Remember that post I wrote about endurance dance contests for Jazzfeather’s “Give In to the Feeling” blog tour? Well, it turns out there was another equally bizarre form of dance hall entertainment that was also common during the 1920s and 30s: taxi dancing.
Held in public ballrooms and dance halls, taxi dancing worked like this: for the price of one thin dime, a customer could get one ticket good for a dance with any girl in the hall, for the length of a single song. If he wanted more dances, he had to shell out more money—but most of these men were happy to do so.
For the men who visited taxi halls, this ticket system was a godsend because it came with zero risk of rejection. If the man could afford a ticket, then he got to dance—end of story. This meant that all kinds of men flocked to these things, particularly the ones who had trouble dealing with public dance halls. Some were socially awkward, to be sure, but others couldn’t go to other dance halls thanks to ageism, racism, nationalism, or ableism. As a result of this, taxi dance halls became important social outlets for newly arrived immigrants, the elderly, men of different races and ethnic groups, and those with physical disabilities or abnormalities, all of whom might otherwise have been ostracized from regular public dance halls.
Taxi dancing became a particularly important form of recreation for manongs, or Filipino migrant workers, in California during the 1920s and 1930s. Though they toiled in the fields by day, each night they dressed to the nines and transformed themselves into “suave, successful Don Juans who could woo any woman they desired” with their “snazzy suits and fancy footwork”—particularly the white women who worked at the dance halls. This was a direct challenge to racist assumptions by their white neighbors, who saw them as asexual, poor, dirty laborers. While these interactions sometimes led to violence, the dancing also gave these men confidence and companionship during a difficult time in their lives, when many were separated from families back home and could not afford to bring wives or children over, or could not find a wife at all due to skewed immigration ratios.
In fact, the dance halls attracted so many different kinds of men that they became the focus of a 1925 study by Chicago sociologist Paul G. Cressey called The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life (1932). Cressey found Chicago’s taxi dance halls teeming with all sorts—not just the elderly mentioned above, but also men whose marriages were suffering, isolated city newcomers, rich slummers who wanted a taste of poverty, globetrotters without roots, fugitives from the law, and socially awkward, lonely people of all stripes who found the rigmarole of public dancing too confusing, restricting, or stressful to deal with. Young or old, rich or poor, handsome or not, all of them could find some form of social acceptance in the taxi dance hall, if only for a song.
As for the girls, they were known as taxi dancers or dime-a-dance girls, since like taxi drivers they got “rented out” and were paid according to how much time they spent dancing with a customer. They got a lot less respect than taxi drivers, however, since many people of the time considered them no better than prostitutes—though this was rarely the case. While customers were actively discouraged by staff from “trying to get close[r] to their chosen lady,” many policemen and social activists worried that the dancing was simply cover for illicit acts, and that taxi halls were merely vice dens with a different name. As a result, many cities tried to shut down or ban taxi dance halls, with limited effect.
While these women were not prostitutes, sometimes their job encouraged them to think like one—after all, there were a number of parallels. Not only were they paid for their time, but they had no say in their partners; some halls even “controlled the ratio of blondes, brunettes, and redheads” or strapped pedometers to their ankles to try and track how much their girls were dancing. Some dancers were also hired based on their ability and willingness to dress in “revealing gowns” and dance “in the Little Egypt technique of dancing frenziedly without moving the feet much” (i.e., belly dancing, which was considered scandalous at the time; you can see some vintage footage here.) Sometimes this mode of dress and dance gave customers ideas beyond dancing. Unfortunately, according to a dancer’s 1938 trial testimony, dancers were usually “not allowed to protest about the way they were handled by their partners.” This could be a problem when experienced men who “knew the ropes” not only knew how to monopolize a dancer’s time, but knew all the “darkest spots” in the dimly lit dance halls and would sometimes “push you up against a wall so you couldn’t move your feet.” One officer who conducted a sting, however, claimed a girl he danced with would “kiss him on the neck, bite his ears, or blow hot breath down his neck”—but when on trial, the same girl claimed she “certainly did not” and had been told to act a “perfect lady” when dancing with clients.
Flirting, however, was also part of a taxi dancer’s profession. Not only was “fishing” male patrons—whether for money, drinks, food, or gifts—a common part of a dancer’s repertoire, but so was selling of an idea: namely, the illusion of romance. She had to be careful, though, not to get overly involved with her clients and fall for her own scheme. One famous popular song about a taxi dancer is Ten Cents a Dance. Originally recorded and popularized by Ruth Etting in 1930, it describes the life of a weary taxi hall dancer. Check out this 1930 recording below:
The women weren’t the only ones who could get swept away by fake relationships, however. Sometimes it was the men who went off the deep end, buying into the romantic illusion so completely that they convinced themselves they were in a real relationship and not simply paying someone to dance with them. One poor soul even paid the ultimate price. Howard L. Clark, a 40 year old former actor and boxer, killed himself outside the door of his taxi dancer “sweetheart” when he found out she’d lied about her name, her address, and the fact that she was married. In a long suicide note, he described meeting her at a Chicago taxi dance hall and how he “took a liking to her,” especially since she “didn’t wear makeup and didn’t curse.” He believed he had “found a good girl” amid a “vice den” and swore to save her. He started buying her new dresses and other gifts. He wondered “how a girl could stay in a vice den…and stay good, but I thought I had got one before she got bad, and I wad ready to marry her.” He sent her $20 for a wedding dress, and even named her as the eventual beneficiary of his $500 life insurance policy. When she kept the money for the dress but begged off on the wedding due to “illness in her family,” he tracked her down and found out she was already married. After that, he said, his “hopes were blasted into one million pieces.” All this time he’d been dreaming of the life he’d have with her, but his dreams were lies. He killed himself shortly thereafter.
