Friday, March 21, 2014

Dancing in The Valley of the Moon

Here is another story that has details about the sort of popular dancing that was done at dance halls. In this case, the dancing is at a picnic grounds. Notice these girls have dance cards, they don't need tickets to get on the dance floor, the dancing takes place during the day, dinner is at mid-day, it is over by 8 pm. I love that the Cosmopolitan excerpt has illustrations, so you can get an idea of what working class young people would wear for daytime dancing in 1913.

Jack London's novel, The Valley of the Moon follows a young couple, Saxon and Billy, as they search for a good life. They work their way from urban jobs in Oakland, California (Saxon does fancy ironing in a hot, crowded shop and lives with her brother's family while Billy works as a teamster, driving horse drawn wagons, and occasionally prizefighting to earn extra money) to owning a farm in Sonoma Valley, California (the Valley of the Moon).

At the beginning of the story, Saxon and her friend, Mary, go out to dance and meet boys at a picnic grounds.

Mary and Saxon. Illustration from the excerpt published in Cosmopolitan, April 1913
Each bought her own ticket at the entrance to Weasel Park. And each, as she laid her half-dollar down, automatically reckoned how many pieces of fancy starch were represented by the coin. It was too early for the crowd, but bricklayers and their families, laden with huge lunch-baskets and armfuls of babies, were already going in—a healthy, husky race of workmen, well paid and robustly fed. And with them, here and there, undisguised by their decent American clothing, smaller in bulk and stature, wizened not alone by age but by the pinch of lean years and early hardship, were grandfathers and mothers who had patently first seen the light of day on old Irish soil. Their faces showed content and pride as they limped along with this lusty progeny of theirs that had fed on better food.

Not with these did Mary and Saxon belong. They knew them not, had no acquaintances among them. It did not matter whether the festival were Irish, German, or Slavonian, whether the picnic was the Bricklayers', the Brewers', or the Butchers'. They, the girls, were of the dancing crowd that swelled by a certain constant percentage the gate receipts of all the picnics.

They strolled about among the booths where peanuts were grinding and popcorn was roasting in preparation for the day, and went on and inspected the dance-floor of the pavilion. Saxon, clinging to an imaginary partner, essayed a few steps of the dip-waltz. Mary clapped her hands.
"My!" she cried. "You're just swell! An' them stockin's is peaches."

Saxon smiled with appreciation, pointed out her foot, velvet slippered with high Cuban heels, and slightly lifted the tight black skirt, exposing a trim ankle and delicate swell of calf, the white flesh gleaming through the thinnest and flimsiest of fifty cent black silk stockings. She was slender, not tall, yet the due round lines of womanhood were hers. On her white shirt-waist was a pleated jabot of cheap lace, caught with a large novelty pin of imitation coral. Over the shirt-waist was a natty jacket, elbow sleeved, and to the elbows she wore gloves of imitation suede. The one essentially natural touch about her appearance were the few curls, strangers to curling irons, that escaped from under the little naughty hat of black velvet pulled low over the eyes.

Mary's dark eyes flashed with joy at the sight, and with a swift little run she caught the other girl in her arms and kissed her in a breast-crushing embrace. She released her, blushing at her own extravagance. "You look good to me," she cried, in extenuation. "If I was a man I couldn't keep my hands off you. I'd eat you, I sure would."

They went out of the pavilion hand in hand, and on through the sunshine they strolled, swinging hands gaily, reacting exuberantly from the week of deadening toil. They hung over the railing of the bear-pit, shivering at the huge and lonely denizen, and passed quickly on to ten minutes of laughter at the monkey-cage. Crossing the grounds, they looked down into the little race-track, on the bed of a natural amphitheater where the early afternoon games were to take place. After that they explored the woods, threaded by countless paths, ever opening out in new surprises of green-painted rustic tables and benches in leafy nooks, many of which were already preempted by family parties. On a grassy slope, tree surrounded, they spread a newspaper and sat down on the short grass already tawny-dry under the California sun. Half were they minded to do this because of the grateful indolence after six days of insistent motion, half in conservation for the hours of dancing to come.

(The girls talk about boys and weightier issues.)
A strain of music from the dancing pavilion brought both girls scrambling to their feet.
"We can get a couple of dances in before we eat," Mary proposed. "An' then it'll be afternoon an' all the fellows'll be here. Most of them are pinchers—that's why they don't come early, so as to get out of taking the girls to dinner. But Bert's free with his money, an' so is Billy. If we can beat the other girls to it, they'll take us to the restaurant. Come on, hurry, Saxon."

There were few couples on the floor when they arrived at the pavilion, and the two girls essayed the first waltz together.
"There's Bert now," Saxon whispered, as they came around the second time.
"Don't take any notice of them," Mary whispered back. "We'll just keep on goin.' They needn't think we're chasin' after them."
But Saxon noted the heightened color in the other's cheek, and felt her quicker breathing.
"Did you see that other one?" Mary asked, as she backed Saxon in a long slide across the far end of the pavilion. "That was Billy Roberts. Bert said he'd come. He'll take you to dinner, and Bert'll take me. It's goin' to be a swell day, you'll see. My! I only wish the music'll hold out till we can get back to the other end."
Down the long floor they danced, on mantrapping and dinner-getting intent, two fresh young things that undeniably danced well and that were delightfully surprised when the music stranded them perilously near to their desire.

Bert and Mary addressed each other with their given names, but to Saxon Bert was "Mr. Wanhope," though he called her by her first name. The only introduction was of Saxon and Billy Roberts. Mary carried it off with a flurry of nervous carelessness.
"Mr. Roberts—Miss Brown. She's my best friend. Her first name's Saxon. Ain't it a scream of a name?"
"Sounds good to me," Billy retorted, hat off and hand extended. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Brown."

(I've deleted an extended passage where Saxon notices exactly how attractive Billy is. She is smitten. But we're not terribly interested because that passage doesn't talk about dancing. Next, Billy decides he will be her only partner, so he writes his name across all the slots in her program. In an earlier description of her shabby little room in her brother's home, it mentions "From the gas-fixture hung a tangled bunch of well-scribbled dance programs.")

As he took her program and skirmished and joked after the way of young men, she realized the immediacy of delight she had taken in him. Never in her life had she been so affected by any man. She wondered to herself, Is this the man? 

He danced beautifully. The joy was hers that good dancers take when they have found a good dancer for a partner. The grace of those slow-moving certain muscles of his accorded perfectly with the rhythm of the music. There was never doubt, never a betrayal of indecision. She glanced at Bert, dancing "tough" with Mary, caroming down the long floor with more than one collision with the increasing couples. Graceful himself in his slender, tall, lean stomached way, Bert was accounted a good dancer; yet Saxon did not remember ever having danced with him with keen pleasure. Just a bit of a jerk spoiled his dancing—a jerk that did not occur, usually, but that always impended. There was something spasmodic in his mind. He was too quick, or he continually threatened to be too quick. He always seemed just on the verge of overrunning the time. It was disquieting. He made for unrest.

"You're a dream of a dancer," Billy Roberts was saying to her. "I've heard lots of the fellows talk about your dancing."
"I love it," she answered.
But from the way she said it he sensed her reluctance to speak, and danced on in silence, while she warmed with the appreciation of a woman for gentle consideration. Gentle consideration was a thing rarely encountered in the life she lived. Is this the man? She remembered Mary's "I'd marry him to-morrow," and caught herself speculating on marrying Billy Roberts by the next day—if he asked her.

With eyes that dreamily desired to close, she moved on in the arms of this masterful, guiding pressure. A prize-fighter! She experienced a thrill of wickedness as she thought of what Sarah would say could she see her now. Only he wasn't a prize-fighter, but a teamster.
Came an abrupt lengthening of step, the guiding pressure grew more compelling, and she was caught up and carried along, though her velvet-shod feet never left the floor. Then came the sudden control down to the shorter step again, and she felt herself being held slightly from him so that he might look into her face and laugh with her in joy at the exploit. At the end, as the band slowed in the last bars, they, too, slowed, their dance fading with the music in a lengthening glide that ceased with the last lingering tone.

"We're sure cut out for each other when it comes to dancin'," he said, as they made their way to rejoin the other couple.
"It was a dream," she replied.
So low was her voice that he bent to hear, and saw the flush in her cheeks that seemed communicated to her eyes, which were softly warm and sensuous. He took the program from her and gravely and gigantically wrote his name across all the length of it.
"An' now it's no good," he dared." Ain't no need for it."
He tore it across and tossed it aside.
"Me for you, Saxon, for the next," was Bert's greeting, as they came up. "You take Mary for the next whirl, Bill."
"Nothin' doin', Bo," was the retort. "Me an' Saxon's framed up to last the day."

"Watch out for him, Saxon," Mary warned facetiously. "He's liable to get a crush on you."
"I guess I know a good thing when I see it," Billy responded gallantly.
"And so do I," Saxon aided and abetted.
"I'd 'a' known you if I'd seen you in the dark," Billy added.
Mary regarded them with mock alarm, and Bert said good-naturedly:
"All I got to say is you ain't wastin' any time gettin' together. Just the same, if you can spare a few minutes from each other after a couple more whirls, Mary an' me'd be complimented to have your presence at dinner."
"Just like that," chimed Mary.
"Quit your kiddin'," Billy laughed back, turning his head to look into Saxon's eyes. "Don't listen to 'em. They're grouched because they got to dance together. Bert's a rotten dancer, and Mary ain't so much. Come on, there she goes. See you after two more dances."

Saxon, Billy, Mary and Bert at the restaurant. Illustration from Cosmopolitan April 1913.

They had dinner in the open-air, treewalled dining-room, and Saxon noted that it was Billy who paid the reckoning for the four. They knew many of the young men and women at the other tables, and greetings and fun flew back and forth.

(Saxon and Billy have a long conversation where they discover that they are from good Anglo-Saxon American stock. Jack London was a racist, though not really out of line with the time in which he was living. At the end of their dinner, there is an incident where a man tries to pick a fight, but backs down and acts with great respect as soon as he finds out who Billy is.)

 After dinner there were two dances in the pavilion, and then the band led the way to the race track for the games. The dancers followed, and all through the grounds the picnic parties left their tables to join in. Five thousand packed the grassy slopes of the amphitheater and swarmed inside the race track.

(At this point, the entire amphitheater breaks into a huge brawl, with men throwing punches and women fighting and an old woman swinging a rock in a stocking. Various combatants threaten Saxon, but Billy defends her by punching everyone who comes near. In spite of the dancing, this is truly a Jack London novel. As suddenly as the brawl broke out it ends. The participants settle down and dust themselves off and shake hands. London does not say when the dancing resumes or how long it lasts, but there does seem to be more dancing before the day ends.)

At eight o'clock the Al Vista band played "Home, Sweet .Home," and, following the hurried rush through the twilight to the picnic train, the four managed to get double seats' facing each other. When the aisles and platforms were packed by the hilarious crowd, the train pulled out for the short run from the suburbs into Oakland.

(Jack London, The Valley of the Moon,  New York, The MacMillan Co. 1913, p. 10-14)

The Valley of the Moon - Frontispiece

The Valle of the Moon - 1913 ed.

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