Papinta, the famous flame dancer who is credited with being the first modern dancer, was one of the most fascinating women ever to have called Concord home. And that's why I keep coming back to write more stories about her.

She graced stages all over the world from 1893 to the day she died after a performance on Nov. 21, 1907, in Dusseldorf, Germany.

It was a lot of fun to keep people guessing, she told interviewer Sarah Comstock of the San Francisco Call in 1901.

"Nobody knew who I was. I might have come from the South Sea Islands or a New York tenement for all anybody had ever heard of me. I was unknown in music halls. ... All of a sudden I chose to flash forth, flame forth, blaze forth -- wither from, that was a mystery.

"Some said I was from abroad. Others knew that I was an American dancer whom everybody had seen and that I had suddenly hit upon the new style of dancing and for my own good reasons I had adopted a new name to go along with the act."

She claimed she was born San Francisco and moved to Chicago when she was 6, but her biographers learned she was born in Minnesota. Papinta was prone to color the truth at times.

The father of Flo Ziegfeld Jr. taught Papinta how to dance. He owned the Trocadero in Chicago during the 1893 World's Fair.

"It was only a little serpentine, the simplest kind of thing to look at, but Ziegfeld said I was all right. ... I made the dance go as nobody had been able to make it go before. ... The box office of the Trocadero prospered. That settled my future."


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A year later she performed in Cincinnati, working for the first time with electric lighting. Her husband, William Holpin, was an electrician who did all her stage lighting.

"He had a talent for anything mechanical and electric schemes were right in his line," she said.

The design for the fire dance called for 10 6-foot mirrors reflecting lights on Papinta while she danced barefoot on a lighted plate glass platform. The first time she tried it her feet blistered. Eventually her feet toughened.

In 1897 Papinta bought 165 acres in Ygnacio Valley. It was the couple's dream to raise race horses. She said she had loved horses and horseback riding since childhood, when she cornered milk truck drivers to let her ride their horses.

"The idea to buy a piece of land in California for my future home first struck me when I was coming here from Fresno. I am going to fulfill my various contracts here in this country next summer and then go to Europe. After I have made a trip throughout the Orient I am going to return to California and spend the remainder of my days in peace and quiet on this beautiful ranch," she told a San Francisco Call reporter in August 1897.

But it didn't work out that way. Papinta's husband had a heart attack and died in 1905. Two years later Papinta died of what the newspapers reported as apoplexy, which we now call a stroke.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.