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The Dance Business that Scandalized America in the Jazz Age
The rise and fall of taxi dance halls, where eager male customers paid their ballroom partners ten cents per song
Many strange dance traditions flourished in the early 20th century. Consider the grizzly bear dance fad of 1910—which found participants stumbling around the ballroom in a clumsy manner, occasionally shouting out: “It’s a bear!”
This was just the start of the animal dance crazes of the early 20th century, which eventually encompassed the Turkey Trot, Duckwalk, Fox Trot, Bunny Hug, and a whole host of other moves designed to make ballrooms more like barnyards.
Mainstream America loved these dances, but also feared them—first youngsters start dancing like bunnies, and soon they’ll be breeding like rabbits. President Woodrow Wilson even cancelled his inaugural ball in 1913, because he worried that revelers would engage in the scandalous Turkey Trot. But all the moralizing and hand-wringing had little effect—the animal dances spread everywhere.
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Even stranger were the dance marathons, run as endurance contests with prizes for the winners (perhaps survivors is a more appropriate word). In 1923, Alma Cummings won the first prominent competition by dancing for 27 hours—and wore out six different partners along the way. It’s easy to laugh at these spectacles nowadays, but in some instances people actually died on the dance floor trying to win a competition.
You might say that dancing was the biggest scandal of the early 20th century. But it wasn’t so much the dancing that got parents worried, it was the touching. Until that juncture in cultural history, popular dances that allowed physical contact still carefully limited where and how much. Consider, for example, this illustration in a waltz dancing manual from the nineteenth century. Hands might touch, but the rest of the body was off limits.
Few dances provoked more anxiety than the tango. “In my day, we only did that lying down,” quipped French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Pope Pius X requested a private demonstration of the trendy new dance, and a very restrained tango was performed for his benefit—but even this censored version was more than he could handle.
The pontiff suggested that young people stick with quaint folk dances where only clasped hands were allowed. (A side note: the current Pope Francis, born in Buenos Aires, is an ardent fan of Argentina’s most famous musical export—and his sister has bragged about his tango dancing.)
But there’s one more unusual dance trend I need to address, and it was the most scandalous of them all. I’m talking about the so-called taxi dance business—where the ‘cabs’ in question were professional female dancers, who lined up waiting for customers who paid for a spin around the ballroom.
The business model is easy enough to explain. Men were willing to pay women ten cents per dance, but with a heavy emphasis on close physical contact—and entire businesses flourished in response. The dancer kept half of her receipts, and paid the rest to the establishment. What’s harder to convey is the intense popularity of this form of musical entertainment. By the early 1930s, New York had more than 100 taxi dance halls, and around 50,000 men made use of their services each week.
There aren’t many photos of taxi dancers—they tended to avoid cameras, like mob bosses at Mafia funerals. This is the best one I’ve found for conveying the essentials of the business. The women were not allowed to freelance on the dance floor, but waited for customers in a designated area of the room—looking bored and apprehensive. Here a ticket seller greeted male customers, and offered coupons for ten cents, each redeemable for one dance. Sometimes a discount of three for quarter was given to build repeat business.
According to newspaper advertisements, these businesses were a new type of dancing school. Men wanted to learn how to dance, and were paying for lessons on the ballroom floor.
In Chicago, one of the halls hired a truck with a loudspeaker, which blared out repeatedly the fact that “75 charming instructresses” were looking for students. A few naive customers took this marketing at face value, and showed up expecting lessons—only to find that the professional women they hired had none to give. You could take them out on the dance floor, but they seemed indifferent to your footwork, offering no advice on how to improve it.
Another ad from the period promised “80 beautiful girls to instruct you in an entertaining manner.” And this educational institution, like my old elementary school, operated until closing time at 3:00—only it was 3 A.M., in this case. In a few, rare instances, ballrooms allowed women to pay men for a dance—the famous actor Rudolph Valentino pursued this line of work in New York before becoming a movie star. But that was an exception to the more general rule, in which female dancers were the professionals and men the customers.
The taxi dance hall was invented in San Francisco in 1913, and began in the Barbary Coast district, the center of boisterous nightlife in that era. The setting made sense—ever since the days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco had suffered from an imbalance between men and women. Some will tell you that the city’s renown as a culinary center was also evident even back then, for the simple reason that men had no wives and families, and tended to dine out instead. But this same disparity between the sexes created an opportunity for ballroom proprietors who could provide female dancing partners.
