In the October of 1914, in a fit of nostalgia, Vernon Castle promoted in the pages of The Ladies Home Journal the revival of one of the most popular dances of the previous century, the polka. He noted that the polka involves a hop rather than sliding steps usual in the dances of the 1910s, but feels that "it should be revived and modernized - not to take the place of the other dances so popular now, but to add variety to all dance programs" as well as "because it is so easy to learn and so enjoyable to dance." A polka likewise enlivens and varies the program on a modern ball in the style of the 1910s, and the "Castle Polka" gives the dance more of a ragtime feel than the polka of the Victorian era.
The illustration at left, courtesy of the New York Public Library's digital image gallery, shows Vernon and his wife Irene in a polka pose. Vernon noted that they had "a leaning towards things old-fashioned" which extended to Irene's costume. Click the image to go to the NYPL site and enlarge it, and you will see that she is actually wearing ankle-length drawers under her skirt, in a fanciful imitation of Victorian fashion. The Castles were essentially acting as dance reconstructors and came up with their own interpretation of how to dance the polka. A transcription of the entire original article with the original illustrative photos by Ira L. Hill is online at the Vintage Victorian website. My reconstruction of the Castle Polka follows.
Still in his nostalgic mode, Vernon implies that the Castle Polka begins and ends with formal honors (bow and courtesy). Irene is shown at right in the "Position Taken by the Lady Before Beginning the Polka or as it Ends." One has the sense that the Castles are enjoying role-playing 19th-century manners!
Vernon gives only the count of 1-2-3-hop for the step with no further description, though he notes that it turns the same way as the two-step, which strongly suggests that the form is "step-together-step" rather than three running steps. The gentleman is always to start on the left foot and the lady on the right.
There are three significant departures from 19th-century style in this "revived and modernized" polka. First, there is the timing. Vernon is specific in stating that the hop comes on the fourth count of the measure; it is not an upbeat hop. This is contrary to the statements of most 19th-century dancing masters. Vernon also states that on the hop the foot should come up in back, as shown by Irene in the illustration above. Note that her foot is significantly further back and up than his; a movement which is somewhat adorable in a dress and a delicate shoe looks less so in trousers and spats. Finally, the position of the joined hands is up, palms together and elbows bent, unlike the lower hand position of the 19th century.
Vernon gives four figures for the Castle Polka:
Turning. In normal ballroom position, turning (one complete turn every two measures or two polka steps) as in a 19th-century polka or two-step.
The bow (illustrated at right). The dancers break apart, keeping only their joined hands, and bow over two bars of music, taking one bar (his count 1-2-3-hop, but without a hop) to bow and one bar to straighten up again. Note that Vernon has his left arm crossed in front and Irene is holding her skirt. Both are stepping back on the right foot and pointing the left in front. After the bow, the dancers resume closed position and continue to polka forward or turning.
"Skaters" (illustrated at left). This is a bit trickier, as it involves changes of both dance hold and (for the gentleman) starting foot. The desired hold is with the gentleman behind and slightly to the left of the lady. Their left hands are joined and raised, and their right hands are joined behind her back. Both are starting with the same foot. To change the hold, at the end of a complete turn the gentleman should underturn by one quarter (to end facing line of dance) while dropping joined hands to allow the lady's momentum to overturn her by one quarter (so she also ends facing line of dance). This will bring her in front of him. The lady must then initiate the actual changes of hands by placing her right hand behind her back and bringing her left hand from the gentleman's shoulder to in front of him. To change the feet, the gentleman should simply walk two normal steps forward while the lady continues to polka along. This will shift his feet to match hers.
To return to the normal polka (moving forward side by side will be the easiest to transition into), the gentleman drops the lady's right hand to allow them to separate slightly, then once again takes two walking steps while the lady polkas, turning her back into the normal hold by placing her left hand on his right shoulder while she brings her right hand forward to join his left. This is most easily done when both are leading with the right foot, as the lady will be naturally turned slightly towards the gentleman and the transition into the forward polka will be smooth.
On the dance position: the Castles are actually depicted with her right hand in front, on her waist, with his hand covering it. This is a lovely position, but unless the gentleman has very long arms, it means dancing with a great deal of body contact, with her back pressed against his chest. The Castles were a married couple and obviously comfortable dancing close; dancers comfortable with this might try the hold as shown. Otherwise, sticking with what they say rather than what they do may make for a more pleasant dance experience.
In conclusion, note that this is most definitely not a sequence dance or set choreography. While Vernon suggests doing the first two moves for eight bars each he is clear that this is only for learning purposes. Dancers should feel free to mix and match the four moves as they please, though I would suggest limiting the number of bows, since suddenly stopping in place can be rather hazardous on the actual dance floor!
A final note: in the 1939 biographical film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance a performance number labeled "The Castle Polka" which bears little resemblance to the moves outlined by Vernon in the article, though it's quite amusing to watch. (I especially like Ginger Rogers' poodle-like outfit, not remotely appropriate to the intended era.) Irene Castle served as the dance consultant on the movie, so it is possible that the fancier moves shown are in fact something she and Vernon danced, but they would be a challenge to include on a social dance floor and given the 25-year gap in time between the Castle Polka and the film, I am reluctant to use it as a source. Regardless, I am including a clip below for your viewing pleasure!
Special thanks to Katy Bishop of Vintage Victorian for first bringing this article to my attention and providing the scanned images!