Texas Tommy (dance)

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After the great 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, the Barbary Coast became more of a tourist attraction than its predecessor. Dance-floors and polka dot pink variety shows designed to shock the tourists replaced prostitution as the chief business and many of the dance crazes that swept America during this period were originated in this section of San Francisco. The Thalia, located on 732 Pacific,[1] between Kearny and Montgomery, and both the largest and most popular dance hall on the Pacific Coast, was the birthplace of both the Texas Tommy and the turkey trot.[2][3]

The Texas Tommy was a hit around 1910 at a Negro cabaret, Purcell's, on the Barbary Coast. Ethel Williams, who helped popularize the dance in New York in 1913, described it as a "kick and a hop three times on each foot followed by a slide". The basic steps are followed by a breakaway - an open position, while keeping with the timing, that allowed for acrobatics, antics, improvisations, and showing off. Both Williams and Johnny Peters introduced the dance to New Yorkers in 1913's The Darktown Follies.[4][5]

The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco popularized and legitimized the low dancehall Texas Tommy along with the Bunny hug, Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear. The hotel had a house band that regularly played the Texas Tommy song and was a major place to be for dancing. Who originated the Texas Tommy is obscure; most likely it was being done and someone capitalized upon it. Some say Johnny Peters, an African American, developed the Texas Tommy in the pre-1910s in San Francisco. Peters and Ethel Williams were masters of the dance and danced it regularly at the Fairmont.

Working from film, one section of the dance had a basic movement employing a step-hop: "The basic produced a loose step, hop-kick, step, hop-kick, run, run, run, run pattern." She also identifies a "useful variation" of four step-kicks which "agrees with the open and improvisatinal manner that the Texas Tommy was described to have in many of the written references."[6]

Music and lyrics[edit]

Sheet music including lyrics to the "Texas Tommy Swing" was published by the World's Fair Publishing Company, 1200A Third Avenue, San Francisco on January 1, 1911. The music was composed by Sid Brown, and lyrics were by Val Harris. The sheet music cover was unique, and done in the form of the front page of a newspaper. The headline was: "The Dance That Makes The Whole World Stare."

The faux newspaper included reprints of two actual articles from the San Francisco Examiner. The first, dated November 29, 1910, was headlined "Pavlowa Endorsed Texas Tommy Swing." The second, dated December 29, 1910, was headlined: "Mrs. Oelriches Liked Texas Tommy Swing."

The central article in the faux newspaper was "The Story of the Dance" is transcribed here:

A breath from the cotton fields - the grizzly bear, the loving hug, the walk-back and the turkey-trot all blend in Texas Tommy Swing.

The Texas Tommy Swing invades the north and east like a dainty zephyr from the perfumed cotton fields of the sunny South. The rhythm of the Grizzy Bear, the inspiration of the Loving Hug, the grace of the Walk-Back and the abandon of the Turkey-Trot all belend in the harmony of the Texas Tommy Swing, which was really the parent of all the others.

The dance originated more than forty years ago among the negroes of the old Southern plantations. Every little movement has a meaning all its own to the heart truly in tune with nature. The graceful harmonies of the song and dance reflect the joyous spirit of the negro race, the care-free actions of the Dinahs and the Sams who gathered outside the cabin doors on moonlit nights and to the twang of the banjo or the scrape of the fiddle, vented the rhapsodies of mind and body in a purely natural way.

Here and there a raucous discord like the squaking voice of a chicken in distress breaks in upon the frivolous melody of the theme or a plaintive note brings a reminder of the tear always so close to the laugh in the negro nature.

Southern darkies brought the dance and a suggestion of the melody to San Francisco several years ago, and there upon the Barbary Coast it was rounded into perfect harmony. It took the place by storm. Eastern people interested in dancing took it up. Stage favorites seized upon its absorbing rhapsodies.

Society men and women accepted and adopted it. Pavlowa, the Czar's favorite dancer, went into raptures over it and incorporated it in her repertoire. Leaders of the four hundred all over the country regard it as one of the sights of San Francisco and endorse it to their friends on their return.

In tangible and concrete form this inspiring, historic and dramatic song and dance is now presented to the public for the first time, in Texas Tommy Swing.


  1. ^ http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/tf8h4nb75h&brand=oac/ retrieved 12/2009
  2. ^ Herbert Asbury. The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of The San Francisco Underworld (1933). Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002, p. 293. ISBN 1-56025-408-4.
  3. ^ Daniel Steven Crafts, "Barbary Coast - Historical Essay".
  4. ^ Stearns, Marshall and Jean (1968), Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, p. 323.
  5. ^ Julie Malnig, Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader. Edition: illustrated. University of Illinois Press, 2008, p. 58. ISBN 0-252-07565-X, 9780252075650
  6. ^ Rebecca Ruth Strickland, "The Texas Tommy, Its History, Controversies, and Influence on American Vernacular Dance" (March 31, 2006), p. 59. Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 1538.

External links[edit]