The Radium Dance

The Radium Dance was introduced to the world (or at least Broadway) in 1904 as part of the W.C Whitney production Piff!, Paff!, Pouf! and was written by Jean Schwartz especially for this musical production.

The wonderful Oak Ridge Associated Universities site lists some items in their collection including sheet music, a perforated metal polyphone disk and a phonograph record as well as a link to The Radium Dance score and a recording of it by Karl Ellison.Listen here

Based on the cover of the sheet music it has been suggested that the radium dance was performed by five costumed figures twirling or jumping a rope and glowing in the dark.

However, another version of the cover of the sheet music for the Radium Dance included a photograph of the intriguingly named English Poney Ballet a group of 8 women in fluffy costumes – nothing like the pierrot styled imagery on the better-known version.

The task of finding out more about the English Pony Ballet was one that diverted me for several weeks but they were a hugely successful Vaudeville act originally from Britain who were known for their tightly synchronised and rhythmic dancing style.

But what about that radium dance?

Listening to the score of The Radium Dance and from what we know of the style of dancing that The Pony Ballet specialised in we can get some indication of how it was although I have not been able to find any images of them actually dancing it.

This photograph of The Pony Ballet in 1905 (when the show goes on tour after a hugely successful run in New York) is the only photo I have been able to find of them dressed in their costumes for the radium dance. We know that is specifically for that moment because of a newspaper report describing the dance a few months before which describes both the costumes and a bit of the dance.

“The stage is darkened, and a phosphorene light is thrown on the dancers dwarfs their figures and turns their big-buttoned Pierrot costumes into dancing dots of red and white. The extraordinary effect is heightened by the nimble, graceful dancers flashing skipping-ropes under their feet and over their heads.”  [The World, April 4 1904]

There is no real evidence that theatregoers would have understood the costumes of the dancers to actually use radium for this effect as it was well understood that the cost of this element would have been prohibitive – even for a successful Broadway musical performance – and newspaper reports back this up.

“However, enough radium to produced that terpsichorean illumination would be worth into six figures at the lowest calculation, and entre nous, luminous paint has been used for years, as every child knows.’ [The Daily Northwestern 02 07 1904]

There is also no real evidence that the dance was written in tribute to Marie and Pierre Curie as some other researchers have suggested. But what it does show is one of the ways in which radium entered the popular imagination and how musical performances helped to solidify this public interest. It is no coincidence that this show, and this particular dance, was debuted in 1904 as this was a year where radium captured public attention in surprising and unusual ways and I will blog many examples of this.

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