The Pony Trot

The Pony Trot was an extension of the Pony Ballet allegedly devised by John Tiller in the 1890s and made famous by the Dolly Sisters in 1914 and thereafter as an exhibition dance.

The Pony ballet was a type of kick-line routine developed by the British choreographer John Tiller sometime in the 1890s. A group of eight girls were dressed as ponies and imitated the animals movements with exact precision and in perfect harmony. A later innovation divided the group into two sets of four ponies and added two taller girls as drivers who simply trotted behind, reining in the other ponies.

The Tiller Girls in their pony outfits at the Folies Bergere (1924)

The Tiller Girls in their pony outfits at the Folies Bergere (1924)

Tiller’s troupes were so popular and successful that from the late 1890s they were dancing all over the world, particularly in America, the UK and Europe. In 1899 Tiller introduced the Pony ballet in George Lederer’s show The Man in the Moon that opened 24th April 1899 at the New York Theatre. Tiller’s troupe’s proliferated across the globe and in 1912 he had companies at the Folies Bergere and the Apollo in Paris, at Bordeaux, Amsterdam, Turin, Berlin, London and New York. His pony ballet was a resounding success and quickly copied.

For example, in June 1907 Mortimer M. Thiese had a pony ballet in The Maid and the Millionaire, a musical production staged with Henry Pincus at the Madison Square Roof Garden. At the beginning of their career the Dolly Sisters were appointed as two of the eight ‘pony’ girls. Later, in mid 1909, the Dolly Sisters were also in the English pony ballet of Lew Field’s The Midnight Sons.

When the dancing craze hit Broadway after 1910, many new venues opened as a cabaret and dancing nightspot. One of the most popular places, opening in mid 1913, was the Jardin de Danse in the roof of the New York Theatre at 45th Street that originally had been the base for Ziegfeld’s Follies from 1907-1912. At the same time exhibition dancing duos emerged who demonstrated the new dances and the New York Roof, as it was called, became one of the main centres of dancing excellence and innovation. During the spring season of 1914 the star dancers were Carlos Sebastian and Dorothy Bentley aided by the team of Mons Le Roy and Mlle Mone. In April 1914 the latter duo starting demonstrating a fast rag taken at double time all around the dance floor with a few incidental steps thrown in for diversion which they simply called ‘their Pony Trot’. When Mr Seabury and Miss Shaw, who were also engaged at the New York Roof tried to replicate their dance Le Roy was furious and there was a light altercation.

Perhaps Le Roy was not happy when the Dolly Sisters (Jenny and Rosie) adapted a Pony Trot dance to fit their unique style when they opened at the New York Roof on 9th May 1914. Their nightly debut was ‘a sensational ensemble of costume novelty dances’ with Carlos Sebastian, one of the most successful ballroom dancers of the time who was often partnered by Joan Sawyer or Dorothy Bentley and had been the star performer at the New York Roof for sometime. Their premiere was a veritable triumph ‘so brilliantly beautiful and daintily diaphanous is the costuming of these fascinating young feminines that they have been christened the Heavenly twins’ and prominent society folk and theatrical celebrities crowded the rectangle of private boxes about the dance floor with Ethel Barrymore, Gaby Deslys, Nora Bayes, Diamond Jim Brady, Gertrude Vanderbilt, Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet amongst the glitterati of notables.

They changed clothes for each of the four dances and an introduction, which according to Variety were all new and foreign to New York. The introduction was a fantastic dream with just the Dollies wearing modernised Grecian gowns of golden yellow ‘a fluttering affair in gauzy material’ which enabled them to give bewildering high kicks. For the Papalatsa, an exotic fantasy and sort of Spanish Maxixe, Jenny danced with Carlos who looked just like a Castillian. Carlos next made his entrance carrying Rosie who wore an ideal summer costume – a fringed shawl dress and they danced the Havana Rumba a thing of gymnastic whirls which was a tropical triumph. Finally, the Arhumba was a mix of Hungarian and Mexican movement with Carlos Sebastian dressed as a Mexican.

But, the piece de resistance was The Hunt Scole Galop described as a transcendance of terpsichore that eclipsed anything of the kind ever attempted. Variety thought it was ‘the best thing as a novelty dance that has been shown in a very long time’. Sebastian in a coach hat, evening and driving dress carried a whip and drove the two Dollies with quaint black masks and odd animal ears as ponies around the floor making them leapt over four low hurdles which brought ‘the most sincere applause New York has yet heard.’

The Hunt Scole Galop was a clumsy name and before long it was simply called The Pony Trot. It was clearly an adaptation of the existing so called Pony Trot and firmly based on the Tiller Pony Ballet, but this was a clever, polished and innovative version. Clearly it must have been devised by the Dolly Sisters and Carlos Sebastian, and one must not forget that the Dolly Sisters gained their early training in the Pony Ballet. This amazing dance became one of the Dolly Sister’s unique trademarks during the 20s in Europe.

When the Dolly sisters arrived in London to appear in Albert De Courville’s revue Jigsaw, staged at the London Hippodrome from 16 June 1920 one of their featured numbers was the Hunt Scole Galop now called simply The Pony Trot in the scene ‘Sports’. For some the best thing in the show was their dance as a pair of spirited ponies, plumed and prancing with Laddie Cliff as the nimble coachman in charge of a whip and veins. Later, from the autumn of 1922, they also performed the dance in C.B. Cochran’s show Fun of the Fayre with Clifton Webb as the trainer.