“Sally” told the court a slightly different story, however. She claimed she never asked Clark for money, but she did accept his gifts—including a “black fur-trimmed coat,” among other things—and met with him every Saturday night for dinner and a dance at the taxi hall. She said she never told him one way or another that she was married until he showed her the insurance form. “I told him then that I was married and couldn’t marry him.” Her husband, Alfred Krupka, said he had no idea any of it was happening. “She told me this dancing place was respectable,” he said. Sally herself didn’t seem too broken up about Clark’s death during the inquest. To her, it seems, it was all just “business.”
As Sally’s case illustrates, many dancers distanced themselves from their clients and learned to play a role in order to do their job, with the more unscrupulous ones leading a client along for as long as they were able. According to Alfred Lindesmith, co-author of Social Psychology, a taxi dancer’s occupation forced her to “view the patrons…as a means towards the achievement of her objectives—the recouping of her personal fortunes. Romantic behavior, along with less desirable forms of stimulation, becomes merely another acceptable method for the commercial exploitation of men.” She saw herself not as a victim, but as the one who is “trying to put it over on them” and knew what she wanted and how to get it. Over time, she became “sophisticated…tough-minded…money-minded…[and] exploitative.” Lindesmith stressed that this isn’t who she really is as a person, however, but what her role as a purveyor of romantic illusions forces her to be.
The idea of the taxi dancer as a cold, mechanical being is borne out in Arthur Pound’s description of a taxi dancer in his 1933 novel Around the Corner. He describes Sybil, a taxi dancer, as:
“A hard, compact woman, she danced effortlessly, as if she were almost without nerves. She moved like a machine, and she cared no more than a machine whose arm was around her or into whose face she smiled.”
—from Arthur Pound’s Around the Corner (1933), pg. 184
Sadly, many of the women who ended up like this started out as young foreigners with few marketable skills, many of whom lied to their families about what they were doing in an attempt to avoid scandal. In a Tribune interview regarding his book, Cressey noted that most of the women dancers were “young, from 16 to 19 years old,” “recruited mostly from foreign neighborhoods,” and were “exposed to all sorts of contacts” as a dancer. While working, they could potentially be approached by “thieves, pickpockets, holdup men, bootleggers, and even procurers [(i.e., pimps)].” As a result, he found these halls “demoralizing” to young women. The one saving grace was that their dancing “careers” were generally short-lived; once they hit their mid twenties, the men would move on to the newer, younger girls, effectively forcing them to find other work.
Being a dancer had its advantages, however. For one thing, there was the money. A taxi dancer could earn up to $40 a week, which was two to three times more than what she could earn as a factory girl—and that wasn’t counting the gifts she might “fish” out of the men she danced with. Dancing also allowed her to meet a wide variety of men, increasing her chances of finding someone to whisk her away from the tawdry dance hall forever. Given all this, it’s not too hard to imagine that to a teenage girl, such dancing probably seemed like a glamorous, exciting, and slightly risque occupation.
Some of that glamour was thanks to Hollywood. Though largely forgotten today, the taxi dancer was a recognized character to movie audiences at the time. Not only was Joan Crawford’s first top billing movie a 1927 silent film about a taxi dancer (called, fittingly, The Taxi Dancer (1927)), but Barbara Stanwyck immortalized taxi dancers forever with the pre-Code film Ten Cents a Dance (1931), where she played a world-weary taxi dancer.
If you want, you can watch the entire movie right here. Otherwise, here’s a pretty good review over at pre-Code.com, the blog for all pre-Hays Code films (what are those, you ask? Check out this very informative page over at pre-code.com).
Though the taxi dance halls described here hit their peak in the 1930s and died out after WWII, the general concept is still around today. Working under the euphemism “hostess clubs,” this excellent 1990 LA Times article describes a place very like a taxi dance hall, where girls punch clocks to the tune of 35 cents an hour while providing dancing and conversation to lonely men; so does this LA Weekly article from 1999. Hostess clubs still existed in California as recently as 2010, where patrons of a place called Club 907 paid $30/hour to “talk, dance, and drink nonalcoholic beverages” with female employees—most of whom, it seems, were illegal immigrants. It was raided in 2011, and the owner was charged with hiring illegal immigrants. The place shut down soon after, but according to the police seven more still existed in downtown L.A. at the time.
It seems that no matter what form it takes, taxi dancing is here to stay…
Want to learn more about taxi dancing? Try this great article at Atlas Obscura, which prompted my post. Or if you’re looking for a different angle, try this informative post at YA author Christine Fletcher’s blog, who also wrote a novel about a taxi dance hall in 1940s Chicago called Ten Cents a Dance.