Taxi dance hall

A taxi-dance hall is a type of dance hall where young women called taxi dancers, are paid to dance with male patrons. 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 1920's and 30's, 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 given to the gold prospectors who came to California in pursuit of fortune during the California Gold Rush circa 1849. At the Barbary Coast dance halls, female employees danced with the 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." [Will Irwin: The City That Was, pp 21-22]

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 would quickly usher in a new kind of pay-to-dance scheme called the "closed dance hall". They were called closed dance halls because 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." [Report of Public Dance Hall Committee of San Francisco of California Civic League of Women Voters, p.14]

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. And so with the closed dance hall, the centerpiece of the taxi-dance hall -- the "ticket-a-dance" system -- had finally been introduced. Increasing numbers of 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. But in 1921 the police commissioners ruled against any employment of women as taxi dancers, and San Francisco's taxi-dance halls were to be permanently shut down.

Dance academies

Around the time that San Francisco's taxi-dance halls were being shut down, the taxi-dance hall was yet being being reinvented in differing formats within other localities of America. Dance academies, which were struggling to survive, had begun 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 have to 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, would perceive the power of this new economic opportunity, and fully embrace the ticket-a-dance plan that he had first witnessed on the West Coast in 1920. Mr. Philocrates tells us: :"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 him to be the father of the taxi-dance hall.

Public ballrooms

Also at that time, many large cities like Chicago had large public ballrooms. But the public ballrooms were struggling to survive, as they had much trouble in 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.

A Rise and Fall From Popularity

Taxi-dance halls flourished in America during the 1920's and 30's. 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. [Ronald VanderKooi: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, March 1969.]

But even by 1925 the taxi-dance halls were already coming under attack by reform movements that insisted on licensing, police supervision, and even 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 1930's, 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. [Clyde Vedder:"Decline of the Taxi-Dance Hall", Sociology and Social Research, 1954.] Most of the taxi-dance halls disappeared by the 1960's. 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.

However, even 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 hour. 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 is just such an establishment. In the 1930's 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. No longer called taxi-dance halls, these latter day establishments are now called "Hostess Clubs". [ "Dance With A Stranger"] , Evan Wright, LA Weekley, January 1999]

The Patrons

Perhaps 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 later published in 1932. The 300-page study gives a full history of the taxi-dance hall, vivid descriptions inside the taxi-dance halls of the 1920s, delivers many interviews with taxi dancers and patrons alike, while he attempts to analyze the phenomena of taxi-dance halls as they pertained to the human needs of city dwellers during early 20th century American.

Cressy created nine categories with which to describe the very varying types of patrons:

*Racial or ethnic groups who are 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, and might enjoy the clandestine adventures of the taxi-dance hall.
*Lonely, isolated strangers who might be from a rural area or smaller city, and are still 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. ["The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life", p.10, Paul G. Cressey, University Chicago Press, 1932]

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 who represented the lower middle class. Frequently the patrons were individuals who 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.

But 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."

ocial and Economic Forces Behind the Taxi-Dance Hall

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 going through a period of extreme growth -- Chicago's population doubled in the years 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. And also at this time, America was experiencing a flood of immigration that was dominated by men.

Entertaining the members of America's cities was quickly 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 to be 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 came to feel 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 finishes his book in 1932, he has already begun to notice many reform movements attempting to shut down the taxi-dance halls. Cressy was disturbed by the fact that if taxi-dance halls were to be eliminated without appropriate substitutes, the human needs that fueled the phenomena 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 our cities.

ee also

*Taxi Dancer
*Ballroom Dancing
*Music Hall


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