The Dolly Sisters & Clifton Webb doing the Pony Trot in Fun of the Fayre (1922)

The Dolly Sisters & Clifton Webb doing the Pony Trot in Fun of the Fayre (1922)

It was such a neat idea that it was swiftly copied and adapted by many others including Mistinguett and Harry Pilcer in Paris Qui Jazz (from 6/10/1920) at the Casino de Paris and Jenny Golder and Harry Pilcer in Palace Aux Nues at the Palace Theatre (from 16/9/27) where it was renamed the ‘Cob-Trot’ but with just one ‘filly’ and the trainer.

The Dolly Sisters meanwhile kept the dance in their repertoire and performed it in during a vaudeville tour of America in Paris in late 1923 with their brother Eddie, at the Cannes Casino in Spring 1924 with Billy Arnold and in March 1924 with Eddie again at a charity entertainment in Paris. At the same time John Tiller had a further troupe of girls appearing at the Folies Bergere this time in Coeurs En Folie (from 14/6/24) and in one of the numbers Les Poneys d’Orlandino the eight girls were once again decked as ponies for a pony ballet.

 

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

 

The Tiller Girls & the Tiller Schools of Dancing

12 Responses to “The Pony Trot”

  1. Maureen says:

    Great website! I’ve now found another piece of my puzzle in researching my grandmother’s life.
    Thank you for explaining the Pony Trot and it’s connection to the English Pony Ballet.

    I have a picture my grandmother from her performance in The Man in the Moon and just yesterday I learned through her scrapbooks that she was an English Pony Dancer before going into Vaudeville. Now I can tie that performance in New York to her involvement in the English Pony Ballet. She came over from London to do that play at just fourteen years old.

    Thanks again!

  2. Deborah Smith says:

    Just seen your response to The Pony Trot and dont know if it relates to your memories but Jenny Golder, who is mentioned in this article – Folies Bergere etc – was my great Aunt. I have so much memorabilia about her and others around her its untrue. Now my Mum has passed away I am going through family stuff. Dont know if it ties in in any way time wise but I am 57 and Jenny was my Mums Aunt.

    Deborah Smith

  3. Lesley Tutty says:

    I’m also interested to learn about the connection of the Pony Ballet to John Tiller. Maureen, I wish I could contact you as one of my ancestors (Carrie Poltz) also performed in The Man in the Moon in New York in 1899.

  4. Gary says:

    I am not sure if you know that you can track people’s arrival into New York via the online passanger lists at http://www.ellisisland.org – it is an invaluable resource.

  5. Hi Lesley,
    I believe I might have a picture of your relation from 1906 with the dance troupe which was in “His Honor The Mayor”. A “Carrie” also wrote a note in my grandmother’s autograph/scrapbook, it was singed “Your Pal, Carrie, English Pony Ballet” Several of the girls in the photo wrote messages and signed as well. I believe this was my grandmother’s old dance troupe. Recently I found out that my grandmother’s sister also was a dancer and was in Tiller’s Sunshine Girls dance troupe.
    Maureen

  6. Lesley Tutty says:

    Hi Maureen,
    Thanks for your prompt response and delighted to learn you may have more information about Carrie Poltz. She was certainly in “His Honor the Mayor” in 1906 and again in 1907. Would like to know more about your grandmother and the dance troupe.

    If you wish to correspond, my email is lesley@tutty.co.

    Regards
    Lesley

  7. Lesley Tutty says:

    Thanks for that Gary I shall certainly check the link out and see if there is any further information to that that I already have from the passenger lists on other genealogy sites.

  8. Greetings Mr. Chapman,

    As a fellow dance researcher and historian this has been quite possibly the cleanest research I have yet to see, you should be very proud of your work.
    I am currently compiling data in regards to the Fox Trot dance, which has lead me to you and your research. What a pleasant surprise you site is. This is obviously the source of the stories of Harry Fox’s performance or a trot with the American Beauties in a line. I also would like to mention that the Horse Trot dance was created in 1912 by Uriel Davis and most likely was a partnered take on pony dances(sheet music with dance descriptions can be found online). Your research compliments my own, I would very greatly appreciate and audience with you as I know we would have much to discuss. Sincerely, Forrest Outman

  9. Gary says:

    I am glad you liked it Forrest. I am, of course, intending to write about the Fox Trot too at some point. I have always presumed it was Harry Fox’s invention. But was it? Irene Castle also claimed to have ‘invented it’…. fascinating whatever…. I am also in the midst of sorting out posts about the Charleston and the Tango….. Best wishes, Gary

  10. Cr Stephens says:

    I also have a relative who performed in the Pony Ballet, my great-grandmother. The story is she left her husband in about 1893 and went on the stage in the Pony Ballet in New York. Would anyone have info relating to this time period? Her name was Mary E. Thomas, Mary Louise Thomas, Mae, and possibly the last name Gurnsey.

  11. Forrest Outman says:

    Hi Gary,

    I’ve spent about seven years now hunting down this devilish fox’s origins. I feel very confident in my work, we should talk…you’ll love the story!

  12. Lucy says:

    I am very late to this post but am looking for any information on the Pony Ballet’s performance in Piff, Paff, Pouff, in 1904 and 1905. I have lots of online resources but am particularly looking for anyone with a family connection who might have some cuttings, diaries or anything that details aspects of this performance.

    https://footlightnotes.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/the-pony-ballet-girls-evelyn-marlowe-beatrice/

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