A taxi dancer is a paid dance partner in a partner dance. Taxi dancers are hired to dance with their customers on a dance-by-dance basis. When taxi dancing first appeared in taxi-dance halls during early 20th-century America, male patrons would buy dance tickets for ten cents each. When a patron presented a ticket to a chosen taxi dancer, she would dance with him for the length of a single song. The taxi dancers would earn a commission on every dance ticket earned. Though taxi dancing has for the most part disappeared in the United States, it is still practiced in some other countries.
The term "taxi dancer" comes from the fact that, as with a taxi-cab driver, the dancer's pay is proportional to the time he or she spends dancing with the customer. Patrons in a taxi-dance hall typically purchased dance tickets for ten cents each, which gave rise to the term "dime-a-dance girl". Other names for a taxi dancer are "dance hostess", "taxi" (in Argentina), and "nickel hopper" because out of that dime they typically earned five cents.
The first descriptions of taxi dancing were documented as early as 1913 in San Francisco's Barbary Coast neighborhood. At the time, the ticket-a-dance system operated in what were called closed dance halls, because female customers were not allowed — the only women permitted in these halls were the dancing female employees.
Taxi dancing then spread to Chicago where dance academies began to adopt the ticket-a-dance system for their students. This system was so popular at dance academies, that taxi dancing quickly spread to an increasing number of non-instructional taxi dance halls. Taxi dancing's popularity peaked in the 1920s as scores of taxi dance halls opened in Chicago, New York, and other major cities. At that time, the taxi dance hall surpassed the public ballroom in becoming the most popular place for urban dancing.
The ticket-a-dance system was the centerpiece of the taxi dance hall where the taxi dancers worked. Taxi dancers typically received half of the ticket price as salary and the other half paid for the orchestra, dance hall, and operating expenses. Although they only worked a few hours a night, they frequently made two to three times the salary of a woman working in a factory or a store.
Various films and novels chronicled the lives of taxi dancers. For example, in 1927 Joan Crawford starred in the film The Taxi Dancer, and actor Ed Wynn starred in the Ziegfeld Broadway musical Simple Simon, which popularized the song "Ten Cents a Dance", which in turn inspired the 1931 film Ten Cents a Dance, starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Taxi dancers today
Taxi dancers may dance among paying customers in order to raise the standard, or dance among the beginners to encourage them to continue learning. In the latter situation, taxi dancers often provide their services on a volunteer basis, without pay, with the general goal of building the dance community.
In social settings and social forms of dance, a partner wanting constructive feedback from a taxi dancer must explicitly request it. As the taxi dancer's role is primarily social, she is unlikely to criticize her partner directly. Due to the increased profile of partner dances during the 2000s, taxi dancing has become more common in settings where partners are in short supply, involving both male and female dancers. For example, male dancers are often employed on cruise ships to dance with single female passengers.
In the United States
Paying to dance with a female employee is still available in some nightclubs of the United States, including many in Los Angeles. 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 hour. Some of these modern dance clubs operate in buildings where taxi dancing was done in the early 20th century. No longer called taxi-dance halls, these latter-day establishments are now called Hostess Clubs.
For official purposes in the United States their occupation was sometimes referred to as a 'dancer', when they worked in taxi dance halls which had all the necessary business permits. But there were some professional secretaries who did moonlighting and legally worked part-time as a dancer.
The growth of tango tourism in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has led to an increase in both formal and informal taxi dancing services in the milongas, or dance halls. While some lone operators are trying to sell holiday romance, reputable tango taxi agencies offer genuine services to tourists who find it hard to cope with the cabeceo—eye-contact and nodding—method of finding a dance partner.
In popular culture
References to taxi dancers and taxi dancing in contemporary culture include:
- The musical and film Sweet Charity about a good-natured taxi dancer.
- Lana Turner plays a taxi-dancer who puts up with snobbery at a college dance in the 1939 film, These Glamour Girls.
- In Stanley Kubrick's film Killer's Kiss, the protagonist's object of affection is a taxi dancer.
- The film A League of Their Own where Madonna's character, Mae Mordabito, refers to her former life as a taxi dancer.
