Dance was as important to Louise Brooks as acting, if not more so. Brooks once stated “I learned to act by watching Martha Graham dance, and I learned to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act”. In later years, crippled by arthritis, she remarked that she still dreamed of dancing.
Aside from her work in the movies, Brooks made a name for herself as a dancer and showgirl, first with the Denishawn Dance Company, and later as a chorus girl and then featured performer with the George White’s Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies. For a few years in the early 1930s, Brooks returned to dance, traveling the country as a professional exhibition dancer (of the kind seen today on “Dancing with the Stars”). After she quite Hollywood, Brooks opened a dance studio, first in Los Angeles and then in Wichita, her hometown. In the late 1930s, she even authored a self published booklet, The Fundamentals of Ballroom Dancing.
This section of the LBS website examines Brooks time as a dancer and showgirl.
While still a girl, Brooks performed at events across Southeastern Kansas. She danced at fairs, in front of community groups, and at social gatherings. 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 was serious about her art. While a student, it’s known that she traveled to see the great ballerina Anna Pavlova. She also attended a Wichita performance by the Denishawn Dance Company when it came to town, and met its principals backstage. [Brooks eventual move to New York City to join Denishawn is depicted in Laura Moriarty’s bestselling novel, The Chaperone.]
With her parents consent, Brooks left home at age of 15 to join Denishawn, then the leading modern dance troupe in America. Brooks stayed with the company for two seasons, touring and 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, Town Hall in New York City, and National Theater in Washington D.C. Though just a teen, Brooks performed alongside such future greats as Martha Graham, Charles Weideman, and Doris Humphrey, as well as company founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. It must have been a remarkable learning experience, and on one occasion the company witnessed a performance by Isadora Duncan. During her second season with Denishawn, Brooks sometimes departed from ensemble work and was featured on stage with Ted 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 were a comedown, but it was work. Her colleagues in the 1924 show included composer George Gershwin, whom she got to know, as well as chorines Dolores Costello and Alice White. 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 (one of the three famous Bennett sisters) decided to take-off for Europe. They visited Paris and London, with Brooks staying on in the English capitol. While in London, the 18 year old dancer and showgirl 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 all the rage in the United States, and Brooks helped introduced it to England’s “Bright Young Things”, the equivalent to America’s flappers.
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, sometimes being 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.
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, and Miami, Florida (and perhaps elsewhere). Her act received good notices in local papers and trade publications like Variety. Later, after Brooks quite the movies for good, she opened a dance studio, first in Los Angeles with a partner, Barrett O’Shea, and then after leaving Hollywood, on her own in Wichita, Kansas. In the late 1930s, she authored a self published booklet, The Fundamentals of Ballroom Dancing.