There was a time when jazz music was considered “dangerous” and a threat to “our way of life.” Consider the words of Fenton T. Bott of Dayton, Ohio, described by John R. McMahon in the December, 1921 edition of Ladies Home Journal as an “expert in the dance and professional dancing master”: “It [jazz] is degrading. It lowers all the moral standards. Unlike liquor, a great deal of its harm is direct and immediate. But it also leads to undesirable things. The jazz is too often followed by the joy-ride. The lower nature is stirred up as a prelude to unchaperoned adventure.”
Conservative opinions were so strong about the “dangers” of jazz and the dancing it provoked that jazz dancing was being regulated. Bott told McMahon that “Municipal regulation has been started and applied to some extent in something like sixty towns and cities. The best-regulated cities are probably Cleveland, Detroit and Omaha. The movement began not long ago in Cleveland when officials asked my brother, who is a professional teacher, to assist in the regulation of public dance halls. They asked what he wanted for his services, and he told them he would be glad to do the work for a dollar a year.”
Bott, of course, wasn’t alone in his thinking. In McMahon’s story, Brooklyn resident A.J. Weber, a member of the Dancing Masters’ Association, is quoted as saying “The jazz is simply rotten. It belongs in the underworld, where it is called a name that would shock a lot of respectable people who tolerate it if they heard that name applied. It must go and leave room for clean and wholesome dancing.”
A century later, we still debate the effects that new cultural elements (video games, rap, texting, etc) have on the residents of our modern world, and much of today’s conversation may provide comic relief to readers 100 years from now. But for now, with the benefit of over 90 years in our rear-view window, “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!” provides perspective (and especially comic relief!) on the battles fought, and how far our world has come.
From Ladies Home Journal, December, 1921
by John R. McMahon
Arguments as to Jazz being a Nation-wide Scourge
EXPERTS tell in this article the nation-wide aspects of our jazz scourge. They say legal prohibition of all dancing may come.
Unspeakable Jazz Must Go! It is worse than Saloon and Scarlet Vice, Testify Professional Dance Experts – Only a Few Cities are Curbing Evil.
A reform movement has been started by cities and volunteer groups. A committee of women is helping to regulate in Chicago.
It looks as if the common people are in reaction against “common behavior. Decency is regaining popularity among those who work for a living.
Meanwhile the idle rich are getting ranker. There are few signs of reform in high places. The “worst case” was observed on the dancing floor of an expensive New York hotel.
The high-society flapper is still going the limit. She drinks, swears, smokes, toddles and chatters stories that once belonged to the men’s smoke room.
You can’t reform a society flapper. Maybe not. She is a law unto herself. Perhaps. ” It’s none of your business and the boys like it, she says. Is that so?
“The boys are sick and disgusted,” says an observer, “except the degenerate cubs, and they are greatly in the minority. Kissing and petting have been made so vulgarly common that there is no thrill left in it. The boys have to be dragged to dances, in spite of the fact that corsets are parked in the check room.”
Rub the bloom off American womanhood and what is left? The status of the Eastern European female of the species, a bare-footed working animal—something a little lower than man.
High society would better sign on the dotted line of the popular reform pledge.
This civilization will not permit itself to be ditched by any minority, high or low.
JAZZ dancing is a worse evil than the saloon used to be!” This statement fairly startled me because of its source. If it had been made by a zealot of any sort I should have discounted it heavily. If it had been uttered by an average clergyman or publicist one would make allowance for lack of exact information. But the statement was made by a man of the world, a person without prejudices or illusions, one who is familiar with every phase of terpsichorean theory and practice in the United States, an expert in the dance and a professional dancing master. His name is Fenton T. Bott. He lives in Dayton, Ohio.
And he knows more about the subject than most professionals by virtue of his position as “director of dance reform” in the American National Association Masters of Dancing. It is his business to keep in touch with dance activities throughout the country.
He is a big, broad-shouldered man of ruddy face that breaks into frequent smiles. There is nothing narrow about his make-up. He is an ideal witness in the case of the Commonwealth of Decency versus the Jazz.
