Throughout the late nineteenth century, the traditional working-class dance was known as the "affair." These dances were typically located in rooms attached to saloons or some other multiple-purpose hall in a working-class neighborhood and were usually sponsored by mutual-aid societies, fraternal orders, and political associations, or linked to community and family events like weddings. In both cases, the dancing reaffirmed community networks and relations and ensured that the rituals of courtship were passed on to the next generation. Indeed, young women found that their parents usually accompanied them to these dances, or they found an acceptable chaperon, a practice common among emigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Mexico.
By the 1890s, working-class youth began to organize their own dances called "rackets." These dances were generally sponsored by social clubs, which typically included anywhere from a dozen to fifty or more members. Club members usually met once a week in saloons, settlement houses, rented halls, or cigar stores; or in their own hangouts, which they set up in the basements of tenement flats to entertain their dates with dances, skits, and games. Most social clubs also held a semiannual or annual dance in a neighborhood hall, using the money they raised to pay for club activities.
Over the next few decades, dancing became a veritable craze, leading to a dramatic increase in the number and types of dance halls. By the 1910s, dance palaces joined the neighborhood or saloon halls as the popularity of dancing continued to grow. The dance palace was a more elaborate and conspicuous commercialized attraction than the multiple-purpose hall and was usually larger, accommodating anywhere from 500 to 3,000 patrons. The dance palace also attracted men and women from all walks of life and nationalities, although individual dance palaces typically were segregated by class and race. The most obvious exception to this segregation was the growing craze of the 1920s among white youth to patronize clubs in African American communities, like the Cotton Club in New York City's Harlem. As a whole, dance halls appealed more to factory and office workers than to middle-class men and women who preferred the city's cabarets, which featured dancing along with dinner and a floor show.
The anonymity young couples found at dance halls encouraged the development of a peer culture. Commercial dance halls typically attracted men and women in their late teens and early twenties. Apart from their parents, they could experiment with alcohol and cigarettes and dabble in romance. Men and women were frequently seen closely embracing each other in the balcony or in the chairs and tables surrounding the dance floor. The dance hall had even earned the reputation among certain classes as a parlor because of the numbers of married couples who first met at a dance.
The new social dances from the period only reinforced the opportunity to mingle. By the late nineteenth century, pivoting, spieling, and tough dancing were beginning to replace the traditional waltz and two-step. Pivoting and spieling were a fast parody of the waltz, in which couples closely embraced each other and engaged in much twisting and twirling. With the waltz, men and women did place their hands on each other. But their shoulders were expected to be three to four inches apart, and they were not supposed to look directly into each other's eyes. The tough dances, also known as animal and rag dances, were even more out of control. Tough dances were performed from a crouched position with knees flexed and body bent. Many of these dances, like the turkey trot, bunny hug, and grizzly bear, imitated animal gestures and movements while celebrating improvisation and a sexually expressive look and feel.
Over the next few decades this form of dancing grew increasingly popular. The 1920s saw the rise of the shimmy, the black bottom, and the Charleston, while swing music was all the rage by the 1930s and young couples were dancing the lindy, also known as the jitterbug. Swing music, which came from big bands and produced an ensemble sound, began to replace the smaller jazz combos. Swing was less restrained and less ornate than its jazzy predecessors, and it was more individualistic, a sound that fit well with the lindy. Like the Charleston and other dances from the 1920s, the lindy required partners to touch hands or dance apart instead of in an exclusively face-to-face position. In particular, the lindy featured the breakaway or solo, typically reserved for the male, and the "air steps," in which dancers showed off their skill by dancing with their feet off the ground through a number of gymnastic moves.
Dance hall patrons did confront a number of problems, however. Across the country, cities and states successfully passed ordinances to restrict the use of alcohol and to prohibit certain dance moves, and patrons quickly realized that the dance hall did not always provide the intimacy and fun for which they were searching. Throughout the early twentieth century, there were almost always more men than women at dance halls. Indeed, some men claimed one had to know someone before being assured of getting a dance. The ratio was more disproportionate on the weekends, when there were even greater numbers of men in attendance.
Commercial leisure also cost more than men and women were able to spend. In the 1920s, women's wages averaged only 57 percent of men's, compelling many women to depend upon their male companions to help pay for commercial leisure, a practice known as "treating," in which women traded sexual favors—ranging from a simple good night kiss to more intimate sexual encounters—for access to commercial leisure. Both men and women typically found that treating failed to meet their expectations. Young men could not always afford the treats their female companions demanded, while most women feared that the system of treating ensured their dependence on men. The dilemma compelled some women to attend only chaperoned dances or to attend with a female friend to discourage any unwanted sexual advances. After World War II, the gradual move toward dances in which partners frequently lost contact gave way to freestyle dances in which the partner was optional. The rise of rock and roll in the 1950s and its use of repeated phrases and a driving beat gave rise to dances that emphasized swiveling and thrusting hips, like the jet, the locomotion, and the bop, dances that were more likely to be performed around a café jukebox than at a traditional dance hall. By 1960, the twist was all the rage and the partner had become obsolete. Popularized by Chubby Checker on American Bandstand, the twist was akin to toweling oneself off after a bath while grinding out a cigarette with one's toes.
Toward the end of the 1960s, rock and roll dances were beginning to fade, and there was little to replace them. Young Americans were beginning to favor heaviersounding bands like Led Zeppelin and stars like Jimi Hendrix. Dancing was rarely seen at the concerts these bands staged. Instead, concert goers preferred to "freak out" or "trip out," often while vibrating their spines or contracting their torsos. About this same time, disco, which is simply music that is reproduced "on disk" and not performed, appeared in primarily gay and African American clubs, as disc jockeys began splicing together faster soul songs to produce a continuous dance mix. With the 1970 movie Saturday Night Fever, disco became a national craze, and discotheques began to replace café jukeboxes in popularity. At discotheques across the country, freestyle dance typically dominated the dance scene and even line dancing became popular.
Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, freestyle dances continued to dominate the dance scene but not without a challenge. In the 1980s and 1990s, line dancing led to a revival of country and western bars because of the ease with which dancers could pick up the steps; and raves featured trance dancing, or what can be described as dancing with an emphasis on spinal vibrations or torso and pelvic contractions reminiscent of the "tripping out" of the late 1960s. At the same time, swing dance was making a comeback. During the mid-1980s, a group of swing devotees converged on New York City to learn more about swing from the original dance masters of the 1930s and 1940s. Before long swing dance was showing up in clubs and makeshift dance floors across the country. Some dancers explained their attraction to swing because of the nostalgia of the dance, while others simply wanted to dance with their partners as opposed to dancing apart from them, a common criticism of freestyle dance. Whatever the reason, the swing revival of the mid-1980s sheds light on the extent to which social dancing has changed since the end of World War II, as well as the different meanings ascribed to dance and its importance to America's youth.
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Randy D. McBee