72 LONGISLANDPRESS.COM • APRIL 2021
VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE LI’S DARING DANCERS
BY ANNIE WILKINSON
Young, attractive, talented, and in
love, they twirled themselves into the
hearts of audiences. America’s sweethearts
— and trendsetters — Vernon
and Irene Castle revolutionized dance
They kicked up their heels while standing
their ground, challenging prevalent
racist attitudes and advocating
for animal rights. Even as World War
I broke out, they brought the country a
sense of fun and tolerance for all.
They were not always so fortunate:
They started out broke and unemployed,
living in a cramped apartment
with three beloved dogs. Then success
hit: Poor no more, they purchased a
5,000-square-foot waterfront mansion
on Long Island’s Manhasset Bay, a fitting
home for them and their resident
animals large and small.
TWO TO TANGO
Vernon Castle Blythe was an Englishman
performing in Manhattan as a magician,
actor, and dancer when he met
Irene Foote in 1910 at suburban New
Rochelle’s Rowing Club. He was 23,
she 17. A New Rochelle native, she had
grown up with show-business types, as
her grandfather was a Barnum & Bailey
Circus press agent. A high school
dropout, she spent time dancing and
singing in amateur theatricals.
They were married in 1911 and by 1912
were starring in a Broadway revue.
They sailed to Paris and performed
their first ballroom routine, to Irving
Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Ragtime, the African American forerunner
of jazz built on syncopated
rhythms, would never be the same.
The Cafe de Paris hired them and their
career took off, fueled by publicity, a
new marketing tool. They sailed back
to New York to perform and develop
dances based on African American
music styles — the one-step, turkey
trot, grizzly bear, Castle walk, Castle
polka, glide, hesitation waltz, bunny
hug, innovation tango, and scads more.
They bucked Puritan beliefs, as
Douglas Thompson wrote in Shall We
Dance? The True Story of the Couple
Who Taught the World to Dance:
“Fiery preachers across Europe and
Vernon and Irene Castle. (Library of Congress)
especially in America denounced
ballroom dance as the devil’s work …
The idea that men and women should
dance so close together was evil.”
But their appearance banished those
attitudes, wrote Thompson: “You
too could be slim and healthy and in
love — if you danced.” Irene said she
personified the girl next door, and
they were “young, clean, married, and
well mannered.” They delighted in
dancing together, their arms encircling
each other, dipping, bowing, hopping,
arching — and making it look simple.
There was more to these stellar performers
than fancy footwork. They
skipped across upper-crust society
with backstage behavior that elevated
them as pioneers in social attitudes.
Traveling with a Black orchestra, James
Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, the
Castles believed that only Blacks could
comprehend ballroom dance music’s
rhythms. But segregation was prevalent.
Blacks weren’t allowed to occupy
whites’ train cars or enter nightclubs.
Still, Castle persisted, and succeeded.
The Castles introduced audiences to
Black musicians through touring and
endorsing their phonograph records.
Over the next few years, the Castles
opened a dancing school, Castle House,
across from Manhattan’s Ritz Hotel;
their supper club, Castles in the Air,
was located on a Broadway theatre’s
roof. They performed on Broadway
and made films, splitting their time
between the City and Long Island.
They indulged their love of animals
by purchasing Shorecliff House in
1914, a 4.5-acre estate on Manhasset
Bay, with kennels and stables for 24
dogs, five horses, a donkey, and more,
including animals rescued from the
theater. The same year, they opened a
resort/dancing school, Castles by the
Sea, on the Long Beach boardwalk on
Long Island’s South Shore (now the site
of the Allegria Hotel).
By 1915, Irene had become a fashion
leader: She danced in long, floating
skirts and distinctive headwear,
bobbed her dyed-red hair, and discarded
her girdle. When Vernon returned
to England to support the war effort by
flying combat missions, she continued
performing but was unhappy dancing
solo. He returned to America to train
pilots, but died in a Texas plane crash
Her career mostly ended in 1923,
except for summer stock, after she
remarried and relocated to Chicago.
In the late 1920s, she was labeled “The
best-dressed woman in America,” but
animal rescue was her passion. The
antivivisectionist activist founded
the Illinois dog shelter Orphans in the
In 1964 she told The New York Times:
“When I die, my gravestone is to say
‘humanitarian’ instead of ‘dancer.’ I put
it in my will. Dancing was fun, and I
needed money, but Orphans in the
Storm comes from my heart. It’s more
She died in 1969 and is buried next to
Vernon Castle at Woodlawn Cemetery
in the Bronx.
To see the Castles doing the Castle
Walk, from the 1914 silent film The
Whirl of Life, visit youtube.com/
“The idea that men and women should dance so
close together was evil,” Douglas Thompson wrote.