John Thomas Ibbotson Tiller (13 June 1854 in Blackburn, Lancashire – 22 October 1925 in New York) was a musical theatre director who was credited with inventing precision dance and was the originator of the 'Tiller Girls'.
John Tiller always had a keen interest in music. He was always a perfectionist to the point where very few people could live up to his standards. At ten years old he became a choirboy, and with his perfectionist qualities, he became choirmaster by fourteen. His obsession with neatness and cleanliness was to earn him the excellence for which he was later to be renowned.
He took music lessons with a tutor named Dr Hiles, who later went on to be Professor of Harmony and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music.
One of John's uncles, John George Tiller, owned a successful cotton agency (one of the largest in Manchester) and was very wealthy. With a huge house and servants, John made up his mind that he wanted the same life style. He got on very well with his uncle who took him into the family business and treated him like a son. During the day John worked in the cotton trade and after work he devoted himself to music and acting. He had a very forceful character and soon progressed to management in the cotton industry, and was well known in the local area due to his immense appetite for life. At 19 one of his girlfriends (Mary Carr) told him she was pregnant and he married young, having 10 children in 11 years. By this time John was a full partner in the cotton business and he was living in a large house like his uncle.
He also pursued his theatrical ambitions and became stage manager of an amateur theatrical group made up of local business people who would perform a Minstrels act in Manchester theatres.
On Christmas Eve 1873, he married Mary Elizabeth Carr at St John's Parish Church in Manchester.
In 1885 John became director of the Comedy Theatre Manchester and during the same year he began teaching children to dance. His early pupils practised for hours every Saturday afternoon amongst the bales of cotton in one of the firm's warehouses. He also taught at his home to the disapproval of his wife.
His first dance performances were at small local church dances, and due to his position as director of the Comedy Theatre Manchester he was able to arrange his small dancers a place in the theatre's Christmas pantomime (his first real Performance although not credited at the time).
At this time everything went wrong for him in his uncle's business. His uncle's son who was now old enough to work was brought into the family business. His uncle also took to drink and became an alcoholic. John had a huge argument with his uncle that ended in a violent quarrel; John stormed out and set up his own business, never speaking with his uncle again.
John Tiller carried on presenting dancers in an amateur capacity. With this taking up more and more of his time, it made it hard for him to concentrate on making a living in the cotton industry. By this time his real interest was with the theatre and dance and he was getting bored with his chosen career. In 1890 John was asked to present a quartet of children for the pantomime Robinson Crusoe at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Liverpool.
He chose four of his best Manchester pupils, all aged about 10 years: Dolly Grey, Tessie Lomax, and twins Cissy and Lilly Smith. They were chosen as they were all the same height and had the same very slender shape with dark hair. He worked with them relentlessly repeating every movement time and time again until they were perfect. He worked them so hard that at times they were so exhausted they had to be carried home by their parents- their feet too blistered to walk.
John was striving for absolute precision in dance. These were the first of thousands of Tiller Girls where every movement had to be perfect and every turn had to be simultaneous. The routine was not the high-kicking dance that they were later to be remembered for.
He rehearsed them in a burlesque routine and a “Coconut dance” popular at the time. The pantomime lasted for three months with every show generating glowing reports in the newspapers and receiving awards for the girls and their manager. The fee received for this only barely covered expenses and costs. This first experience helped John make up his mind to become a professional manager.
John’s wife Mary died of cancer in 1905 and he remarried to Jennie Walker in 1906. Jennie went on to be very involved in the running of the Tiller Schools until her death in February 1936.
By the late 19th century Johns troupes were dancing in ballet and pantomime performances all over the world. At this time John was very excited by his conception of the Mystic Hussars routine where the girls dressed as cavaliers when performing their dance routine. He went on to conceive a simple notion, as the girls were kicking; he had them link their arms around each other's waists. The proximity helped the girls work well together and at last he was able to achieve absolute precision in dance. His dream had come true. There is speculation in the family as to whether he adopted the kicking and headdress after watching the Lipizzaner Stallions on one of his many trips abroad. It was this idea that was to really make his name in dance for posterity. He went on to perfect a high kicking dance for “Les Folies-Bergère”, Paris, using eight girls, called the Pony Trot that would be the start of all modern kick routines and the routine that every Tiller Girl had to learn as their first dance.
