In the Jazz Age of the 1920s, acrobatic dance routines became extremely fashionable and the dances were either described as ‘whirlwind’ or ‘adagio’. But what does adagio mean?
It is in fact a rather ambiguous word and as far as I can see it means many different things to many different people. It is applied to both music and dance and so interpretations are varied and have also changed over time. Certainly in the 1920s, adagio dancing was slow, leisurely and graceful whereas Allegro (or whirlwind) was quick and lively. It was a sequence of well-controlled, graceful movements that was usually preformed by a man and women but sometimes in groups and demonstrated great control, poise and technical precision. Often a romantic type of dance, when done properly it was breath-taking, moving and beautiful to watch.
In 1925, Fred (Frederick) Easter and Ruth Hazelton, a self-proclaimed ‘adagio team’, who were also a ‘whirlwind acrobatic act’ gave an illuminating interview about ‘How to thrill an Audience’ and told a few professional secrets about adagio.
‘People usually think that dancers – and particularly dancers who do any form of acrobatic work – have been studying and training their bodies since they were little tiny tots. I have only been doing adagio work for less than 5 years’ said Easter.
Easter was a country boy who began his dance training by winning several prizes in ballroom dancing competitions in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he came from. He was strong because he was bought up in the country, was always athletic and did a lot of outdoor sports. He enjoyed dancing so much he went to New York to study and at Kosloff’s school met Ruth Hazelton who had been on the stage for many years and had started her career at the age of 5. They got on well and he was delighted to find that her tastes were similar to his. They also discussed a team doing adagio work and made some criticism. He asked rather audaciously ‘why couldn’t we be partners and do that sort of thing as we believe it should be done?’ She surprised him by agreeing.
They began to practice. He tried to pick her up but found himself exceedingly clumsy. So she climbed up on the bar and stepped into his arms. He balanced her for a second or two but the strain was so great he let her fall. They were determined to improve and so practiced for two hours every day for about a year ‘trying to achieve that perfect control and balance that would enable us to do the difficult and precise work of adagio.’
During this time he did not pick her up on the stage. When they got their first engagement their act opened with her in his arms and they arranged things so that they would dance into the wings when it was necessary for him to lift her.
Eventually, after much hard work, he was able to pick her up and hold her in any position and do the most intricate turns when lifting her. Her balance and muscle control became remarkable (and essential) so that eventually she could dive from an 18ft platform right into his arms. ‘She always lands in the same position, for if it should vary even a fraction of an inch and she were not properly balanced in my arms I could not hold her while we dance.’
Fred added ‘the secret of successful adagio is of course exact balance. To do this sort of work your muscle control must be perfect. You must be able to move slowly, for contrary to the popular notion, it takes greater control to move with extreme slowness than to do very quick work. To be more than a mere exhibition of strength, a dance of this type must be beautiful and interesting. Both dancers must remember that the same sense of proportion and beautiful flowing line must be preserved as in ordinary dancing. The lines of the two bodies must be in perfect harmony. There must never be the slightest indication of strain or effort, for the minute a dance of this sort loses its ease and spontaneity it loses all beauty.’
Since Fred was good at sport it is not surprising that he thought sport did provide good training for the male dancer. ‘Strength, of course is an important requisite of good adagio work. In addition to strength, balance and muscle power there must be a tie of sympathy and mutual interests holding the partners together. Unless they really like each other they cannot work together successfully.’
Ruth Hazelton said ‘you have to have a healthy nervous system to do adagio work.’ Once when they were over worked and tired they had an accident when they were doing one of the first appearances – a series of 20 ballets for Graumann’s Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles. Each Monday they put on a new dance – they supervised the costumes, planned the dances and arranged the music. One Monday they did a ‘snowflake’ number. The costumes were white and silver. The set was pure white. All delicate and lovely. The act started with a dive. She had to jump from a high platform into Fred’s arms. But instead of landing correctly she brushed against Fred and fell to the floor. Although she was not hurt she had broken Fred’s nose. The audience were oblivious to the accident because they improvised and carried on swiftly moving to the wings to bandaged himself up before continuing.
For Easter and Hazelton it was their mutual tastes in dance that first interested them in each other. Then a friendly understanding developed between them and this along with continued practise was the secret of their success. ‘Unless there is perfect understanding between partners they cannot do perfect adagio work.’
There were numerous dancing duos that performed and excelled at acrobatic whirlwind and adagio work but the most notable acts were: Mitty and Tillio (French), Roseray and Capella (French) and Baliol and Merton (British).
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Ruth Hazelton appeared in the Shubert revue at the Century Promenade in November 1920 (a revised version of the Century Midnight Revue). In August 1921 she was featured in Mimic World another Shubert revue staged again in the roof of the Century Theatre.
Easter and Hazelton (described as a new whirlwind team) were on tour in early 1923 on the West Coast with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanian Orchestra, appeared in the Greenwich Village Follies of 1923 and the Ziegfeld show Annie Dear (1924). Thereafter, they appeared in various variety and cinema presentation shows, cabaret and minor revues through the late 1920s and 1930s across America.