Monday, June 25, 2018

Bring on the dancing girls: A potted History of the Tiller Girls

Popularity of travelling shows and Burlesque with dancing girls is well documented from Hoochie Coochie and Little Egypt onwards. The more sophisticated sequence dancing had its origins with folk dancing and in particular clog dancing. Hoofing or tap dancing was a particular outcome of this. However, the dancing girls which became ubiquitous in Music Hall had humble beginnings.

John Tiller was born in Lancashire (UK) and had a conventional upbringing and took a career in cotton. As a boy he joined the local church choir, loved it so much by the age of 15 he was choirmaster. Despite his rise in the cotton industry, young Tiller remained a keen participant of amateur dramatics. By 25 years old he was reputed to be the richest cotton magnate known for his generous hospitality and lively parties. Fortunes changed with the crash and by his early 30s, John Tiller was practically penniless. His love of the theatre, found him a frequent visitor to the local shows in Manchester. Tiller was always disappointed by the lack of discipline on stage of the chorus girls. He though their effect would be more striking if the girls were drilled into performing their routines as concerted group, like the more formal corps de ballet. He was not a dancer but convinced four young hopefuls to adopt his techniques. Each girl mirrored the other girl’s movements perfectly. At first the girls practiced for hours and had to go home in their stocking feet because they were too sore for shoes.

In 1890, the first performance of the Four Little Sunbeams, met with vigorous applause as the audience clambered for more. Tiller knew he was on a winner and he and his wife Jennie opened a Tiller School in Manchester. The reputation of the Tiller grew and by the turn of the century a London school was opened.

In 1912 at the first Royal Command Variety Performance at the Palace Theatre, the Palace Girls all came from the Tiller school. The Tiller girls apart from their meticulous routines did much to make the chorus girl obviously respectable. By the 1920s, the Tiller Girls were appearing in shows all over the world. John Tiller died in 1926 and his wife kept the school going for another 10 years before she died in 1936. The School continued into the 50s and The Tillers were the background of nearly every provincial pantomime for many Christmas seasons in the UK. New dancing schools popped up and the high kicking formation soon became passé. The coming of television and escalating costs` of touring costs meant the end of the reign of the Tiller Girls.

The dancing beauties (show girls) have been revived and grace stages across the globe and no more spectacular than in Las Vegas.

(Video Mr J Youtube Channel)

Reviewed 25/06/2018

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