The Tiller Girls were among the most popular dance troupes of the 1900s, first formed by John Tiller in Manchester, England, in 1890. In theatre Tiller had noticed the overall effect of a chorus of dancers was often spoiled by lack of discipline. Tiller found that by linking arms the dancers could dance as one; he is credited with inventing precision dance. Possibly most famous for their high-kicking routines, the Tiller Girls were highly trained and precise.
John Tiller's first dancers performed as 'Les Jolies Petites'. He originally formed the group for the pantomime 'Robinson Crusoe', subtitled 'The Good Friday That Came on a Saturday', in 1890 at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Liverpool. From this were founded the Tiller School of Dancing and the Tiller Girl troupes. The number of troupes grew to dozens, and their fame spread around the world.
The troupes were all slightly different, but within each troupe the girls were matched very precisely by height and weight. Individuality within the troupes was discouraged in favour of a strong group ethic. The Tillers performed as resident dancers at the Folies Bergère in Paris, the London Palladium, the Palace Theatres in Manchester and in London (as the Palace Girls or Sunshine Girls), the Blackpool Winter Gardens, on New York's Broadway, where Tiller had a dance school, and at hundreds of other theatres throughout Europe and the United States.
Tiller routines and line-ups
The Tiller Girls performed a 'Tap and Kick' routine, which was originally called 'Fancy-Dancing' but today is known as 'Precision Dancing'. The routines may consist of straight lines or geometric figures. Every tap-and-kick troupe has tried to steer away from Tiller's arrangements, but sooner or later conforms to Tiller's methods.
Siegfried Kracauer stated in 1923, "These 76 energetic women dance about in geometric shapes: the regularity of their patterns is cheered by the masses, themselves arranged by the stands in tier upon ordered tier."
In certain shows a Tiller line-up could be as many as 32 girls who were selected for uniform height and weight. In 1923 the stage play Nifties of 1923 featured twelve Tiller Girls.
After John Tiller
After John Tiller's death in 1925, the Tiller schools in the U.K. were kept alive first by his wife Jennie Tiller, then by some of the head girls. The U.S. Tiller school in New York City was continued under the leadership of Mary Read until 1935. However, as attitudes changed in the early 1970s so did dance, and the precision kicking routines of The Tillers were considered dated. For the first time since their inception the popularity of Tillers waned. However, the reputation was kept alive by ladies that retired in the late 1960s and early 70s.
In 1989, following a request by the Parkinsons Society to Mrs Sandy Jones, herself an ex Tiller Girl, a line-up of the original 1950s and 1960s Tiller Girls was organised, and the ladies returned to the stage for a benefit performance to aid the actor Terry-Thomas. This unexpected comeback and the resultant publicity that ensued led to the formation of The 1960s Tiller Girls under the stewardship of Bruce Vincent and resident choreographer and original Head Girl Wendy Clarke. The 1960s Tillers continued dancing for over 300 shows at theatres and on television, many at the London Palladium and prestigious charitable events all over the UK, including 40 Glorious Years (for HRH The Queen), and were semi-adopted by Lily Savage, aka Paul O'Grady, for his shows and videos in the 1990s.
The ladies announced their retirement in April 2009, on The Paul O'Grady Show, after having danced with the Jonas Brothers. At that time most of the ladies were in their mid to late 60s and early 70s in age. The last official routine was held at the London Palladium, the girls' official home, at the end of 2008, at a benefit for ex-servicemen.
The Tiller Girl trademark is retained by Bernard Tiller great grandson of John Tiller, 16 May 2012, World Dance Management secure exclusive rights to re-launch The Tiller Girls.
World Dance Management is re-launching the world famous Tiller Girls, having been awarded worldwide rights and an exclusive trademark licence agreement by Bernard Tiller, who owns the rights to the name and is the great grandson of John Tiller, founder of the original troupe.
Marina Blore, director of World Dance Management said: “As an ex dancer and choreographer, I remember The Tiller Girls of the late 60’s and 70’s and professional dancers everywhere held them in very high regard. Being a Tiller always commanded respect. It is a huge honour to be handed the reigns to re-launch The Tiller Girls and whilst we plan to make the look and choreography relevant to today’s audience, the original traditions and disciplines of precision dance will be an integral part of the new look Tiller Girls.”
Future Plans World Dance Management plan to launch The Tiller Girls and they already have interest from television in following the reformation of the dance troupe and the appointment of a choreographer/artistic director, costume designer and nationwide auditions of the dancers.
Name In Lights Bernard Tiller explains: “For a number of years I have been looking for a partner who can revive the Tiller Girls. World Dance Management is without doubt the best company to take the Tiller Girl name forward. This is something that I have been working on and dreaming for over thirty years and hope this will again see “The Tiller Girls” name up in lights and the tradition of the past dancers carried forward to a new generation.” 
The Radio City Rockettes connection
"I had seen the Tiller girls in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922. If I ever got a chance to get a group of American girls who would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks, they'd knock your socks off!"
The Rockettes first came to life in 1925 as the "Missouri Rockets" and made their show business debut in St. Louis, the realisation of a long-time dream of their creator, Russell Markert.
It is known that some of the Tiller Girls and American girls who trained with Mary Read also danced in the Rockettes. Lily Smart who trained with the Tiller School of Dance in Manchester and was with the 1922 troupe in the Ziegfeld Follies, settled in America and joined the Rockettes after leaving the Tiller Girls, performing with them for many years and was then involved with the training of new dancers, Lily was in constant contact with Bernard Tiller until her death in 2010 aged 106, Lily explained how Russell Markert added his own style to the Precision Dance routines; this found its way back to the Tiller girls in the United Kingdom.
Girls that had visited the USA during the late 1930s and 40s danced for the troops and liked the American style of dancing and the costumes with headdresses that they saw. American films also showed showgirls and had a big impact on the British audience. From the late 1940s through the 1970s the Tiller girls adopted a lot of the American showgirl styles that could trace their roots back to “Les Folies-Bergère” in the late 1890s.
Former Tiller Girls
- Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons (1992–2000)
- Avril Owton MBE FIH, Honoree Member of the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World
- Gloria Paul, actress/dancer (Darling Lili, The Intelligence Men)
- Sunny Rogers, accompanying pianist to comedian Frankie Howerd
- Doremy Vernon, actress (Are You Being Served?) and author
- Diana Vreeland, former Editor-in-chief of Vogue
- Siegfried Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament," The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 74-75.
- Boltz family archives
- Bernard Tiller http://www.worlddancemanagement.com/the-tiller-girls/
- http://www.tillergirls.com/Tiller_Page_3.htm Lily Smart & Joan Johannes
- Tiller's Girls. Hobson Books. 1988.
- Entry at PeoplePlay UK (UK Museum of Performance)
- Bernard Tiller's Tiller Girls Web Site) Bernard Tiller's Tiller Girls Web Site Pages of information on John Tiller, The Tiller Girl Dancers and the Tiller School of Dancing
- The Tiller Girls) Latest news for The Tiller Girls
- Tiller Girls Facebook Group The official Tiller Girls Facebook Group.