Modern Dancing Takes the Floor
Polkadate January 2020. It's a new decade. A century ago, 1920, ushered in many developments that would still be felt by the dancing public.
As the Roaring '20s sputtered to life, Central Texians, along with the nation, were recovering from the horrifying effects of World War I and the disaster of the Spanish flu pandemic. The war had a silver lining, at least for the music community, as the American Legion was established and many community center/ dance halls were built by them and other veteran groups providing a gathering spot for decades of fellowship, music venues, and dancing. The flu pandemic impacted everyone’s business as it was dangerous to go out into public, even some dance halls were closed to prevent contagions. The only silver lining that I can think of is my grandparents met because of it, but that’s another story.
In 1919 Central Texas, the price for a bale of cotton had risen to its highest (42 cents/lb), but began a free fall to its lowest (10 cents/lb) at the end of 1920 bringing financial hardships for the German/Czech farmers and merchants of the Polka Belt. The new decade was off to a depressing start and the song Happy Days Are Here Again wouldn’t be written for nine more years, ironically the month after the stock market crash of 1929.
In January 1920, the folks were recovering from a series of nightly dances by the Darilek Orchestra (twice), the Fireman’s Orchestra, and the Patek Orchestra. The upcoming year would see The Ideal Band from Hallettsville, The Richmond Jazz Band, The Baca Orchestra, and The Yorktown Jazz Band among others take the stage to perform both old-time and modern music. The coming decade would see the slots of dance calendars filling up as, in addition to veterans' halls, a decade of growth of religious and fraternal associations' building construction took place. The S.P.J.S.T., K.J.T., Verein (German), and O.D.H.S. (Sons of Hermann) halls along with the Pavilion at Praha (not the present one); and private endeavors like Frank Beck’s Dance Platform in Engle with Schwenke’s New Five playing had their grand opening.
ALL THAT JAZZ
The soldiers brought back the latest music style from Europe and the East Coast of America. It was called Jazz. The Jazz Age descended upon the dance halls of Texas, whether the old-timers wanted it to or not. The guys back from the Army weren’t interested in the oompah music that they grew up with in the cotton fields. They had experienced life (good and bad) outside of the farms and small towns and wanted exciting music and dancing. The foxtrot, the tango, and the Charleston were now “in” and they were being played with brass orchestras that swung with fast rhythm.
Almost all orchestras switched to the new sound, as that is where the money was. It must have been overwhelming to the old folks. The Shiner Gazette had an advertisement for an "old-time music only" dance at Bluecher Park with the comment, “Only Old-Fashioned dances will be allowed. Let us all be there. It will be such a relief to get away from the modern jazz for one night.” Worthing (between Shiner and Hallettsville) proclaimed “Old Folks Dance,” no jazz allowed.
It was during this music era when “old timers” wanted to hear only the musical sounds of their generation and would have none of this “modern” music, a sentiment that surfaces with each generation. These two phrases, modern and old-time, became the accepted nomenclature to describe the music that would be performed at a venue. Almost every dance advertisement had one or two of the phrases prominently displayed to advise the dancer what to expect. Some orchestras would alternate the sets throughout the night. The more versatile bands would have three versions of themselves: a jazz or modern band, an old-time band, and a brass band; so as to increase bookings.
MODERN VS REAL DANCE MUSIC
The hall managers would also impose penalties for those who danced the “wrong” type of dance. The 1924 grand opening of the mammoth dance pavilion in La Grange was a semi-disaster as someone had hired Whitey Kaufman’s Original Pennsylvanians, a nationally known up-and-coming 11-piece jazz ensemble, whose audiences were mainly college age. The crowd which was apparently of an older bent, disapproved of the modern music, and the La Grange Pavilion began posting clearly in their ads that you would be removed from the floor for dancing modern at an old-time dance.
When the locally popular Baca Orchestra performed, the ads proclaimed them as “REAL dance music.” A 1920 dance held in Engle was well attended with 78 tickets being sold (ladies free). A modern band must have been performing as a wag commented that “the dancers were dancing the latest style dances which looked as if both the dancers had jumped barefoot into knee high grassburrs.” The modesty police was out in full force in Bryan, as a moonlight dance was held and dancing couples were advised to keep SIX INCHES apart.
An article in the January 20, 1920 Temple Daily Telegram, with a New York byline noted that a movement by the American National Association of Masters of Dancing is counting upon the support of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, dance hall proprietors, dancing teachers, and hostesses and if necessary, the police department, to exterminate “the half-Nelson,” “Shimmy lock,” and “body hold” imported ballroom grips practiced by some dancers. When cheap and vulgar music is performed (ed.: not the band's fault?, did they play requests?), hall managers should distribute cards with the message "You will please leave the hall." It pointed out that women along with men are possibly guilty. The managers should warn the couple and if they persist, pick out “ten or a dozen objectionable couples and oust them immediately."