The American Connection
John first sent a troupe of girls to America in 1900. George Lederer booked them to perform their original Pony Trot. Later at the height of their popularity in New York there were three Tiller lines working on Broadway; The Lollipops and The Sunshine Girls at the Globe Theatre, and 24 Tiller Girls in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Charles Dillingham and George White had visited The Palace Theatre in London and booked the girls to appear in “Good Morning Dearie” at George White's Scandals of 1923 and The Nifties of 1923. Floorenz Ziegfeld took 48 of the girls under contract for three years for his follies.
John Tiller opened a dance school at 226 West 72nd Street with offices and a training studio run by Mary Read; a Head Tiller Girl from England who had been one of the 1916 Sunshine Girls in America, She trained American pupils as well as the girls from the United Kingdom. She was a hard taskmaster, but a good business woman who had John Tiller's full support in everything she did. The girls always called her Miss Read. In the 1920s, John Tiller was regularly crossing the world to finalise contracts. He always made sure his trip ended up in New York so he could meet Mary. John Tiller died on 22 October 1925 in Lenox Hill Hospital, New York.
After John Tiller died in 1925 Mary Read continued with the Tiller Girls in America, signing a very profitable contract with RKO studios with many of the girls working in American made films and dancing all over the USA. Many of the girls married and settled in America, most of them dancing and choreographing in American shows. Mary closed the American Tiller School in 1935 and married Donald Leman Clark, PhD, a professor of rhetoric at Columbia University in New York. (source: Boltz family archives)
The Radio City Rockettes Connection
Russell Markert, founder of the Rockettes quoted;
"I had seen the John Tiller girls in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922," he reminisced, "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 kicked to life in 1925 as the "Missouri Rockets" and made their show business debut in St. Louis.
It is known that some of the Tiller Girls and American girls who trained with Mary Read were also involved in the Rockettes, one girl, Lily Smart who trained with the John Tiller School of Dance in Manchester was with the 1922 troupe in the Ziegfeld Follies settled in America and Joined the Rockettes, she was with them for many years. 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 1940s danced for the Troops and liked the American style of dancing and the costumes with head dresses 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 the Folies Bergère in the late 1890s.
Tiller routines and line-ups
Basically they do what is called 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 Tillers methods.
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 feature the twelve Tiller Girls.
The Tiller schools remained open and run by Doris Alloway, Barbara Aitken and R.J. Smith. In 1973 the Tiller school was taken over by the impresario Robert Luff, with Barbara Aitken remaining as director and choreographer. It is said it would have taken about three months to turn an experienced dancer into a Tiller Girl.
John Tiller died in 1925, by then (Casino de Paris – Paris en Fleurs program) was called the Lawrence Tiller Girls, John's wife kept the school running until her death in the mid 1930s.
After John Tillers death, his son Lawrence continued the tradition (Lawrence was not a dancer) however Lawrence dropped all the ballet training.
The John Tiller School of Dance including Ballet and Tap training & Modern and Ballroom is now continued by Bernard Tiller.
Other groups such as Tiller's were done by:
- Allan K. Foster Troupe (The Roxy),
- Russell Market Troupe,
- Gertrude Hoffman Girls,
- The Rockettes,
- Chester Hale Girls, and
- the Albertina Rasch Girls.
The Cotton Club Boys and Girls also were known to use some of these methods in their dancing, as well as a dance called the Can-Can used Tillers ideas. The Ziegfeld Follies of 1922 featured the Tiller Girls in one of the acts and was Choreographed by Ned Wayburn.
Tiller died in New York in 1925. His body was brought back to London and travelled to Brookwood Cemetery on the special funeral train.
- Tiller Family Archives, and Tiller's Girls by Doremy Vernon, Published 1988, ISBN 0-86051-480-3