Satan in the Dance Hall: Social Dancing and Morality in 1920s New York ~ Swing, jazz and blues - Dance to the music

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Satan in the Dance Hall: Social Dancing and Morality in 1920s New York

This is the fifth part of an interview with Ralph G. Giordano who recently published his book Social Dancing in America: A History and Reference Volume 2 Lindy Hop to Hip Hop, 1901-2000.

[Part 1: How come you wrote a book about social dancing in America?]
[Part 2: Which dances do you write about in the book? ]
[Part 3: Can you share some interesting facts about Lindy hop?]
[Part 4: Do you include Balboa in the book?]

Part 5: Tell me about the next book you're writing

My next book “Satan in the Dance Hall: Social Dancing and Morality in 1920s New York” is as an interdisciplinary study of how the social, political, economic, and cultural events were intertwined with social dancing in New York City throughout the 1920s.

Arguably, no other period throughout American History is so closely identified with the freewheeling spirit of music and dancing, as did Prohibition, Jazz, dancing the Charleston, as did the 1920s. The perpetual image of the Charleston dance, Jazz music, flapper fashion, and flaunting prohibition is an indelible part of not only popular American history textbooks but also of folklore, legend, and especially Hollywood movies. However, what is lost to popular history is the fact that the 1920s were most likely the most morally disruptive period in American history, especially upon social dancing.

Americans were vehemently divided over Prohibition as many simply scoffed at the law and continued to drink and others proclaimed morality must be enforced by prosecution. Prior to Prohibition, many individuals drank at a neighborhood salon. During Prohibition, the saloons were closed and an “illegal” replacement called “speakeasies” emerged not only for drinking but also music, entertainment, and social dancing. Within cities such as New York, the speakeasy became a fashionable nightspot and newspapers heralded in the antics. To many supporters of Prohibitions, however, the speakeasies were viewed not only as contemptible lawbreakers but also as contributing to moral decadence.

Moral decadence was not only contained to the subject of alcohol. Throughout the country, Americans were continually besieged by a raging nationwide furor and debate between Fundamentalists and Modernists. Some of the most publicized issues included the nationwide push for Americanization, immigration quotas, eugenics, tabloid sensationalism, radio, mass produced automobiles, postal censorship, Hollywood movies, promiscuity, birth control, and the heavily publicized debate between evolution and creation culminating in the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the midst of all of the public and media attention, an almost innocent unwitting victim of the debate was social dancing.

The social dancing debate in New York City also paralleled the tenure of the Reverend John Roach Straton. In 1918, Straton assumed the pulpit at Calvary Baptist Church on West Fifty Seventh Street in New York. His condemnation certainly included all of the aforementioned nationwide issues, but some were specifically applied to New York City, which he viewed as “a modern Babylon.” Straton’s objections included card playing, jazz music, the Broadway theater, divorce, low-cut dresses, romance novels, the Museum of Natural History, boxing, nude art, anti-Catholicism, and even poodle dogs.

But his most ravage attacks were against social dancing and New York’s commercial dance halls. In an interview in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 26, 1922, Straton’s response to the commercial dance halls echoed with fire and brimstone. He bellowed:

the very fires of Hell are raging at them in the slums, the [dance] palaces and amusement centers of the city and when multitudes of young men and young women are being swept away to eternal destruction.”

At the time, Straton’s exploits were well chronicled in all of New York City’s eleven major daily newspapers. Stanley Walker, for example, city editor of The New York Herald Tribune noted:

Straton came out in favor of legislation which would prohibit all public dancing except the more seemly sort of mazurkas, such as were danced by David and other pious hoofers in the olden times. Indeed, he was opposed to virtually everything in the way of amusement that was going on in New York”.

What do you think of this upcoming book? Tell me.

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