World War I was a watershed in many ways. Popular culture in the U.S. changed dramatically as former soldiers resumed their private lives. All they'd experienced led to a loosening of customary restrictions on social life. While we might consider that era having limited potential for the spread of popular culture, movies, phonograph records and popular music informed young people of the newest trends.
Social dancing reflected those trends as people wanted to keep up with the latest dance steps. Prior to World War I, the waltz, the one-step and the foxtrot were the most popular dances. The foxtrot had been introduced just before the war and had not become old in the eyes of dancers. In stage productions, it was originally a quick step, but that was too energetic to keep up for any length of time for the general public, so a glide was added. By 1915, according to Streetswing.com's dance history, the foxtrot had become the premier dance. Many songs were written for it, with its name in the titles. The famous dance teacher Arthur Murray got his start selling prints of the steps for the foxtrot for 10 cents through the mail, the first mail-order dance business.
New dances created
After the war, the variety of popular dances exploded. The Charleston is the best known, but was most often performed on stage or screen as a solo. More common were the Boston dip, the Texas Tommy, the bunny hug, the shimmy, the toddle, the breakaway, walking the dog, the aeroplane waltz and the castle walk, among others.
Dances tended to require more athletic skill. For example, the toddle was significant as the partners kicked their feet up, which broke the unspoken rule that dancers' feet always stayed on the ground. Often it was performed cheek to cheek, as was the bunny hug, which alternated between holding a partner at arm's length and cheek-to-cheek hugs.
The Texas Tommy was another revolutionary dance first seen in San Francisco and introduced by black dancers Johnny Peters and Mary Dewsen in 1911. Partners broke away from the face-to-face position and returned together in time with the music. It is seen as a forerunner to the Lindy hop. Professional dancers performed very strenuous, athletic moves such that it was described as "throwing their partners around." Dance bands traveling across the country provided music for specific dances to introduce those dances to their audiences.
The Boston began as a waltz with a dip. New versions were developed by dance teachers to capture audiences. The Boston dip took the next step by adding three successive deep dips to the routine. As the partners danced, they held their hands on each other's hips. It was popular with exhibition dancers, though social dancers found it quite challenging.
Those were all popular dances in the early 1920s and could be seen at Joplin dance halls. Schifferdecker Park and Erickson's Dance Academy held regular public dances. The city had an ordinance regulating dances and dance halls with regard to hours, liquor prohibition and pass-through tickets. When a ticket violation at the Erickson Academy was reported in the Globe in May 1924, the paper noted the ordinance was seldom enforced.
Incident sparked reaction
A month later, on June 20 during a regular dance at Schifferdecker, police Chief V.P. Hine created a public controversy by ejecting two dancers. The News Herald quoted him: "They were dancing in an immodest and improper way. ... I charged that they were doing the Boston dip, a dance not used in public dance halls and one I consider improper. I had no argument with them and was not rough or rude."
The dancers thought otherwise. Mayor Taylor Snapp originally reprimanded Hine. Frank Eberle, the girl's father, protested to the mayor and called for an investigation of the incident. Snapp took depositions of the couple and other dancers. By July 10, Hine had stuck to his story and was supported by area ministers; the mayor calmed Eberle's concerns that no malice was involved. Eberle considered the matter closed.
However, 12 days later, the council passed an emergency ordinance. The News Herald reported: "The measure would bar virtually all of the so-called modern dances and would make dance hall proprietors responsible for violations. The measure provides that at public dances there shall be no cheek-to-cheek dancing, no 'extreme side-stepping,' no whirling, no dog-walking, no camel walk, no shuffle, no toddle, no Texas Tommying, no elegato, no Chicago hop or walk, no cake-eater or flapper hop, no stiff-arm dancing, no dipping and hands must be kept above the waistline. Aesthetic and classical dancing also would be forbidden in public dance halls." Snapp said that "aesthetic dancing may be all right in theaters, but it has no place in public dance halls."
In less than a week, the Schifferdecker pavilion manager closed it to dances. Erickson ended public dances for the rest of the year. There were no public dance halls open in Joplin. Carthage made a halfhearted effort to follow suit, but its ordinance failed miserably by a 9-1 vote. The News Herald lampooned Hine and his 57 varieties of banned dances on its skyline on July 22. In August, Lakeside Park, located safely in the county, poked fun at Joplin and "Hine's 57 varieties of commandments." Placards stated: "Please don't be so indecent as to dance at this little gathering" and "Please refrain from cheek-to-cheek dancing. It is extremely hard on artificial complexion." That dance was attended by 300 young people.
By September, dances were being advertised in the Globe and News Herald. Erickson's reopened the next year. Memorial Hall was the site of a well-advertised and attended dance the next year. Much like the old dance ordinance, the new one gradually faded from public view and enforcement. But even today, it is still remembered in stories on blue laws.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.
See the dances
An online search yields a large number of vintage videos from silent films from the 1910s and 1920s showing contemporary dances. Search for the dances by name or use the term "1920s dances."