In Philadelphia, Everybody Was Doin’ It . . . or Not.

April 17, 2012

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     This month I’ll concentrate on dance crazes that swept Philadelphia: the waltz in the late 18th century, the polka in the 19th century and the ragtime mania of the early 20th century. Click on any image for a closer view.

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THE VICTORIANS AT HOME

In 1914, Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote a memoir called “Our Philadelphia,” which her husband Joseph illustrated.  In it, she recalls her childhood in the late nineteenth century, her grandfather’s house on Spruce and 11th Sts., right, and the Philadelphia world in which she moved. Here she describes the sometimes frustrating predictability of  Philadelphia society and dancing during her youth at the end of the 19th century:

“Philadelphia had a standard for its parties, as for everything, and to deviate from this standard, to attempt originality, to invent the “freak” entertainments of New York, would have been excessively bad form. You danced in the same spacious front and back parlors . . . to the same music by Hassler’s band; where you ate the same Terrapin, Croquettes, Chicken Salad, Oysters, Boned Turkey and Ice Cream, where the same Cotillon began at the same hour with the same figures and the same favors and the same partners. There was no getting away from the same people in Philadelphia. That was the worst of it.”

She had grown up in that timeless post-Civil War Philadelphia where  “good” Philadelphia families, meaning those residing south of Market Street, sent generations of children to the right dancing school, i.e. Solomon Asher’s Academy at the venerable Natatorium at 219 South Broad Street, below, to learn the correct Philadelphia deportment while doing the correct quadrilles, waltzes and two-steps.

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PROPER PHILADELPHIANS MEET IMPROPER RAGTIME

Those same proper Philadelphians were far from prepared when the “modern” ragtime music and dance craze swept across the Quaker City in the 1910s just as it did across the rest of the country. These new dances didn’t come from the elegant Paris and London salons that had been regarded as the ideals of taste and culture for so long, but from the dance halls and honky-tonks of the notorious Barbary Coast in San Francisco. They were a veritable menagerie of dances like the Grizzly Bear, (left), the Turkey Trot, the Chicken Scratch and the Bunny Hug. First seen as novelty dances on Philadelphia vaudeville stages, they soon swooped, loped and trotted their way into Philadelphia society. They were raucous, they were lively, they were fun and they were truly American in origin, but were they “decent?” Philadelphia wasn’t sure. At first, the New York Times reported,

“The Turkey Trot has invaded Philadelphia’s most exclusive dancing circles. ‘Everybody is doing it this season,’ Mrs. Drexel Biddle said, ‘and I am doing my best to learn it . . .  It is a hard dance to do.’”

Within a month, though, the city’s taste makers thought better of it, and in a total about-face, headlines now read,

“PHILADELPHIA BANS THE TROT! The turkey trot and grizzly bear will no longer be tolerated in society here. It is understood that the two dances have all but caused several scandals in some of Philadelphia’s best families.”

Within the next few months universities, clubs and churches all over the Philadelphia region vied in banning these new dances.

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COCKTAILS AND TANGO TEAS

To make matters worse, 1913 saw the introduction of the most insidious, controversial and exotic dance of all – the tango.  The tango came to Philadelphia from Argentina by way of Paris. The Pope in Rome immediately forbade all Catholics from dancing the tango, but Philadelphians took more time about making up their minds. Some condemned it without ever seeing it, some ran to be the first to take lessons. Within a few months, however, restaurants and hotels were clearing spaces for  late afternoon “tango teas” so that downtown shopgirls and secretaries could spend an hour or two practicing the latest steps –and imbibing a cocktail or two– before heading to the trolleys and trains that took them home. Wanamakers, Strawbridges and Lit Brothers sold “tango shirts” and “tango shoes” for men  and “tango sashes,” “tango hats” and even flexible “tango corsets” for women. Bolts of brilliant orange fabric that had sat unsold in dry goods stores flew off the shelves when the color was dubbed “tango.”

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DANCE MANIA!

The number of studios in the city teaching the “modern dances” tripled within a year. The Inquirer and the Evening Ledger competed to print whole series of articles describing the latest steps and the newest dances; the Hesitation Waltz, the Castle Walk, and something called the Foxtrot.  Advertisements for locally made Victrola gramophones assured Philadelphians that they could now practice their tango variations in the privacy of their homes, even on Sundays, when Pennsylvania Blue Laws forbade public dancing. Respectable ballrooms and “dance palaces” appeared in the city for the first time. (In 1918 The Roseland Ballroom would open on Market Street, long before its more famous other location in New York.)

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Riding on the crest of this dance mania were the first American ballroom stars, Vernon and Irene Castle, right. The Castles removed all the objectionable elements from ragtime dances, and shrewdly marketed themselves, their dances and their elegant New York studio to the best society in the city. They warned “Do not wriggle the shoulders. Do not shake the hips. Do not flounce the elbows. . . Remember you are at a social gathering, and not in a gymnasium. Drop the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hug, etc. These dances are ugly, ungraceful, and out of fashion.” When they appeared at B.F. Keith’s vaudeville stage at 1116  Chestnut Street in November 0f 1914, the house was sold out and many were turned away as Philadelphians thronged not only to see the newest dances performed by America’s ballroom dance stars, but to catch a glimpse of Irene’s bobbed hair and latest, fashion-setting gowns.

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America’s entrance into World War I put a sober end to that incredible “modern dance mania.” When the doughboys returned after the war, something called “jazz” had taken the place of ragtime music.  But in those amazing few years before  the war, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear and the Bunny Hug had shaken up traditional Philadelphians, forever changing the way they danced and the kind of music they danced to. As the story of Marguerite Walz, January 22 post, below, shows us, in the 1920s jazz music and jazz dances like the Charleston along with the impossible task of enforcing of National Prohibition would create new scandals and problems for Philadelphians.

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SOURCES

●  “Our Philadelphia,” Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1914, illustrated by Joseph Pennell

  The Philadelphia Inquirer 1911-1916

●  “Modern Dancing,” Vernon and Irene Castle, 1916

  The New York Times, December 22, 1911 and January 5, 1912

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