“Jazz is worse than the saloon! Why?” I asked.
“Because it affects our young people especially,” said Mr. Bott. “It is degrading. It lowers all the moral standards. Unlike liquor, a great deal of its harm is direct and immediate. But it also leads to undesirable things. The jazz is too often followed by the joy-ride. The lower nature is stirred up as a prelude to unchaperoned adventure.
“This strikes especially at the youth of the nation, and the consequences are almost too obvious to be detailed. When the next generation starts on a low plane, what will its successors be?
“We have had more flagrant dancing since prohibition than before. This may be partly because people substitute one form of sense excitation for another, a dance spree instead of a bout with liquor. I believe this is done deliberately in many cases and that those who are sober often dance more reprehensibly than those who are somewhat in their cups.
“A person who is partly intoxicated knows it and is afraid to go too far. The sober one argues that he can take care of himself and may go as far as he likes.”
“Is there anything bad about jazz music itself?” I asked. “There certainly is! Those moaning saxophones and the rest of the instruments with their broken, jerky rhythm make a purely sensual appeal. They call out the low and rowdy instinct. All of us dancing teachers know this to be a fact. We have seen the effect of jazz music on our young pupils. It makes them act in a restless and rowdy manner. A class of children will behave that way as long as such music is played. They can be calmed down and restored to normal conduct only by playing good, legitimate music.”
Dancing Masters Seek Reforms
“DANCING, as you know, has enormously increased in the last few years. It has become a great public institution in which all classes and ages are interested. We have estimated that about ten per cent of the entire population, or more than ten million people, have become dancers. When you eliminate little children, invalids and the aged, this means a very considerable part of the population. Anything that is radically wrong with the recreation of so many people must affect all of us.”
“Granted,” I said. ” Now what is the organized dancing profession doing to reform conditions?”
“We are working in several directions,” replied Mr. Bott, “but we have an uphill fight. We have tried to cooperate with churches, but except for a liberal minority, the institutional churches that conduct regulated dancing in their parish houses, we have met with little success. The extreme evangelical churches stand on their old program, which bans all dancing, regardless of its character. They do not discriminate between the art of a Pavlowa or of aesthetic Greek dancing and the lowest performance in a dive. On the other hand our work is appreciated by a good many managers of settlements and of welfare activities.
“We have a booklet and chart which we send to welfare organizations, owners of dance halls and dancing teachers. The booklet describes the dances approved by our association, and the charts, which are meant to be placed on the walls of dance halls, show the correct positions and steps for the various approved dances. I am glad to say that the United States Public Health Service has not only com- mended our booklet but has distributed thousands of copies of it to welfare agencies. High schools throughout the country have been well supplied. This is the third year of publication and to date we have issued about twenty thousand copies.”
In parenthesis, I was informed by J. Henry Smythe, Jr., that the unrelenting attitude of the Methodist Church toward all dancing was being rapidly modified, with the prospect that evangelical churchdom generally would soon line up with all liberal forces who want to abolish the jazz outrage, yet who believe in wholesome, sane dancing. Mr. Smythe is a prominent lay member of the Methodist Church whose ancient “blue laws,” he says, are not obeyed by a majority of the membership and should be repealed. Numerous annual conferences of the Methodists have lately voted to repeal the rules which ban dancing along with theater going and card playing.
“A nation-wide clean-up of the dance is really needed,” resumed Mr. Bott. “The present efforts at reform are too sporadic and local. Each section is a law unto itself or has no law. Municipal regulation has been started and applied to some extent in something like sixty towns and cities. The best-regulated cities are probably Cleveland, Detroit and Omaha. The movement began not long ago in Cleveland when officials asked my brother, who is a professional teacher, to assist in the regulation of public dance halls. They asked what he wanted for his services, and he told them he would be glad to do the work for a dollar a year.