“It is news to us that there are about five hundred of these instructresses in the San Francisco dance halls,” announced a columnist in a San Francisco magazine in 1921. “They have pleaded with the Women’s Vigilant Committee and the mayor not to throw them out of work….It does seem that the men of San Francisco do not require the continued service of five hundred women in Terpsichorean teaching.” As to how authorities would respond to this scandal, the author had little doubt. “What will happen? Nothing!”
It’s easy to scorn this clumsy and calculating way to build a music business. But are we any more sophisticated nowadays? A sociologist named Ashley Mears recently undertook a firsthand study of the high-end VIP nightclub business and discovered—to no one’s surprise—that the presence of attractive women is the key building block in the profitability of current-day nightclubs. Men will pay exorbitant amounts for “bottle service” when surrounded by ladies who look like fashion models—it’s easy to run up a tab of $2,000 or $3,000 in these settings—and the venues accordingly pay promoters large sums to find these women.
For grandpa, it was just ten cents. But the underlying motivation isn’t much different.
When asked about the murky moral implications of this state of affairs, Mears replies: “Academics who look at this and hold their nose and say these are pathological status-seeking people would probably also enjoy a night or two out in these arenas….People participate in their own exploitation all the time. You see this in all kinds of different forms of work. As academics, yeah, you get paid for your talks, but you’re doing a lot of work that’s unpaid and uncompensated and often unrecognized as well….I think that exploitation works best when it’s pleasurable and when it’s made meaningful, but that doesn’t mean that the inequities can’t be challenged at a structural level, if at a subjective level people consent to them.”
In the case of the taxi dance halls, sexual morality was only one of the concerns of authorities. Many complained about the intermingling of races and ethnic groups allowed by these halls. African-Americans were typically banned from dancing at these venues, but that didn’t stop Paul Crossley—who wrote an influential book about taxi dancing in 1932—from fretting that “the brown-skinned Filipino rubs elbows with the stolid European slav,” and adding other warnings about Chinese, Mexican, and other customers. He goes on to complain about “gray-haired mustached men of sixty,” “pudgy men of forty or fifty,” “boisterous youths,” “hobo journeymen,” and those “handicapped by physical disabilities.”
In 1925 Collier’s magazine ran an article entitled “The Devil’s Dance Dens,” which offered a lot of moral posturing, but also some interesting economic facts. “Eighteen a week for seven hour days in an office,” one woman told the author “or thirty a week for five hours a night dancing.” The choice was obvious—go out to the dance hall, and you more than double your hourly income.
But even those who didn’t visit taxi dance halls seemed to have immense curiosity about what happened there. The Ladies Home Journal ran frequent articles about the subject—and I’ll leave it up to you to explain why their readers found the topic so fascinating. Hollywood made a movie about these venues in 1931, and made another one in 1945—both with the title Ten Cents a Dance.
The studios are rebooting every other old story nowadays, so why not this one?
One genuine musical classic came out of this tradition. In 1930, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart composed the song “Ten Cents a Dance,” a lament of the hard life of a taxi hall dancer featured in the musical Simple Simon. Ruth Etting’s recording of this song would later be enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame and included in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, which honors "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" music. Over the years, this song has been performed by a host of other popular singers—Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Cass Elliot, and others—and still retains an audience long after the taxi dance halls have disappeared.
But nothing lasts forever, even dirty dancing. In the 1930s, taxi dance halls could be found in at least 50 cities in the United States. But by 1954, they survived in only six cities. A short while later they had all but disappeared.
Why did taxi dancers fall out of favor? Opponents of indecency deserve little credit for this. As censorship and moral strictures loosened in America after World War II, the male patrons for these dance halls probably moved on to even less restrictive alternatives. And, of course, ballroom dancing of all sorts had also entered an irreversible decline.
What about today? Sexy dancing certainly hasn’t gone away. Just check out the most popular music videos on YouTube, if you need a reminder. The taxi dancers, for all the scandal they generated, now look like upholders of modesty and decorum by comparison. But that doesn’t mean that taxi dance halls won’t ever come back—given the recurring patterns of popular culture, almost any old trend is a candidate for revival. But two things will almost certainly be different in a reboot. The whole affair will probably be viewed through the prism of nostalgia, not scandal. And, needless to say, the price will certainly be more than a dime.