The story went on to say, “Dance music should be bright and cheerful, properly accented, and the phrases well divided. Cheap, vulgar music of the extreme Jazz type invites cheap, vulgar, meaningless dancing. It is useless to expect refined dancing when the music lacks all refinement, for, after all, what is dancing but an interpretation of music?”
The Association has adopted the following tempos, it being impossible the masters say, to regulate fast dancing: Waltz --48 measures to minute Two-Step—54 measures to minute One-Step—66 measures to minute Fox-trot 40 measures to the minute
“Dancers should assume a light, graceful position. There should be no jerky half-steps for these cause undesirable variations. Partners should not dance with cheeks close or touching, nor should the clasp be tight. 'Neck holds' are positively unpardonable. The gentleman’s arm should encircle his partner’s waist, his hand resting lightly just above the waistline. The lady’s left arm should not encircle her partner’s shoulders or back.
NO SHIMMYING ALLOWED!
“Steps or movements that cannot be controlled should not be taught by dancing teachers. Short side steps, first right, then left, when done continuously, are not conducive to refined dancing and should not be permitted. 'Shimmy dancing,' a shaking or jerking of the upper part of the body while taking short steps or standing still should not be tolerated.”
The preaching went on: “The proper dancing step should be the same as a natural walking one, except in exhibition dancing, which properly belongs to the stage. Exceptionally long or short steps are not in good form.”
And remember: “Dancing should be from the waist down, not from the waist up. Remember that the majority of dancers desire to dance according to the best accepted standards, that is, without the slightest trace of offense to dignity or decorum.”
Well, apparently after reviewing last week’s PolkaBeat’s photographs of dancers, apparently this memo from a hundred years ago, didn’t reach everyone. It should have since the Catholic Church supported the advice and supposedly it was read from the pulpit across America.
The following day, the Telegram’s editor commented (tongue-in-cheek) that attempts to control dancing by the dancing masters, who he characterized as the “most active agents of evil running at large in society,” might start a reform movement that would lead to a 19th Amendment added to the Constitution forbidding Jazz dancing. The 18th Amendment had just been enacted which was commonly referred to as prohibition and had another major impact on Central Texans in the 1920s.
The dance reform story gave the Temple paper several more inches of type in the following days. The paper reported that the following evening a fire alarm was turned in while the firemen “were shimmying” at the Temple Fireman’s Benefit Ball at the Knights of Pythias hall. The social editor of the paper wrote a column discussing the physical condition of girls.
“Whether you may consider dancing wrong, or not, let us face facts. The girls of today (1920) nearly all dance. Dancing is violent exercise, too violent for the girl whose body and physical condition are not fit. The girl dances until 1 o’clock in the morning and suffers all the next day…I say, if they are going to dance, educate their bodies so as to eradicate physical injury through regular systematic training."
She made herself perfectly clear when she stated: “the shimmy, the cheek-to-cheek, and numerous other shockingly immodest, savage day inheritances should be suppressed …and anyone who puts on an exhibition of any of the modern day vulgarities ought to be asked to get off the floor.” While she supports proper dancing, all young people should be saved “from the debaucheries resulting from an over-indulgence in the present atrocious freak dancing.” While reading her advice column, the image of Mrs. Dumont, who was Groucho Marx’s target for ridicule in his movies soon emerged in my mind.
With dancing becoming ever so popular, dancing surfaces were being erected everywhere. Dance platforms in Engle, Dubina, Danevang, Victoria, Hallettsville, Taylor, and dozens of other places were built, some blossoming into dance halls. In Borden (east of Weimar), the Pokluda Brothers announced they would build a platform. Yet, their plans were thwarted the following month after discovering the high price of lumber. Halls such as Wied Hall, High Hill Hall, Ermis Hall in Schulenburg, Star Hill Hall in Austin County, Arneckeville Pavilion in DeWitt County were doing a thriving monthly business giving the burgeoning quantity of orchestras being formed to play at balls and dances.
Prior to World War II, most events were advertised as “Balls,” “Grand Ball,” and in one case an “Extra Grand Ball” where people danced. And, this writer conjectures that a ball was a full-fledged dancing event with a grand march and dance cards for the dancers to reserve a dance with a partner. After the war, the term “ball” was dropped.
More about the Roaring Twenties music revolution in next month’s column. Until then, remember, no dancing cheek to cheek; you know who you are!