Ever wonder how things happen or maybe even why? I’ve often asked myself that question when pondering the people that shaped dance history. For example, who actually invented the first pointe shoe? We know why (to make dancers appear even lighter as they were lifted off stage) but who and how remain a mystery. So here are a few other interesting tidbits:
Pierina Legnani, Italian ballerina of note in the late 1800s, was the first to perform consecutive 32 fouettés on pointe. Ever wonder how she did that when the pointe shoe was nothing more than a slipper with a hardened toe box? All you dancers who always blame your shoes, take note! Her fouettés probably did not look as nice as they do today but Legnani still had to do 32 consecutive relevés on one foot.
Thomas D. Rice (1808 to 1860), who performed in the role of "Jim Crow," took tap dancing onto center stage. In the mid-1600s in America, the bare soles of slaves walking rhythmically across the wood decks of river boats combined with the energetic steps of the Irish jig and the Lancashire clog to create a new form of dance. These movements that originated worlds apart, merged and evolved into the tap dance beat. It was not until the period between 1900 and 1920 that tap dance emerged as a dance form in its own right. With it, tap dance shoes were born. In the earliest days of tap dance, pennies or hobnails were hammered into the toe and heels of shoes, to create the tap sound as performers danced. Before 1910, tap dancers wore shoes made with leather uppers and wooden soles, so that the wood tapped out the beat. After 1910, it became the fashion to apply metal taps to the bottoms of tap dance shoes.
”Les Sylphides” (1909) was the first ballet ever done without a plot. Until then all ballets must necessarily tell a story. But this time the ballet was one of mood, only about the interpretation of music. The timing and back- story of this revolution are interesting. Russian ballet was coming out of fifty years of iron rule by choreographer Marius Petipa and many yearned for change. About this time, Russian dancer Michel Fokine met the eccentric American dancer Isadora Duncan in Moscow. Duncan urged Fokine to pursue his creation of a “romantic reverie”, thus setting the stage for all future plotless ballets.
Isadora Duncan, best known as the mother of modern dance, was an intrepid young woman in the early 1900s who traveled extensively across the United States, Europe and Russia. While her artistic legacy is very well documented, it is intriguing to think of just how she managed all these travels at a time when women simply did not do anything unaccompanied. It seems Duncan broke every rule of the code of conduct at the time, thus making her not only the first modern dancer but perhaps also one the first champions of women's rights!