03 February 2016

Pavlova of America

During the 1920s and 30s ballerina Harriet Hoctor, dubbed the "Pavlova of America” by showman Florenz Ziegfeld, charmed audiences with her graceful and unique dancing. Double-jointed, she was able to bend her body backwards and execute a perfect question mark, as seen in this photo, and incorporated her backbend into many of her dances.

Born on September 25, 1905 in Hoosick Falls, New York, she made her Broadway debut at just 15 in the chorus of the Ziegfeld produced musical Sally (1920) starring Marilyn Miller. After dancing on the vaudeville circuit, she was asked by the Duncan Sisters (huge vaudeville stars at the time) to join the cast of Topsy and Eva, a musical version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which toured the country before opening on Broadway in 1924. After a 20-week run, Hoctor went on tour again before returning to Broadway for A La Carte (1927). 

Harriet Hoctor in The Three Musketeers (1928), Photo by Maurice Goldberg. While Hoctor was lovely
as a blonde, I like the bob and general flapper attitude in this photo. 

Having made an impression on Ziegfeld, she was cast in three of his productions: The Three Musketeers (1928), Show Girl (1929), and Simple Simon (1930). During this time Hoctor also participated in recitals, showing off her dance skills in various pieces including one based on The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe for which Hoctor tapped out of the sounds of the bird. This was accomplished by toe tapping en pointe, which is exactly what it sounds like— dancing en pointe with taps attached. Although not the only dancer to utilize this style of dance, Hoctor was one of the best.

In 1932, she travelled to London to perform at the Hippodrome in Bow Bells where she received huge ovations from the audience. Returning to New York, she appeared in a series of productions including Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1932) before she turned to film. She played herself in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and danced with Fred Astaire in Shall We Dance (1937) for which George Gershwin wrote a number specifically for her titled “Hoctor’s Ballet.” Back in New York, she was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 along with Josephine Baker and Fannie Brice.

She spent the rest of the decade and the war years dancing on stage, including performing and choreographing dances at Billy Rose's nightclub the Diamond Horseshoe, after which she retired and ran the Harriet Hoctor Dance School in Boston for many years. She passed away on June 9, 1977.

Her appearance in Shall We Dance comes at the end of the film. She's in the first part of this clip (before the dancers with the creepy Ginger Rogers masks appear). Notice her name on the marquee in the opening shot? Look at how beautiful and effortless her movements are and how perfectly paired she is with Astaire. It was rumoured that Ginger Rogers didn’t want to make this film at first and that Hoctor was going to replace her. Rogers decided at the last minute to take the part. At least Hoctor got her own ballet, and we get to see it. Enjoy.


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