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Gilda Grey - The Shimmy Queen

March 15, 2018


"First I moved the muscles up top. Then I moved the muscles below, with the top stationary. Then I moved the muscles on the right side, with everything stationary on the left. Then I moved the muscles on the left. Then I sort of rippled all the way up from my feet, with everything."
Gilda Gray on dancing "The Shimmy"

Marianna Michalska, a native of Krakow, was 8 years old when she arrived in Milwaukee. It was 1908. Like many other Polish immigrants, the Michalskas settled south of the city in Cudahy - a hard drinking blue collar town built around a major meat packing plant. According to some accounts, she was married at age 11 and a year later, gave birth to a child. As a teenager she sang and danced her way up and down Cuday's endless saloon row - soon to become the highest concentration of bars on a single street in the entire world...and also in Wisconsin. Her brazen, sexually charged dancing style was a hit. She specialized in voodoo dances - all borrowed from black performers. One dance in particular, the shimmy, she made her own. "I was shaking my chemise at Letzka's Tavern", she reminisced,"It felt right to move my body that way." All the men in Milwaukee County agreed, but Marianna was restless. By age 17, she was sick of motherhood, smoke filled bars, cheap gifts and clumsy