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[Detail] Cover of "How to Dance," 1878

Dance Hall Legislation in the Flapper Era

As anti-dance literature attests, dance halls were often sites for public drunkenness and lewd behavior. A search on dance hall yields accounts of incorrigible behavior and various attempts by local governments to control these venues in the early twentieth century. "The Public Dance Halls of Chicago" (1917) notes that most dancers conducted themselves well until around 11 p.m. when revelers began to show the effects of alcohol:

Men and women become intoxicated and dance indecently such dances as "Walkin' the Dog," . . . "The Stationary Wiggle," etc . . . It is not uncommon at certain dances to see between twenty and twenty-five couples between the ages of sixteen and twenty years, very much intoxicated. At one dance the investigator saw four young boys sitting at a table with forty-eight bottles of beer between them;

The Public Dance Halls of Chicago, page 4

Such occurrences throughout the country prompted many cities to introduce laws restricting the events in and around dance halls. "Dance Halls. Ordinances Governing the Conduct of Public Dances and Dance Halls, City of Buffalo" feature the Common Council's 1914 requirements to license these venues, maintaining the right for any police officer to shut down a dance "whenever any indecent or immoral act is committed, or whenever any disorder of a gross, violent or vulgar character takes place therein, with the knowledge or consent of the owner or lessee, or his agent, or other person in charge of the dance,"(page 5).

A 1929 federal study, "Public Dance Halls, Their Regulation and Place in the Recreation of Adolescents," noted a steady increase in such local legislation since 1914. This growing effort "may be attributed to the fuller recognition of the social factors involved in this type of amusement . . . or . . . it may be the direct result of conditions arising out of the demand for excitement and the consequent increase in the number of dance halls following the war years," (page 9).

Although the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution banned the sale and transport of alcohol in the United States in 1920 (and was not repealed until 1933), this 1929 study described various state penalties for public intoxication at dance halls:

Illinois makes it unlawful for any known . . . intoxicated person to be present in a public dance hall. Wisconsin specifically prohibits the presence of intoxicated persons or the use of intoxicating liquors in the dance hall or on the premises, whether the hall be licensed or not under provisions of any local or county regulation. Ohio prohibits the presence of intoxicated persons or the use of intoxicating liquors. In Oregon, as a condition in the applicant's bond, no intoxicating liquors are allowed in or about the dance hall.

page 8

  • Why do you think that the demand for dance halls increased after World War I?
  • Why do you think that riotous behavior was a common occurrence in dance halls?
  • How do the incidents described in these studies compare to those chronicled in the anti-dance literature?
  • Do you think that local legislation of dance halls was adequate to control such events?
  • What other ways might be used to deal with lewd behavior and public drunkenness?
  • How effective would you expect the anti-dance literature to have been in controlling the "evils" of dancing? How would you have reacted to such literature?
  • Why do you think that local governments were interested in prohibiting alcohol even in the midst of a federal ban on alcohol?

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