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The Adagio Dancers, the Ballroom Dancers and Richard Stuart

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Today, the word adagio is rarely used to describe ballroom dancing. If you told someone that you were going adagio dancing, most likely, this would draw a blank stare. Substitute the words adagio dancing with ballroom dancing, the recognition factor would increase tenfold.

The widely accepted definition of adagio is acrobatic balance with counterbalance. It is an action, or series of actions, where one partner is hoisted up in the air and the other partner acts as the base. Some dancers, who describe their style as adagio, use a combination of acrobatics with circus arts. In the competitive sport of pair figure skating, the skaters demonstrate some adagio moves.

The word Adagio is Italian in origin, and also has the distinction of being defined as a musical term. The adagio tempo marks that the music is to be played slowly and stately.

Irene and Vernon Castle partnering each other / photographs by Moffett., Digital ID cas006_002, New York Public LibraryIrene and Vernon Castle partnering each other / photographs by Moffett., Digital ID cas006_002, New York Public Library

Vernon and Irene Castle, Dancing Couple Extraordinaire

Vernon and Irene Castle were recognized as the couple that inspired couple's dancing with innovative and original dance techniques. Before their marriage, both had performed separately. Irene (nee Foote) was an amateur dancer, and Vernon (a native of England, who emigrated to the United States) danced professionally in vaudeville. In 1911, after their marriage, the talented couple went abroad to perform in Paris.

While in Paris, the couple showcased the latest dances including the popular Ragtime. In 1912, the Castles returned to America, after their dance exhibitions. The success of their dance exhibitions opened up new opportunities. The Castles appeared on Broadway in Irving Berlin's musical "Watch Your Step" and and in the film as themselves in the "Whirl of Life" (1915). The superstars of the day, Irene and Vernon Castle were credited to raising the class and elegance of couple dancing. Unfortunately, the Castles would suffer a tragedy. When World War I broke out, Castle enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. His skills as a pilot led to being assigned as an instructor to train American pilots in Texas. In 1918, Vernon Castle would die from a civilian plane crash in Texas. After Irene Castle recuperated from the loss, she would continue on with her life and career.

The following comments were made about the Castles:

Together, they made a wonderful team, and although there have been hundreds of couples who, following after them, have achieved a certain fame and notoriety in ballroom exhibition dancing, the Castles were never equalled, let alone excelled, neither have been replaced.
(unidentified publicist, Richard Stuart papers. Jerome Robbins Dance Collection)

On Sunday, May 28, 1911, there was a wedding in the New York suburb of New Rochelle... If you had whispered to the wedding guests that within three years the bride and groom would be the most brilliantly successful and admired couple in America, and that they were destined to influence profoundly the temper and social life throughout the country, bringing about changes in customs and attitudes which would still affect our daily life twenty-six years later, you would surely have been considered a little touched in the head.
Frederick Lewis Allen, When America Learned to Dance. Scribners Magazine, 1937.

Richard Stuart, adagio dancer

Richard Stuart may have been inspired by the Castles to become an adagio/ballroom dancer. Stuart was a professional exhibition dancer. Born, Richard Stuart Mackell, in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1901, Stuart described himself as an adagio dancer. Stuart's career spanned from the mid 1920s to the 1950s. Stuart teamed with two partners, Claire Lea, his first wife, with whom he danced from 1927 through the 1930s.They were know professionally as "Stuart and Lea." For a short time, Stuart continued under the name "Stuart and Lea" with his second partner Flora Ossana for professional recognition. Eventually, after their marriage, the couple would be known as "Richard and Flora Stuart."

Stuart's trained in ballet, and worked with professional coaches to polish his skills. In the following excerpt from "A Tribute to Alberto Gallo." Stuart described adagio dancing and voiced his frustration about the term "ballroom dancing."

The one person who did more to revolutionize the style and trend of Exhibition Ballroom Dancing, was Alberto Gallo. He took adagio out of the realm of acrobatics and placed it into an easy flowing, effortless, effective style, and raised it to the epotome of refinement and culture, all cloaked in an atmosphere of Love and Romance. The male half of the team must be dressed in impeccable evening attire, and his partner more beautifully gowned and coiffured than the most social or socialite spectators... Another outstanding mark of his invectiveness, was the fact when he began creating an adagio sequence, it was apt to go through two or three evolutions, each evolling [sic] into a higher and higher form, ending in a breathtaking climas [sic]... When one speaks of ballroom dancing, one imagines a couple out for an evening, either at a private or public affair dancing for the pure enjoyment of a social evening.

 

Therefor [sic] the term "Ballroom Dancers" never seemed the proper category in which to place a couple who spend hours, to say nothing of the expense, rehearsing to perfect form of technique no ordinary couple could possibly execute on a ballroom floor at a social gathering. And so for the lack of a better catagory [sic] they will always remain BALLROOM EXHIBITION DANCERS.

Richard and Flora Stuart dancing their famous cape dance!

 Richard Stuart papers. The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division. PARC.credit: Richard Stuart papers. The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division. PARC.Coincidentally, Stuart retired from the profession as ballroom dancing lost popularity. Around 1980, Richard Stuart and Marian Horosko, a dance historian, started to work on a book about dancing couples that never made it to print. Horosko penned that "during the 1920s and 1930s, the variety of dance with movies and musicals made the dancers famous [i.e. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers]. Factors that hasten the demise of the dancers were the big bands with a singer, the decline of vaudeville, and the 1950s start of dance competitions. This was followed by rock and roll of the 1960s and 1970s."

"When the music changes so does the dance." —Hausa proverb.

If you are interested in learning about the history of ballroom dancing, The New York Public Library is a great place to start your education. Most of the images for this blog were culled from the Digital Gallery. Visit or contact The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for a wealth of information about the performing arts.

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