Ode to the Chorus Girl

Oh, to be a dancing girl of old. Here, Delores, in 1919, one of the dozen or so amazing photos I've posted from the NYPL's digital collection.

I came across all these wonderful photos of chorus girls (a ton after the jump), most anonymous, though they reminded me of Anna Held, of course, as well as Busby Berkeley’s dancers and the dancers of the Quadrille Naturaliste. (And I’m starting out my first pinterest board in high style under the handle encycloexquisit, if you’re out there…)

So what better way to tell the classic dancing girl’s story than via the old WPA Federal Writers’ Project. Below, a first person account on becoming a chorus girl dancer, recorded September, 1940. Eventually, she makes it to Broadway, but it was a long road…

“I’ve done about everything in the show business. Night clubs, cabarets, burlesque, vaudeville — and carnivals too. Lots of the big shots started in a carnival tent, went up to burlesque, and then hit the big Time. Plenty of girls that are stars now were nothing but kootch dancers in road shows when they started.

“That’s the way I started myself. My girl-friend and I, we were still in high school and one summer this carnival comes along. We were both kind of wild and crazy, we wanted to get away from home and see the world. We were sick of school and getting hell when we stayed out late at night, and we were sick of the silly boys around town. So we went out with these fellows from the carnival. We thought they were swell, the real McCoy. They dressed snappy and talked big city stuff, and we ate it up. They spent money on us, we weren’t used to that, and they told us a couple good-looking girls like us could go places. They made a lot of promises and put a lot of wild ideas in our heads. They did kind of fall for us, see? For a while… We were different than the hard-boiled babes they were used to playing round with. We were young then, and innocent kind of innocent — and we were pretty.

“I was a lot slimmer than I am now, I had a real swell shape; and natural blonde hair. Sometimes I’m sorry I dyed it black, but at that time they told me there were too many blondes and a brunette would go over better. I had it red once, too, before I got it dyed black. But I didn’t like it red. My eyes were nice, they still are, but that’s about all I got left. I had a good voice once, but something happened to it. Probably I smoked and drank too much. Anyway it got too coarse for singing, and it had to be dancing for me.

“But I was telling about the two carnival guys. They had a couple of girls with the show, a couple of kootch dancers and their girls got burned up because they fooled around with us. They had a big jamboree one night, a hell of a fight, and both girls quit the show and scrammed. So the guys put us in the show. God! but I was scared the first time I went on, and so was Kitty. We were both natural dancers you don’t have to do much dancing in a kootch tent anyway but we were scared.

“Of course there were men and boys who knew us and that made it worse. But we said to hell with them. It was our chance to get a start and we were going to take it, so we went out there and stripped down and shook it for them. The other girls showed us how to shake it good enough to get by. In that kind of a show all they want you to do is strip and squirm around. The way it comes natural for any woman to do. It’s not dancing. But we thought we were on our way to Broadway sure.

“We traveled all over the state with that bunch. One day at a fair our fathers showed up with a sheriff, but we ducked out back of the tent and hid in a truck until they went away. We thought it was a great life. All that money to spend on clothes and things; nobody to tell us what to do or when to go to bed, and all kinds of men after us. But the show broke up in the fall, and our two guys took a powder, [beat?] it without a word. And the rats took our last week’s pay besides. I guess that was our first real lesson….”


The Ballet of Jewels, 1909

unknown girls...

Anonymous Ziegfield girl, 1917.

The Roxyettes, 1927-1931.

Busby Berkeley and his dancers, 1928.

The Sunshine Girls.

acrobatic dancers...

Mae Kennis, 1921.

June Conrad, 1916.