Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dime a Dance

Research turns up such fun tidbits, doesn't it?

I've been listening to a lot of 30s and 40s music to get into the spirit of my latest little project. One song, "Ten Cents a Dance," turned up one of the forgotten vestiges of the culture of the era--the taxi dancer. Hired by dance halls to dance with male patrons, taxi dancers earned a commission on each ticket they collected from their partners. Often these tickets were sold for a dime, leading to the term "dime a dance." Some taxi dancers worked in open dance halls, but many also worked in "closed" halls, where no women were allowed who did not work there. Dance schools also adopted the "ticket per dance" method for payment of their instructors, so not all taxi dancers worked in dime a dance halls. But as the song below suggests, the line often became blurred--the voice is that of a dime a dance girl, but she refers to herself as "a lady teacher."

I had heard of "dime a dance" halls, but hadn't really thought about the girls who worked there until I heard this song:

What must it have been like? The popular culture treatment of taxi dancers is pretty seedy--this song implies that the dancer feels trapped in a downtrodden, tired life of soulless repetition. "Ten cents a dance--that's what they pay me--oh, how it weighs me down" suggests she feels that the emotional weight of the job is taking more of a toll than she earns. In It's a Wonderful Life, one female character(Violet Bick, depicted as kind of a slut in the movie) is arrested while working at a dime a dance hall (you can see the brighty lit sign "Dime a Dance" in the background). In many ways, the aura surrounding "dime a dance" is one of subdued prostitution--after all, they were selling their attention and physical presence to a member of the opposite sex. They were often suspected of true prostitution, with police sniffing around to see if their work was a cover for something more. And it's likely that it often was.

At the same time, a successful taxi dancer could earn three times as much as an office or factory employee, working only a few evenings a week. There may have also been an element of autonomy to the job, too--since the girls worked on commission, they could be their own bosses. From the picture above left, it looks like most of them didn't take guff from anybody!

Would be fun inspiration for a character or short story...and in fact, there have been a couple films made about taxi dancers. 1927's The Taxi Dancer starred Joan Crawford and 1931's Ten Cents a Dance starred Barbara Stanwyck. With my newfound obsession, both are clearly going on my Netflix queue!


Connie said...

I'd totally missed that Violet was a dime-a-dance girl. I'm going to have to watch it again!

disgruntledwriterscircle said...

How interesting! I never knew about this, but it certainly is fascinating.
My current project takes place in this time as well, and I've been frequenting YouTube for appropriate music to get me in the right mood :)

Rowenna said...

Connie--in the "George Bailey was never born" sequence, the Building and Loan is a dime-a-dance hall--and Violet is getting hauled out of it by the cops :)

DWC--The music from this time period is so great! I listen to it even when I'm not in research/inspriation mode :) Have you tried Django Rheinhardt? Great, unique swing-era jazz!

Lua said...

This is so interesting! I had never heard of this dime a dance halls; dancing in a way of selling attention and physical presence to the opposite sex… How times have changed! This would make an interesting story indeed… :)

Corra McFeydon said...

This is really fascinating, Rowenna! I've never heard of taxi dancers before. Now I want to research them more.

(That song will be in my head all day!)


- Corra

The Victorian Heroine