Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ten Cents A Dance And Taxi Dance Halls

The evils of 1920-1930 lower east side and other neighborhood Dance Halls was alluded to in a previous post

an excerpt from an article in the nypress
"Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
Can pay for a ticket and rent me
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor
Are sweethearts my good luck has sent me."
—Rodgers and Hart, "Ten Cents a Dance" (1930)
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart could easily have been using the Orpheum as a model when they described the "pansies and rough guys, tough guys who tear my gown" in their caustic take on the dime-a-dance, or "taxi-dance" phenomenon, which reached its peak during the 1920s and early 30s. Practically forgotten today, the taxi dancer was a famous type, spawning not only the hit song but an eponymous 1931 movie starring that perennial bad girl of pre-Hays Code days, Barbara Stanwyck. Taxi-dancing—the name derived from the "more time, more money" model of a cab ride—was for many women an alternative to the narrow set of opportunities prescribed them in the first decades of the 20th century. Since dancers customarily earned 40 to 50 percent of each 10-cent dance ticket (hence the term that evolved during taxi dancing's early days, "nickel hoppers") energetic young women in the late 1920s could easily take home up to $40 a week.
Though patronizing in spots and saddled with the "reformist" tone of his day, sociologist Paul Cressey gives one of the most vivid period accounts of human interaction, or lack thereof, in establishments like the Orpheum, in his 1932 book, The Taxi-Dance Hall:
"As soon as the girl receives a ticket from the patron, she tears it in half, gives one part to the ubiquitous ticket-collector; and the other half she blandly stores with other receipts under the hem of her silk stocking—where before the evening is over the accumulation appears as a large and oddly placed tumor. She volunteers no conversation…"
While certain dancers made quiet arrangements to meet their clients at a later time, most could not be classified as prostitutes. In fact, at better-known establishments such as the Orpheum, rules against "mingling" (socializing with men away from the dance floor) were rigidly enforced, and no liquor was served—even after the repeal of Prohibition. Although sailors and other military personnel accounted for a large portion of the Orpheum's clientele, every so often a young man of society, such as Allan Carlisle, great-grandson of famed detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton, would elope with one of its dancers. On the whole, taxi dancing, at the Orpheum as well as in Manhattan's 238 other dance halls (by a 1924 count), was considered a viable profession, albeit one that lurked outside the bounds of respectability.
This is not to say that the taxi-dance hall was without its exploitative elements. The disquieting image of a pedometer, coiled tightly around a female ankle, anchors a two-page spread devoted to the Orpheum (named only as a "famous taxi dance ballroom on Broadway," but identifiable through photos) in the Boston Sunday Globe of November 22, 1936. Pedometers, the article explains, are not used all the time, but the management employs them occasionally "to check which girls are working." The depiction of women as human chattel, as items for purchase, continues with an extolment of the hall's variety:

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