In the early days of American ballet, the form was dependent on a few solo artists to proselytize through performance and spread love for the art. In the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most famous of these ballet apostles was the beloved Harriet Hoctor. Billed as “America’s premiere ballerina,” Hoctor was born on September 25, 1905, in the small but thriving village of Hoosick Falls, New York, some 30 miles northeast of Albany. Hoctor exhibited an early interest in dance and was encouraged by her family. At age 12, she went to live with her aunt in New York City to study at the Chalif Normal School of Dancing under the renowned Russian ballet dancer Louis Chalif. But the young Harriet may not have been entirely happy being so far away from home. In an undated note, likely from this period, she asks her mother to bring her home.
Hoctor began dancing professionally on the vaudeville stage while still a teenager. One of her early contracts was signed by her aunt, Annie Kearney, acting as her guardian. She made her Broadway debut as a chorus girl in the Jerome Kern musical Sally, which brought her to the attention of its producer, the famed Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. Ziegfeld would cast Hoctor as a featured dancer in many subsequent productions, and Hoctor even played herself in the 1936 motion picture tribute to the impresario, The Great Ziegfeld.
Not entirely satisfied performing in other people’s work, Hoctor began choreographing her own numbers. These dances highlighted her strengths, and also provided her opportunities to explore darker moods of ballet. One such dance was “The Raven,” based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Hoctor performed the piece as early as 1928, and it was featured prominently when she headlined her own revue in 1934. Describing the ballet for Variety magazine in 1933, critic Cecelia Ager wrote that the work “glows with brooding beauty, eerie excitement. It is complete, restrained, her best.” (January 3, 1933)Today, Hoctor is perhaps best remembered for her brief but memorable appearance in the 1937 motion picture Shall We Dance. In the film’s big production number Hoctor glides across the stage in her signature back-bend pose to the music of George Gershwin (“Hoctor’s Ballet”). She and Fred Astaire then perform an elegant duet before he returns to his true love, Ginger Rogers.
Hoctor left the stage in the mid-1940s and opened her own school in the Boston area. For the next three decades, she trained a generation of dancers including a young Joyce Cuoco. In 1974, Hoctor retired from teaching and moved to the northern Virginia town of Lorton. She died on June 9, 1977, and is buried in her hometown of Hoosick Falls.
Learn more about this early 20th century ballerina in the Library’s Harriet Hoctor Collection, 1868-1977.