- The White Countess is a 2005 British/American/Chinese drama film directed by James Ivory, which starred Natasha Richardson as the title character, a taxi dancer in 1930s Shanghai, tasked with dancing to support her family (played by real life family members Lynn Redgrave and Vanessa Redgrave).
- In the 1989 film The Fabulous Baker Boys, Michele Pfeiffer sings the anthem of taxi dancing, "Ten Cents a Dance".
- Rosie Perez and Steve Buscemi's characters in the movie Somebody to Love were taxi dancers.
- In the movie High Sierra, Ida Lupino's character Marie mentions working as a dime-a-dance girl, where she met Babe (Alan Curtis).
- In the movie The Girl Said No, Jimmie (Robert Armstrong) first meets Pearl (Irene Hervey) at the taxi dance hall where she works, but only after he buys enough tickets to attract her interest so that she consents to dance with him.
- In the 1932 film Two Seconds, John Allen (Edward G Robinson) meets Taxi dancer Shirley Day (Vivienne Osborne) who seduces Allen into marrying her.
- The 1947 Lucille Ball film Lured is about a serial killer who kills a taxi dancer, and another taxi dancer who goes undercover to trap him.
- In The Rat Race (1960), Debbie Reynolds plays a young woman who is a taxi dancer in New York City.
Television and radio
- The CBS radio mystery drama Suspense featured an episode "Dime a Dance", also starring Lucille Ball, about a serial killer who specifically targets taxi dancers with red hair.
- In the Laverne & Shirley episode "Call Me a Taxi!", the girls work at a sleazy taxi dance hall.
- In the episode "World's End" (5x07) of the CBS TV crime drama Cold Case, the victim who was murdered in 1938, Audrey Metz, worked secretly as a taxi dancer to support her family.
- In the pilot for The Carol Channing Show (1966), Carol Honeycutt (Channing) becomes employed as a taxi dancer. Disaster ensues.
- Henry Miller's character in Sexus, part one of the The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, frequents dance halls of this sort, where he meets his wife Mona (June Miller). According to Miller, these dance halls were subject to frequent raids by the police.
- Christine Fletcher's book Ten Cents a Dance is about a 15-year-old girl who works as a taxi dancer.
- The ill-fated Berga Torn in Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly was a taxi dancer.
- The heroine of Neville Shute's novel Lonely Road worked as a taxi dancer in a dance hall in Leeds, England.
- The Perry Mason novel The Case of the Rolling Bones published in September 1939 has one of the characters saying she was a dance-hall girl in 1906. "That was before the days of taxi dancers as we know them nowadays." (Chapter 10)
- In the Pai Hsien-yung collection of short stories about life in post-Chinese Civil War Taiwan called Taipei People.
- Graham Greene's character Phuong in The Quiet American works as a taxi dancer.
- In the short story "The Twilight Taxidancer" by Shi Zhecun.
- The 1930 song "Ten Cents a Dance", from the musical Simple Simon, describes a taxi dancer's troubles at her job.
- Both John Mellencamp's third album A Biography and his fourth John Cougar contain a song entitled "Taxi Dancer".
- "Dime Dancing" is referenced in the title track from the 1977 Steely Dan album Aja.
- The Tina Turner song, "Private Dancer".
- The Dengue Fever (band) song, "Taxi Dancer".
- Danny O'Keefe's song "Roseland Taxi Dancer" on album O'Keefe.
- The 1984 Rick Springfield film Hard to Hold and the Hard to Hold soundtrack album contain the song "Taxi Dancing" (a duet with Randy Crawford) about a relationship in which the couple is merely going through the motions. The lyrics to the song rely on taxi dancing references to tell its tale.
- The hit song "Love Is a Battlefield" from Pat Benatar has the singer perform as a taxi dancer in the music video.
- Taxi Dancers", Christine Fletcher 2009
- Report of Public Dance Hall Committee of San Francisco of California Civic League of Women Voters, p.14
- The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life, Paul G. Cressey, University Chicago Press, 1932
- Clyde Vedder:Decline of the Taxi-Dance Hall, Sociology and Social Research, 1954.
- Dance With A Stranger, Evan Wright, LA Weekley, January 1999
Strictly tango for the dance tourists, by Uki Goni, The Observer, London, 18 November 2007