TV show for ten years, and open and franchise dance schools that are still going strong today. His name? Arthur Murray.
Here’s a fun, little challenge for the readers, see if you can find the most modern item in the show. Here’s a hint – remember the TV show Hullabaloo?
Visit our website to view our online exhibitions and digital collaborative projects at: http://www.winterthur.org/?p=986.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library