Out of Time: Katie Seymour, the Nottingham-Born Pioneer of the Skirt Dance

Words: Ashley Carter
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Monday 28 March 2022
reading time: min, words

In celebration of our fashion issue, we take a look at the short, remarkable life of Katie Seymour, the Nottingham-born music hall star and pioneer of the world-famous skirt dance…


It might be hard for modern audiences to understand the importance of the music hall in Victorian times. Long before smartphones, the internet, television, films or even radio, it was the primary source of entertainment, providing brief moments of solace and joy in an otherwise arduous day of work. While we still have a strong theatre, live music and pantomime tradition in this country, they’re set against the myriad of other forms of entertainment, simply becoming one of a number of options. But they gave birth to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and a host of generational talents that would later go on to trailblaze the comedy motion picture industry. To a Victorian or early-Edwardian audience, the music hall was everything 

Like all forms of entertainment, the music hall went through various fads and phases, one of which swept across the burlesque and vaudeville halls during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Performed by dancers using their arms to manipulate long, layered skirts to create a mesmeric motion of flowing fabric, the skirt dance became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. With dresses made from over 300 feet of material, some of the most famous performers of the day dazzled and delighted audiences with the performance, inspiring those who saw it to imitate the dance, as Martie Fellom writes:

“Women everywhere were captivated by the movements of the long flowing gown worn by the professional dancers. Since a modest yet stylish dress was worn, the society maiden could inconspicuously imitate the professional dancer and share some of the limelight.”

No dancer has ever established herself in the favour of a theatrical audience more rapidly than did Miss Katie Seymour

Not all who saw it were fans, made evident by one review from famed author George Bernard Shaw, who said, “It had been my miserable fate to see [a skirt dance] in the second act of some unspeakably dreary inanity at the West End, to interpolate a ‘skirt dance’ and spin out the unendurable by the intolerable.” Shaw’s curmudgeonly reception aside, the skirt dance was the music hall hit of the decade. And while the origins of the dance are still debated, an 1889 programme lists Katie Seymour as “The Original Skirt Dancer”.

Born in Nottingham in 1870, Katie Seymour was destined for a life on the stage. Her mother, a member of a noted family of actors, was a dancer trained in the Italian school, while her father was a successful music hall comedian and singer. She made her debut on the stage at just four-years-old, with her only training coming from a few steps taught by her mother. But her natural ability clearly shone through as, at the age of six, she was approached by talent manager F. B. Chatterton. For the next thirteen years she built up a reputation as one of the stars of the London stage, testament to which can be seen by surviving reviews that endlessly sing her praises. “She floats on in all the colours of the rainbow,” wrote one reviewer. “The dancing is extremely graceful, and its studied propriety would lift the hair even of the County Council.” A second described Seymour as “Exceedingly graceful, her chief characteristics are nimbleness, quickness and dexterity. Her feet are apparently electrical, so rapid is their movement.”

Appearances in Joan of Arc, Robin Hood, Little Bo-Peep and countless other music hall productions saw her profile swell, leading to a visit to America in 1889, where the press was equally adoring. One reviewer described her hair as “streaming down her shoulders like rivers of gold”, while another gushed, “Dainty Katie Seymour dances like a fairy or butterfly.” She followed her initial foray across the Atlantic with a subsequent trip that was even more successful, sharing top billing with James E. Sullivan in a revival of The Casino Girl at the famous Knickerbocker Theatre on Broadway. It was on this second visit to the States in 1901 that Seymour proved her feet weren’t the only fast thing about her, as she picked up the dubious honour of being the first woman to be arrested in New York for speeding. 

On her return to England, Seymour seemed keen to give her opinion on the American dance scene, telling the press:

“There are no American dancers except perhaps toe dancers and cake-walk style. Dancing is not cultivated there as it is here. I am very glad to be at home again.”

She picked up the dubious honour of being the first woman to be arrested in New York for speeding

What made Seymour stand apart from her contemporaries, both in England and in America, was her individuality as a dancer. With little to no formal training, other than those initial steps picked up from her mother, she naturally developed an elegance and refined mastery of step dancing and ballet which, when combined with her lavish costumes, helped manifest the majestic, mesmerising skirt dance. “Seymour arranged her own dances,” Fellom wrote of the dancer. “She planned them while standing in front of a cheval glass. Music was the inspiration for steps.” As Seymour herself said, “The music gives me the idea.” Her intricate footwork was matched by a charming stage persona and a delicacy of foot that was exceedingly rare with trained dancers. One fan described her movement as having “the lightness of a storm-tossed feather”, while another said: 

“Those who have had the fortune of seeing Miss Seymour’s lithe and elegant figure glide through some of her fantastical creations will at once acknowledge that she proves the superiority of English dancing.”

The surviving photos of Seymour present the very embodiment of style, grace and intricacy. The bombastic, grandiose garments worn for her famous skirt dances are bettered only by the expert handling of her posed body, diligently honed through years of disciplined practice and performance. 

Seymour’s life was tragically cut short when she developed a renal infection while on a tour of South Africa with one of George Edwardes’ theatrical companies. Returning back to London, she died at a nursing home in Maida Vale on 7 September 1903. She was just 33 years old. 

People flocked to her funeral – famous contemporaries and audience members alike – in order to pay their respects to the Nottingham-born dancer that, despite her short life, had enthralled them for almost two decades. As The Daily Telegraph wrote, “No dancer has ever established herself in the favour of a theatrical audience more rapidly than did Miss Katie Seymour. She is sprightliness, grace and agility personified.”

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