Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks on Broadway, mid-1920s.

splash  Dance was as important to Louise Brooks as acting, if not more so. In fact, she once stated “I learned to act by watching Martha Graham dance, and I learned to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act.” Dance was Brooks’ first love. It was what allowed her to first express herself, and to envision herself as an artist. As a precocious teen, dance was what enabled Brooks to see a life for herself away from home. In her later years, older and crippled by arthritis, Brooks remarked that she still dreamed of dancing.

Brooks achieved her greatest fame in the movies. However, she also left her mark as a dancer and showgirl, first with the renowned Denishawn Dance Company, and later as a chorus girl and then featured performer with the George White’s Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies. After her film career fell apart in the early 1930s, Brooks returned to dance, traveling the country as a professional ballroom dancer (of the kind seen today on “Dancing with the Stars”). Later, she opened her own dance studio, and even authored an instructional booklet. This section of the LBS website examines Brooks other career as a dancer and showgirl.

EARLY LIFE

While still a young girl in Kansas, Brooks performed at events across the state. She danced at social gatherings, in front of community groups, at fairs, talent shows, and local recitals. She also studied dance with a local instructor, practiced when she could, and choreographed pieces that were performed at her high school. Brooks was something of a dance prodigy, and she was serious about her art. While a student, she traveled to a nearby town to see the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, one of the greatest dancers of her time. She also attended a local performance by the Denishawn Dance Company, then considered the leading modern dance troupe in America. Impressed, she sought out and met its principal dancers backstage. The meeting would prove pivotal.

DENISHAWN

With her parents consent, Brooks left home at age 15 to study with Denishawn in New York City. [Brooks’ move to New York City is depicted in Laura Moriarty’s bestselling novel, The Chaperone, which is the basis for the the forthcoming film from PBS Masterpiece starring Elizabeth McGovern as the title character and Haley Lu Richardson as the teenage Brooks.] After just a couple of months, Brooks earned a spot with the Denishawn touring company, and stayed with the group for two seasons, dancing in both large and small cities across the United States. Among their hundreds of stops were the Boston Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and the National Theater in Washington D.C. Though just a teen, Brooks performed alongside such future dance greats as Martha Graham, Charles Weideman, and Doris Humphrey, as well as company founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. It was a remarkable learning and artistic experience. During her second season, Brooks, who up until then had mostly been an ensemble dancer, was featured in a duet with Shawn.

GEORGE WHITE SCANDALS

George White’s Scandals was a Broadway revue modeled after the more celebrated Ziegfeld Follies. The Scandals launched the careers of numerous entertainers, many of whom got their show business start as lavishly dressed or under-dressed chorus girls. That included Brooks, not yet 18 years old, who performed as a scantily clad specialty dancer and member of the George White Girls. For the one-time Denishawn dancer, the Scandals must have seemed an artistic comedown, but, it was work. Others associated with the 1924 show included composer George Gershwin, whom Brooks knew well enough to flirt with, as well as chorines and future actresses Alice White and Dolores Costello (grandmother of actress Drew Barrymore). Ever restless, Brooks was with the Scandals for less than six months.

CAFE DE PARIS

After leaving the Scandals, Brooks and well-to-do friend Barbara Bennett (sister to the famed actresses Constance and Barbara Bennett) decided to go to Europe. They visited Paris and London, with Brooks staying on in the English capitol. While in London, the 18 year old dancer found work at the newly opened Café de Paris, a famous nightclub. She danced there for about a month in late 1924, and is thought to be the person who first performed the Charleston in London. The dance was then all the rage in the United States, and Brooks helped introduced it to England’s “Bright Young Things,” the equivalent to America’s Jazz Age flappers.

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES

Inspired by the Folies Bergère in Paris, the Ziegfeld Follies were a series of lavish theatrical revues staged, most famously, at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. For about six months in 1925, Brooks was featured dancer in two Ziegfeld productions, first “Louie the 14th”, and then the “Ziegfeld Follies of 1925”. She received good notices, and was sometime singled out by critics from the major New York city newspapers. Though never a lead, Brooks was a favorite of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. While with the Follies, she befriended fellow performer W.C. Fields, who she would later work with in a film.

BALLROOM DANCER

For a few years in the mid-1930s, Brooks toured the country as a professional exhibition or ballroom dancer. Along with different partners and as part of the acts Brooks & Dario and Brooks & Davis, she danced in nightclubs, roadhouses, and theaters in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Louisville, Kentucky and Miami, Florida. Her act received good notices both in the local papers and in national trade publications like Variety. Later, after Brooks quite the movies for good, she opened a dance studio, first in Los Angeles with a partner, and then after leaving Hollywood, more-or-less on her own in Wichita, Kansas. In the early 1940s, she also authored a self published booklet, The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing.