Sunday, March 23, 2014

Early Twentieth Century Dance Halls

Dance Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1914
Since I've been looking at a certain type of dance hall, I have noticed the features they have in common and the era in which they flourished. If you are the kind of person who likes to think about why an activity came to be, I have some connections and conjectures for you.

These halls were built in the earliest years of the twentieth century, and fell out of favor (got converted to other uses) in the 1920s. Their popularity depended on young working people who had their own money to spend and access to transportation that could bring them all to one spot - the streetcar. Dance halls rose with the advent of the streetcar and fell with the introduction of prohibition. Once access to beer was eliminated, people followed the alcohol to speakeasies and nightclubs, and the dancing followed them there.

The dances of the dance halls ranged from the turn-of-the-century two-step to ragtime one-step and always included waltzes. You wouldn't see contra dances (too organized, not enough touching, too old fashioned) or charlestons (too individual, not enough touching, and not yet invented.)

The popularity of the dance halls provoked a hysterical response from local government and police and from writers like T. A. Faulkner, author of From the Ballroom to Hell. It is my theory that the authorities simply didn't trust huge crowds of young people having unsupervised fun. They seem to have felt that it was a tiny step from unsupervised fun to white slavery and depravity.

Obviously, other kinds of dancing coexisted with this movement. There were society dances and formal balls and dancing in the parlor to the music of a Victrola. This dancing was dependent on a particular moment in time, a particular technology, and a particular type of society.

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