Bessie Clayton (1888-1948) has been called “America’s first prima ballerina” and the “mother of toe tap”. The latter skill refers not to simply tapping one’s foot to music — anyone can do that. It refers to something almost no one can do — tap dancing en pointe, a skill as impressive as it is difficult. And…ouch!
The daughter of Irish immigrants, she was formally trained by one George W. Smith, and went into professional show business at the age of 14 in the show A Trip to Chinatown. Her highly flashy skills ensured her lead dance roles on Broadway for the next two decades, including over five years with the Weber and Fields company. In her last Broadway vehicle, the Passing Show of 1913, she performed her most legendary feat, pique turns on pointe while going down a staircase. From here, she went into vaudeville, performing on one of the very first bills at the Palace, and remaining a big time mainstay for the next decade or so. After that, she gave her dogs a nice long rest.
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.