Dancer Loie Fuller stepped onto the Olympic Theater stage in Chicago and slowly walked toward Buffalo Bill Cody. He was an imposing figure dressed in buckskin. His personality so filled the auditorium that the nineteen-year-old Loie was somewhat intimidated to approach him. Cody turned his handsome face to her, flashed a pleasant smile, and introduced himself. From that moment she was at ease. After welcoming her to the cast of his Wild West program, he escorted her to the wings of the stage and handed her a script.
The year was 1881, and this was the first real performing job the teenager had been given since beginning her theatrical career in 1866. Thrilled with the opportunity to work with the famous frontier scout and war veteran, she found she was too starstruck at the outset to review her lines. Loie’s association with Cody would span more than three decades.
“Throughout that time,” she admitted in her journal, “I never lost my fascination for the showman.”
Marie Louise (or Loie as her friends and family called her) was born in Fullersburgs, Illinois, in January 1862. She was a portly child with a plain face and a desire to dance. Her father, Reuben Fuller, ran a boarding house in Chicago, and her mother, Delilah, assisted him. In addition to Loie, the couple had two sons. The boys were serious and kept their noses buried in books. Loie was precocious and seldom, if ever, still. Before she could walk she was entertaining church congregations with recitations of poems and prayers. By the age of thirteen, she had expanded her repertoire to include song-and-dance routines and was performing at fund-raising and social events.
Loie made the decision to pursue a career in dance in May of 1875, one day after she and her dance partner had won a waltzing contest. Her natural grace and sense of rhythm attracted the attention of the owners of the Monmouth Dance Academy. Her parents enrolled her in the school, where she excelled in a variety of dances. After graduation Loie made the theater rounds looking for work. She accepted every bit part she was offered.
In 1881 Loie was offered a part in Buffalo Bill Cody’s drama “The Prairie Wolf.” She was hired for a one-week run. The program was so well received that the show and Loie’s contract were extended for two more months. Along with the play audiences were treated to a rifle-shooting exhibition and a song-and-dance performance by Indian chiefs and maidens. Loie worked alongside the multicultural cast playing the part of a homeless girl in search of a family. The role required her to sing and strum a banjo. Cody was so pleased with her performance and her kind personality that he invited her to tour with his show once the Chicago run came to an end.
Loie and the rest of Buffalo Bill’s troupe traveled the East Coast during the remainder of the 1881 season. In January 1882 the cast opened a new show at Brooklyn’s Grand Opera House. The new play was called “Twenty Days” or “Buffalo Bill’s Pledge.” Loie now portrayed a deserted pioneer woman named Miss Pepper. Cody played the hero who rescued her from a pack of wolves and life of poverty.
Between performances Loie continued dancing. Inspired by billowing folds of transparent silk she saw Chinese women in New York wearing, she decided to experiment with a new style of movement. Using varying lengths of silk and different-colored lighting, Loie created movement that would eventually evolve into her signature dance.