Irene Castle (1893-1969) was born in New Rochelle to a physician and animal breeder father and a highly educated mother who had experience in show business. At a young age, Irene studied dance with Rosetta O’Neil, learning “gypsy dances” and skirt dances like those of Loïe Fuller. In 1910, Irene met Vernon Castle, an English expat who was working as a stage comedian. They married in 1911. In 1912, the couple was “discovered” while dancing at a café in Paris. They sparked Parisian interest in American dance acts and found success abroad as well as at home. A portion of their success is widely attributed to Irene’s unique style, including her signature bob haircut which would soon be found on socialites all over the world.
At the height of their success, the Castles opened a dance studio–Castle House–and a supper club–Sans Souci. The Castles performed to an orchestra of black musicians, worked closely with a black musical director, and are credited for integrating elements of African American jazz dancing and various Latin dance forms into their dances. However, they sought to maintain a “sophisticated” image and therefore desexualized these dances. In fact, in the Castle House “Suggestions for Correct Dancing,” the Castles explicitly state these goals: “Do not shake the hips…Remember you are at a social gathering and not in a gymnasium.”
Their career as a couple came to an end in 1916, when Vernon left for England to join the Royal Flying Corps. He died in a training accident two years later. Irene continued to perform, making several dozen films and advising Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during the making of their film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Later in life, Irene became involved in animal rescue and shelter efforts, wrote fashion columns, and taught children’s dance classes. Irene was married four times, and survived her last husband by 10 years before dying in 1969 of congestive heart failure.
“Irene and Vernon Castle.” 100 Treasures. Dance Heritage Coalition, http://www.danceheritage.org/castle.html
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd. Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1980.