The origins of burlesque are old – ancient, in fact! And we like a bit of history! So today’s installment of our history of burlesque series takes a look at the Leg Mania Artiste of the 1800s… And it’s not quite what you think!
You might think of leg mania, in our times, as someone who is a bit excited about legs (and let’s face it, with loads of lovely pins on the burlesque scene, who doesn’t have a bit of leg mania now and then!) but it actually refers to a type of dance popular in the music halls of the later half of the 1800s, billed as the ‘specialty act’ sandwiched between the naughty songs. If you crossed the can can with a contortionist with St Vitus Dance then you might be close to the popular form of entertainment many Victorians enjoyed. A “skilled dance that made the performer look like they were experiencing violent convulsions on stage” is how one source describes the act that could be performed solo, as a duet or as a troupe. And it wasn’t just limited to female performers – in fact some of the most popular were male.
Spaniard Señor Donato took stages by storm, appearing on the British theatre scene in the 1860s. The fact that this Leg Mania Artiste only had one leg made no odds to his frenetic performances which often saw him perform the mantle dance (an ode to his heritage, basically spinning and turning a cloak around) with awesome speed and agility. Appearing regularly in Covent Garden “the original one legged phenomenon” was a pioneering performer – many audiences hadn’t seen anything like Donato and when he hit the stage frantically playing the castanets, he would whip the audiences up to a frenzy and easily became one of the most famous in the genre.
This violent dance was still enthralling audiences right into the early part of the 20th century where The Primrose Sisters (Edith and Florence Atkinson) reportedly danced so hard that the curtains collapsed and injured Edith. Meanwhile, English gal Lily Flexmore was attracting audiences by putting her foot in her mouth – quite literally – with her version of the Leg Mania dance. As her moniker suggests, Lily was a contortionist and combined this with singing, dancing and comedy to take the genre in a new direction, which took herself to stages as far flung as America. Her violent and jerking high kicks acted out the narrative of her naughty songs, featuring characters such as dirty stop-out Mary who forgets to go home, waking in the arms of a gentleman after promises to “wink my eye and kick my tootsies high” as one review from a performance at Clapham’s The Grand states.
As we move more into the 1920s and 30s, the dance had evolved into a more polished comedy/contortion act, as you can see performed by French performer Cinda Gleen here and even as an early showgirl gimmick performed by West End dancer/contortionist Daphne DeWitt here, billed as an acrobatic dance, and the acrobatic dance became a genre in its own right during this time.
Elements of the Leg Mania Artiste’s routines can even be seen late in the 1950s, in the work of American contortionist Meribeth Old, whose high kicks take her cartwheeling across the stage before she strips off her costume and bends into all kinds of impossible poses, literally tying herself in knots, as you can see here.
Of course the high kick has become a staple in most modern showgirl routines – albeit not quite as frantic, angular and spasmodic as the Leg Mania Artiste’s version – and we think Leg Mania is due a resurrection!