Dancing was a popular mode of entertainment and escape in the 1930s, the height of the Great Depression era. Watching varying forms of dance, like tap or jazz, was one of the best ways for people to keep their minds off of the world that seemed to be crumbling around them. Some of the most celebrated female dancers of the time were Tamara Toumanova, Anise Boyer, Josephine Baker, and Ginger Rogers.
Though she also appeared in a number of films, including Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Toumanova was referred to as "The Black Pearl of the Russian Ballet." Born in Siberia, she escaped communist Russia and made her debut at age 10 in Paris. During the height of her popularity in the 30s, she performed in Chicago in 1936, where she attracted the attention of famed puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. Léonide Massine, one of the most revered ballet choreographers, often worked with Toumanova, creating roles for her in "Jeux d'Enfants" and "Symphony in C."
Harlem, New York, was a vibrant area for dancing and culture in the 1930s. From this unique part of New York was spawned Anise Boyer, who got her start as a chorus girl at the well-known Cotton Club in Harlem. She gained the attention and praise of personalities like Walter Winchell and went on to star in films like Harlem is Heaven. Boyer's skill, however, was always in live performances at cabarets and nightclubs under the dance team moniker Anise and Aland with Alan Dixon.
Josephine Baker was one of the reigning queens of dance in Paris in the 1930s. Because of her skin color and salacious dance routine, Baker was never completely embraced in the United States. In Paris, though, Baker was lauded and showered with gifts for her scanty costumes and seductive cabaret-style dancing. While her fame continued to grow throughout Europe, she was continuously rejected by audiences in the U.S., getting panned by critics when she tried to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Of course, the most popular of all the dancers in the 1930s was dancing screen queen Ginger Rogers. By the mid-20s, when Rogers was only fourteen, she had already established a successful dancing act called Ginger and the Redheads. In the 1930s, her success continued when she landed a contract with Paramount Pictures and began her highly profitable partnership with Fred Astaire. The dancing duo starred in crowd pleasers like Top Hat and Shall We Dance.