Sister Kate Dance Company member Robin looks at the camera smiling

Article written by dance company member, Robin Nunnally

What it meant to be a chorus girl

Life as a chorus girl in the early 1900s-1940s (and certainly before that) was difficult work and long hours. Often times girls practiced until their feet bled. Eventually, with the popularity of the chorus line, women were limited for jobs based on their waist measurement, height, and weight.

Busby Berkeley weighing his chorus girls

And with the demand for large production numbers, those women saw a decreasing pay rate.

I ran across a fantastic article online about the history of chorus girls in London. I’ll highlight a few specific interesting facts here.

Wishes of a Wealthy Marriage

  • Many women heard stories of chorus girls working on stage and finding rich socialite husbands, allowing them to retire to a life of luxury, and this, of course, made the idea of becoming a chorus girl attractive. For most, however, it was a life of hard work, many privations, and very little glamour.

“Dancers getting their talents measured for a spot in the Theatre Revue on Broadway, 1937″

Pay and Making Ends Meet

  • The pay being offered for chorus girls fell as the competition for places increased, since managers could then pick and choose and could get all the girls they needed at meager wages. Soon, only the prettiest and most talented could find regular work at all, and then itwas a life of hard work and plenty of it. For most of those who persevered it would be not so much a life as an existence, a daily hand-to-mouth struggle to get by.
  • Even when they had a paid gig lined up, their pay would not begin until the show opened to the public, and there may be as many as six or more weeks of rehearsals before then.
  • Between engagements, some might be lucky enough to earn a few extra shillings posing for photographic portraits or find some other work to help them get by. For others it was no uncommon thing to pawn their few possessions, everything except their clothes in fact, in order to pay for food and lodging.
  • The pay was hard labour. In any given production it would be the chorus girl who did three-quarters of all the labor, whilst the named actors and actresses garnered nine tenths of all the money. Guess some things never change…

Costuming on the Job

  • One girl might commonly make five or six changes of costume in an evening, and figure in ten or a dozen numbers in which she did more work than the man or woman who sang the song.
  • Chorus girls had to provide all her own tights and dancing shoes out of her own slender stipend.

Even to this day, some of these facts still hold true. To audition for The Rockettes, you must be between 5’6″ and 5’10.5″ tall. Guess that counts a number of our team out!

I recently was able to go on a tour of Radio City Music Hall in NYC and was able to meet a real Rockette. One fun fact that they informed us of, was that during the 1950s and 1960s, some women were able to “fake” their height with the popular taller hairstyles of the time. These hairstyles allowed them to “get away” with the illusion that they were actually taller on stage than they really were.