Wednesday, July 2, 2008


The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercial Recreation and City Life by Paul Cressey (University of Chicago Press, 1932. 2008 reprint)

This is perhaps my Ur book, a combination guaranteed to satisfy both my Cornell Woolrich induced taxi-dance hall obsession and my jones for gritty ethnography. I pre-ordered it over a year ago. And it was worth every minute of the wait.

The Taxi-Dance Hall is the gem of the “Sociology Noir” sub-genre centered at the University of Chicago from 1915 to 1935. For the uninitiated, taxi-dance halls were common in large cities between the world wars. Men paid women dance hall employees a dime for the pleasure of a 90-second dance, with the hall and the hostess splitting the take. For various legal and public relations reasons, the halls advertised themselves as “dance academies” and called the dancers “instructors.” However, little instruction was expected or given. As one dancer said, “You don’t have to know how to dance anyway.”

Although Cressey is a bit of a blue-nose who finds his subject “demoralizing,” he doesn’t let this keep him from presenting an unflinching, keenly observed portrait of the Chicago taxi-dance hall circa 1928. Via extensive case studies, interviews, and even historical, economic and geographic analysis, he captures the personality of the customers and dancers and the atmosphere of their norish milieu.

The customers as a rag-tag mix of immigrants (especially Filipinos) out to meet “immodest” American women, slummers checking out the other half, young bucks learning how to kick up their heels, older men and “the dwarfed, maimed, and pockmarked.” Surprisingly, many were just looking for dancing or companionship and attention from young woman. As one middle-aged man said, “Who wants to dance with an old woman? [it] makes me tired before I start.” But others were out for a whole lot more. No serious taxi-dancer lacked for after-work “dates,” where they matched wits with “the fish” in what Cressey calls “the sex game.”

The dancers themselves tended to be native born locals from broken or instable homes. Cressey divides them into four groups: “nice girls,” who were well-behaved or simply inexperienced; “smart girls,” who worked their dates with expertise; “never-miss girls,” who were really part time prostitutes; and, “sensual dancers” whose dance floor antics (vertical lapdancing?) “functions as a utility for her patrons.” Yes, there was plenty of exploitation in the taxi-dance hall scene, but as Cressey makes clear, it was a two way street.

Ultimately, Cressey concludes that the taxi-dance hall is not a cause, but a symptom. Its patrons are “a panorama of the maladjustments of urban life.” The halls themselves are “testimony to the inadequacies of present day life for its patrons” that nonetheless meets a need, however imperfectly. He calls for regulation and reform, not repression, an attitude that didn’t play too well back in those days. The disreputable nature of this book (originally submitted as his thesis) cut off his academic career at the knees. But I bet it’s this disreputable nature that has this book back in print more than 75 years after the fact, while its more respectable cousins are left to the ironists. This is the real noir.


Kim said...

Wonderful to know there's a new edition of this fascinating text! It will be nice to replace this dogeared photocopy.

There are still more than a few working taxi dance halls in downtown Los Angeles, though the swing bands have been replaced with mariachi CDs, and the cost per hour now hovers around $30 (not counting tips). I'm particularly fascinated with Club Galaxy at 9th & Olive, which in a previous incarnation as The Crown Grill was the real last place Beth Short was seen alive, after she left the Biltmore.

Jake Hinkson said...

Thanks for this great post. I gotta track down this book now.