Phoney Spanish gypsy dancers at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York?

The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 is now remembered mainly for the assassination of McKinley by a Polish-American anarchist follower of Emma Goldman. However it was yet another triumph for Thomas A Edison, Inc and its electric chairs, X-ray machines (McKinley might have survived had an Edison X-ray machine been allowed to locate the second, fatal bullet), its international kinetoscope distribution network (which showed a vivid reconstruction of the execution of Leon Czolgosz), and a variety of other products.

Unlike the international Louisiana Purchase Exposition three years later, and despite its multi-ethnic African village, the 1901 Exposition was basically national. It avoided celebrating Teddy Roosevelt’s triumphs and what late 20th century US academics saw as the US’s sense of racial and imperial purpose so successfully that even the wife of the Spanish ambassador felt able to attend. Yet the architecture drew heavily on Spanish colonial motifs, and Lilian Betts reported that “the foreigners, especially the Spanish Americans and Cubans, are constantly in evidence.”

One of the stranger exhibits filmed by Edison is something entitled “Spanish dancers at the Pan-American Exposition”, aka “Gypsy dance at the Pan-American Exposition”. The Library of Congress description reads as follows:

The film was photographed from the area back of the midway of the Pan-American Exposition. The immediate background indicates the camera was in front of the living quarters of the gypsy dancing troupe. Several female gypsies in costume appear and dance.

From a contemporary Edison film company catalog: GYPSY DANCE AT THE PAN-AMERICAN EXPOSITION. Unhaltbar. [code for telegraphic orders] The picture was taken in the Gypsy tent at the Pan-American Exposition and shows ten beautiful Gypsy girls executing the famous Gypsy dance that created such a furor at the Exposition. Features of the well known couchee couchee are introduced by some of the dancers. The scene is both artistic and entrancing.

You can inspect the LoC’s original here and a good web version here.

I’m aware of the change in (the perception of) Spanish gypsy dancing following its [re]invention and relocation to the rural areas by Lorca, Inc in the 1920s, but this looks to me quite unlike any I’ve ever read about. Some of the participants in the background clearly can’t dance at all–the woman in white would make an apt partner for me–and the women at the front look to me like they’re doing a standard metropolitan burlesque skirt dance.

Skirt dancing, since you ask, was “a very popular Vaudeville form of Ballet steps and acrobatic kicks performed in a color-flouncy skirt that would show just enough leg to keep the male spectators interested“. It seems to have originated in London or New York in the 1870s or 1880s, and was made famous by Kate Vaughan, perhaps. There are some good learning materials here, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Skirts were originally of considerable length, but seem to have gradually become shorter to allow less athletic or talented members of the troupe their moment of glory:

Who has not seen a musical comedy or comic farce interrupted for five minutes, whilst a young woman without muscle or practice enough to stand safely on one foot–one who, after a volley of kicks with the right leg has, on turning to the other side of the stage, had to confess herself ignominiously unable to get beyond a stumble with her left, and, in short, could not, one would think, be mistaken by her most infatuated adorer for anything but an object-lesson in saltatory incompetence–clumsily waves the inevitable petticoats at the public as silken censers of that odor di femina which is the real staple of five-sixths of our theatrical commerce?

I haven’t read enough to be sure, but I assume it was offspring of, or at least closely related to, the can-can. Neither do I understand the Spanish and/or gypsy connection. The Spanish skirt dance seems to have been popular in the 1890s, and respectable girls were doing gypsy dances in the 1900s, but in what sense were they Spanish or gypsy? Were the ladies in the film shipped in from Seville, or even Mexico, or were they simply a bevy of buxom brunettes imported from New York City for the duration at the usual rates?

I keep meaning to post what I think is the first ever depiction of a tango dancer, but I’m still (occasionally) trying to figure out how it connects to other stuff and what it means and when he’s going to break his leg and that kind of thing. So bear with me, please.

Sitting in the pit for small shows one sees some quite remarkable sights, leading to betting along the lines of rasiert oder nicht rasiert, but odor di femina must have been quite an important factor in the life of variety musicians before the mass commercialisation of soap. There’s a good Sarah Vaughan story which I’ll tell after I do the tango dancer.

The skirt dance is not the same as the veil dance:

(Reminder: El senyor Boix)

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  1. “… leading to betting along the lines of rasiert oder nicht rasiert, …”

    I do wonder how one would collect on that sort of bet …

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