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Burlesque Past and Present: Rosita Royce and her doves

The art of the tease is on everyone's lips; with a rising interest in burlesque, cabaret clubs are in full swing and new acts are cropping up every week. At Playful Promises we just adore a bit of cheek, and would love to introduce you to our favourite burly girls, past and present! Keep your eyes firmly peeled, as each week we feature inspiring performers guaranteed to set pulses racing!



This week's edition of Burlesque Past and Present focuses on a performer who seems all but forgotten in this age. Little information (at least online) exists about Rosita Royce. We aren't sure whether the details of her life have been lost to history or if she deliberately withheld information to add to her mystique.


Known as "The Doves Dancer", Rosita Royce was popular in the 1930s, when burlesque had really struck a controversial note with the American audience.


As we have previously seen in our article about Lydia Thompson, Victorian burlesque shows were controversial enough with a bit of leg on show, but a new decade called for more risqué acts. By the 1920s the birth of film and the advancement of radio sent shock waves through the world. Burlesque shows needed to offer something that these new mediums could not; the striptease.


Performers fought for fame, and competition was fierce; by 1935 there were around 3,500 strip-tease acts in the US, each trying to become more controversial (and thus more popular) than the last. With no way to trademark their dances, we can never be sure who invented what, or who popularized a certain act. Rosita Royce claimed she first performed 'The Bubble Dance', (a routine that is still popular today) which was then stolen by her biggest competitor, Sally Rand.  Royce needed a new gimmick that was sure to wow audiences.



Royce created her trademark act, 'The Dance of the Doves', which caused her to become one of the most controversial dancers of her time.


Filling her mouth with bird seeds and striking elegant poses to preserve her modesty, she used live doves like other performers used fans. Audiences couldn't believe their eyes when the seven trained doves carried off pieces of her evening gown; despite such a questionable act her performance at the 1939 New York World's Fair was a hit.


Royce was one of the many dancers who had brushes with the law as cities attempted to crack down on this lewd form of entertainment. She was once arrested for appearing nude on stage, to which she explained to the judge that a thief had run off with her costume just before she graced the stage, so she had to make do with a fig leaf. When questioned about said leaf she claimed "the wind blew it off".



Although we couldn't find much information about Royce from the 40s onwards, we can assume she was still performing her hit act by 1953 when she appeared in the comedy film Striporama. The film starred burlesque, comedy and dance acts popular in the early 50s, including Bettie Page.


Unfortunately, it seems that Royce died a year later, in 1954, however it is not known how or when. In her book "Burlesque: Legendary Stars of the Stage", Jane Briggeman details the two conflicting stories she received from members of The Golden Days of Burlesque Society.


In one version of the story, the burlesque artist is said to have died a dramatic death on stage, in front of thousands. Having her doves released at the top of the stadium, strong winds and the weight of the birds caused them to knock Royce over. Her heart stopped and she was dragged offstage "with the doves refusing to relinquish their hold on her costume".


In the other, more believable story of her demise, it is said she died of cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami. However, the date remains uncertain.


You can watch a video of Rosita Royce performing a routine with her two other birds, a parrot called "Red" and a cockatoo called "Silly Billy", below: