Taxi dance hall
||It has been suggested that this article be merged into Taxi dancer. (Discuss) Proposed since June 2012.|
A taxi dance hall is a type of dance hall where dancers (who are usually young women) called taxi dancers are paid to dance with patrons (usually male). The owners of a taxi dance hall provide music and a dance floor for their patrons and taxi dancers. In the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, when taxi dancing was at its peak, patrons of taxi dance halls would typically buy dance tickets for ten cents each. When they presented a ticket to a taxi dancer, she would dance with them for the length of a single song. Taxi dancers earned a commission on every dance ticket that they collected from their male dance partners. The ticket-a-dance system is the centerpiece of the taxi dance halls.
Origins and development
The taxi dance hall is a uniquely American institution that was first introduced in 1913 within San Francisco's Barbary Coast neighborhood. At that time reform movements were shutting down many bordellos and red-light districts within America's cities, and strength for Prohibition was gaining. In 1920, when the taxi dance halls began to enter their steep upward climb to popularity, Prohibition was enacted and made serving alcohol in saloons, bars, and cafes illegal. The taxi dance hall's roots can be traced to a number of earlier dance establishments.
Barbary Coast dance hall
Prior to the emergence of taxi dance halls in San Francisco, that city popularized a different form of dance hall called the Barbary Coast dance hall, or also called the Forty-Nine['49] dance hall. Forty-Niner is a term for the gold prospectors who came to California during the California Gold Rush circa 1849. At the Barbary Coast dance halls, female employees danced with male patrons and earned their living on commissions paid for the drinks that they could encourage their male dance partners to buy. These dance halls were representative of the Old West—noisy, rough, boisterous, and occasionally violent. As writer Will Irwin describes:
- "The Barbary Coast was a loud bit of hell. No one knows who coined the name. The place was simply three blocks of solid dance halls, there for the delight of the sailors of the world. On a fine busy night every door blared loud dance music from orchestras, steam pianos, and gramophones, and the cumulative effect of the sound which reached the streets was chaos and pandemonium. Almost anything might be happening behind the swinging doors."
Closed dance hall
But in 1913, San Francisco enacted new laws that would forbid dancing in any cafe or saloon where alcohol was served. The closure of the Barbary Coast dance halls quickly fostered a new kind of pay-to-dance scheme called the closed dance hall. The name was derived from the fact that female patrons were not allowed—the only women permitted in these halls were the dancing female employees. A report from Public Dance Hall Committee of San Francisco Civic League of Voters states:
- "In September, 1913, the Police Commissioner prohibited dancing in any cafe, restaurant, or saloon where liquor was sold. This resolution wiped out dancing on the "Coast"[Barbary Coast] and resulted in the appearance of the so-called 'closed' hall in the districts adjoining. There the girls were employed to dance with men patrons on a commission basis and salary. These halls had continuous dancing with practically no rest periods, and made large profits. Patrons paid ten cents for each dance, lasting less than two minutes. About six hundred girls were employed in these closed dance halls."
Inside a closed dance hall, a dancer would earn her income by the number of tickets she could collect in exchange for dances. The management would typically pay the girls half the price of a dance ticket. With the closed dance hall, the centerpiece of the taxi dance hall—the ticket-a-dance system—was introduced. Community groups began to oppose the closed dance halls, and in response to this growing political threat, these early taxi dance halls began to disguise themselves as dance schools. In 1921 the police commission ruled against employment of women as taxi dancers, and San Francisco's taxi dance halls were permanently shut down.
Around the time that San Francisco's taxi dance halls were being shut down, the taxi dance hall was being reinvented in differing formats elsewhere in America. Dance academies, which were struggling to survive, began to consider the ticket-a-dance system. Previous to the ticket-a-dance system, dance schools would use the line up plan to provide dance partners for their students. Female dance instructors would get in a line, and students would then dance with the next instructor in line. Students were not allowed to choose a female dance instructor for their practice dances.
The first instance of the ticket-a-dance system in Chicago came from Godfrey Johnson of Mader-Johnson Dance Studios. As Mr. Johnson tell us:
- "I was in New York during the summer of 1919, and while there visited a new studio opened by Mr. W___ W___ of San Francisco, where he had introduced a ten-cent-ticket-a-dance plan. When I got home I kept thinking of that plan as a way to get my advanced students to come back more often and to have experience dancing with different instructors. So I decided to put a ten-cent-a-lesson system in the big hall on the third floor of my building... But I soon noticed that it wasn't my former pupils who were coming up to dance, but a rough hoodlum element from Clark Street... Things went from bad to worse; I did the best I could to keep the hoodlums in check."
Other dance schools began to try the ticket-a-dance system as well. As a former proprietor of the Colonial Dancing Academy in Chicago states:
- "I took over the ten-cent-a-lesson idea from Johnson... Before long I began to notice that many men who came were already good dancers. When I realized that these fellows were coming back all the time just to get somebody to dance with, I laughed out loud. Up to that time I wouldn't have believed that there were fellows who would be willing to pay as much as they did -- just to get a chance to dance... Sometimes I noticed that certain fellows always wanted to dance with certain girls, but I wouldn't allow that, except as they took the instructor at an hourly rate... I only ran the hall a year, but all the time I thought of it as a dancing school -- not a place to rent a dance partner."
Many dance academy proprietors, who were disturbed by the "hoodlum element" that the ticket-a-dance system attracted, were very reluctant to adopt the dance tickets. But a Greek immigrant, Nicholas Philocrates, perceived the power of this opportunity, and fully embraced the ticket-a-dance plan that he had seen on the West Coast in 1920. Mr. Philocrates said:
- "When I was in Chicago in 1920 after a trip to the West Coast I decided to open a school of my own. I visited the different schools, and found that Mr. Swanson at the Colonial Dancing Academy was the only one conducting one of the lesson-ticket plans... I knew of the ticket-a-lesson plan as it was used on the Pacific Coast -- I visited some of the halls out there -- and so I knew that the idea of having pupils select their own instructors would work all right, when people got used to it."
Though Philocrates describes his dance hall as a "school", he would soon be followed by other Greek immigrants who would open other taxi dance halls in Chicago that did not provide any instruction whatsoever. Some historians consider Philocrates to be the father of the taxi dance hall.
Also at that time, many large cities like Chicago had large public ballrooms. The public ballrooms were struggling to survive, as they had difficulty attracting as many female patrons as male patrons. Partially due to the large immigrant populations of that time, many of the neighborhoods where taxi dance halls would compete with public ballrooms had five times as many men as women. While the public ballrooms had few women and many might refuse to dance, the taxi dance halls had many eager female dance partners who would agree to "dance with all-comers" that held dance tickets. The new competition of the increasingly popular taxi-dance halls would cause many ballrooms to either adopt the ticket-a-dance system or go out of business.
Rise and fall from popularity
Taxi dance halls flourished in America during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1931 there were over 100 taxi dance halls in New York City, and between 35,000 and 50,000 men would go to these halls every week. There were also establishments which offered male professional dancers to women such as Maxim's in New York, where dancer/actor Rudolph Valentino got an early start.
By 1925, the taxi dance halls were coming under attack by reform movements that insisted on licensing, police supervision, and succeeded in closing down some taxi dance halls for lewd behavior. After World War II the popularity of taxi dance halls began to diminish. In the 1930s, 50 cities had taxi dance halls, but by 1954 that number dropped to just 6 cities. Only 10 taxi-dance halls remained in New York City by 1952. Most of the taxi-dance halls disappeared by the 1960s. Many historians say that the return of the saloon and the cocktail lounge of post-Prohibition America contributed to the demise of the taxi dance hall.
Today some cities still have clubs where female employees can be hired to dance with patrons. These clubs no longer use the ticket-a-dance system, but have time-clocks and punch-cards that allow the patron to pay for the dancer's time by the minute. The clock used by the cashier to determine the cost of time spent with a hostess is often set a few minutes later than the clock used to print the checkout time on the ticket, thus fraudulently increasing revenues for the establishment and hostess alike. Particularly accommodating hostesses often expect tips equivalent to the amount charged for their time. Some of these modern dance clubs exist in the same buildings where taxi dancing was done in the early 20th century. The Dreamland club of Los Angeles was such an establishment. In the 1930s it was called Roseland Roof, and was owned by the Fenton brothers. When the Fenton brothers sold the club in 1981, the new buyers renamed the club to Dreamland, and continued taxi dancing in its original ballroom. These latter day establishments, including Starlight and Fantasy, are called Hostess Clubs.
Perhaps[weasel words] the most insightful document concerning the taxi dance halls of the 1920s is a sociology study written by sociologist Paul G. Cressy. His study, entitled The Taxi-Dance Hall, was first started in 1925 and published in 1932. The 300-page study gives a full history of the taxi dance hall, descriptions inside the taxi dance halls of the 1920s, and contains interviews with taxi dancers and patrons alike. Cressey attempts to analyze the phenomena of taxi dance halls as they pertained to the human needs of American city dwellers during early 20th century.
Cressy created nine categories to describe the types of patrons:
- Racial or ethnic groups denied acceptance elsewhere.
- Caucasian immigrants, frequently from a European country. Italians, Poles, Greeks, and Jews predominated.
- Older men, approaching fifty, who want to rival younger men in courting young women. They were sometimes divorced, widowers, or deserters.
- Married men whose marriages are suffering, seeking the clandestine adventures of the taxi dance hall.
- Lonely, isolated strangers who might be from a rural area or smaller city, and are new to the ways of the city.
- The footloose globe trotter who has a very mobile lifestyle.
- The slummer, men of higher incomes who wish to see how the other half lives.
- Men who suffer from physical abnormalities or disabilities.
- The fugitive, someone who might have a criminal background or suffers from local condemnation.
Cressy goes on to describes the male patrons of taxi dance halls as being a varied and occasionally motley crew:
- "Young men and boisterous youths... gray-haired men in their sixties... brown skinned Filipinos... Chinese waiters... pudgy men of forty or fifty who dance awkwardly... rough and ready fellows who seem unable to assimilate completely some of the modes of city life... a few spectacled well groomed middle-aged men who move quietly, politely... and finally, there are a few men, handicapped by physical disabilities, for whom the taxi dancer's obligation to accept all-comers makes the establishment a haven of refuge. The dwarfed, maimed, and pock-marked all find social acceptance here; and together with the other variegated types they make of the institution a picturesque and rather pathetic revelation of human nature and city life.
In general, the patrons of the early 20th century taxi dance halls were rarely businessmen or professional people, but were typically skilled or semi-skilled workers of the lower middle class. Frequently the patrons experienced social obstacles that prevented them from seeking feminine company through more traditional means. For the socially ostracized, the taxi dance hall became oasis where they could temporarily experience a sense of equality, recognition, and sometimes a fantasy of romance.
For others of a more individualized nature, the taxi dance hall became an interesting diversion that allowed dancing and feminine company without the restrictions of more traditional customs. Cressy interviews a patron [case #42] who describes:
- "I'm in and out of the city quite a good deal. I usually spend about two weeks a month in Chicago, and when I'm in the city I often come here. This hall has the finest girls of any in the city. Many of them are very nice girls and some are positively beautiful. I don't believe I'd enjoy the Lonesome Club. There aren't any attractive girls over there. Much of my enjoyment in dancing comes from being near a beautiful young girl who is graceful in her movements and is a good dancer. I only really enjoy being among young people and these are the only ones I have a chance to meet and know. Associating with them helps keep me young. Just to associate with these hopeful and enthusiastic people young people a few hours a week is better than any tonic... No, I don't attempt to secure dates with these girls. They aren't interested in a man of my age. However, that doesn't keep me from enjoying them here... I don't feel out of place here. As a matter of fact, I really enjoy my dancing here more than I would at some important social gathering. When I was operating my clothing factory in New York City, and my wife was living, I used to go out in society quite a little. But there were always some restraints. At a social function I had to dance with certain women, not because they were good dancers or were attractive women, but because they were the wives of some friends of mine or of someone else who was influential. But at this establishment I don't have to dance with a girl unless she is attractive to me, and I can stop dancing whenever I want -- and there are no further obligations. A man is absolutely free here... But even if I could arrange it [a date to dance with], I'm not certain I would want to. It would involve some social responsibilities I might not want to assume."
Social and economic forces
At the start of the 20th century, America would for the first time have more inhabitants living within its cities than in rural and small-town areas. Cities were experiencing extreme growth; indeed, Chicago's population doubled between 1900 and 1930. Many young men and women were leaving their rural and small-town neighborhoods for the same promise of adventure that the Old West had previously provided. At this time, America was experiencing a flood of male-dominated immigration.
Entertainment in America's cities was becoming a big business. New forms of mass entertainment were the baseball stadium, the football stadium, the amusement park, and the motion picture theater. Cressy and other sociologists like Ernest W. Burgess came to see taxi dance halls, and these other new forms of mass entertainment, as "commercializing the human interest in stimulation".
For this uprooted culture, cities provided a type of anonymity that was not found in their previous rural and family-oriented neighborhoods. Once inside a city, young men and women were free to do as they pleased without moral criticism from their families or neighbors. Cressy felt that cities became "inhabited by rootless, detached people who connect with each other primarily on the basis of mutual exploitation." The taxi dance hall was just such a place where very different people from very different backgrounds—patrons and dancers—would meet for temporary and unlikely alliances. Frequently inside the taxi dance hall, the human needs of unassimilated males would meet the economic needs of taxi dancers.
Near the time when Cressy finished his book in 1932, he noticed reform movements were attempting to shut down the taxi dance halls. Cressy was disturbed by the fact that if taxi dance halls were eliminated without appropriate substitutes, the human needs that fueled the phenomenon would go unanswered and possibly find self-destructive forms of expression. For Cressy, the taxi dance hall became a symptom of the isolation, loneliness, and alienation that plagues many cities.
• J. Win Austin, Los Angeles, California, City Council member, 1941–43, proposed health inspections for taxi dancers
- Will Irwin: The City That Was, pp 21-22
- Report of Public Dance Hall Committee of San Francisco of California Civic League of Women Voters, p.14
- Ronald VanderKooi: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, March 1969.
- Robinson, David (June 2004). "Embezzler Of Hearts". Sight & Sound. Retrieved 2008-04-07.
- Clyde Vedder:Decline of the Taxi-Dance Hall, Sociology and Social Research, 1954.
- Dance With A Stranger, Evan Wright, LA Weekley, January 1999
- The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life, p.10, Paul G. Cressey, University Chicago Press, 1932