“When we had our convention in Cleveland the assembled teachers were warned that strict rules governed public dancing and that when they visited a public place it would be well for them to mind their steps. Some of the teachers visited Euclid Beach Park, where six thousand people were dancing in the big lakeside hall. There were two bands, one at each end, supplying music for the army of dancers. Each dance number was posted up in order, whether waltz, two-step, schottische or Cuban waltz. The visitors thought they would test the vigilance of the municipal inspectors. They had hardly taken three steps when they were tapped on the shoulder and asked, ‘Have you read the rules? You must be strangers. Everybody is required to dance the same thing here at one time and to dance it the same way. Right now it is a waltz. You must waltz and do it like the others or leave the place.’ Names and addresses of offenders are taken in Cleveland. There is a blacklist of dancers who are not allowed on public floors.
“Omaha has a punishment for boy and girl dancers that fits the crime. When a couple is ob- served in a serious violation upon a public floor they are asked to step outside. A patrol wagon rolls up and the tearful pair are escorted into it. But instead of being taken to the lockup they are driven to their homes and presumably sent to bed by their parents.”
“What is the attitude of music publishers?” I inquired.
Dividends and Public Opinion
NOT very helpful, unless they have had a recent change of heart,” replied Mr. Bott. “The music written for jazz is the very foundation and essence of salacious dancing. The words also are often very suggestive, thinly veiling immoral ideas. Now, at the 1920 convention of our association we appealed to the music publishers to eliminate jazz music. A representative of the publishers came before us and replied that personally he was against the indecent stuff, being himself a church elder or deacon, but the publishers had to give the public what they wanted and they also had to reckon with stockholders calling for dividends. That’s a fine argument! Perhaps we dancing teachers are not less selfish, but I hope we are more intelligent. No body of men can afford to flout public opinion and the best interests of the community.”
“What do parents say to your efforts?”
“Naturally most parents are heartily with the dancing teachers in the effort to discipline youngsters and make them toe the mark of propriety. There are a few exceptions of fashionable mothers, who want their daughters to learn everything up-to-date and snappy and who consider objections to high-society movements as being squeamish. A mother of this type, when her daughter at finishing school was reprimanded for smoking cigarettes, told the principal she thought the art of cigarette smoking should be taught with other accomplishments fitting girls for a social career.”
It is no easy task to keep discipline and order in public or semipublic dance places. Last winter a St. Louis dancing teacher of repute, who was conducting a semipublic dancing academy, gave up the effort in despair and closed his doors. To be sure, some of his fellow professionals thought this was an admission of weakness. Barring out disreputable people sometimes seems a problem, tor recognized bad folks often behave better in well-conducted public dance halls than the respectable and virtuous. For example, in a Middle Western city several women of disrepute were pointed out to the floor manager. They were perfectly decorous. They were having a fling at respectability. Should they be ejected? “No,” says a humanitarian. On the other hand, some of this class, while never misbehaving personally, may be present with sinister motives of entangling youth in their toils. Men and women who prey on youth as a commercial enterprise find a rich field in the public dance hall.
The United States Public Health Service offers to cooperate with the dancing teachers more fully than it has already done, but from an angle of social-disease prevention which, the teachers claim, has little bearing outside of public dance halls. In short, Surgeon-General Cumming wants to put medical warnings on the teachers’ dance reform literature which goes to high schools and reaches thousands of young folks. No doubt the Public Health Service experts are right in their attitude as applied to many if not most public dance halls in cities.
Doubtless the more widespread danger is not from disease. Don Juan never had such a potent instrument of downfall as the ultra dance supplies to every evil-purposed male to-day. The road to hell is too often paved with jazz steps. If a refined girl were alone with a man in a drawing-room and he offered the familiarities of the ultra dance, she would resent them as insults. But she accepts them without question on the dance floor.
Arguments as to Jazz being a Nation-wide Scourge
Fine and imprisonment for flagrant dancing were suggested as the only remedy by A. J. Weber, a member of the Dancing Masters’ Association.
Unspeakable Jazz Must Go! It is worse than Saloon and Scarlet Vice, Testify Professional Dance Experts – Only a Few Cities are Curbing Evil.
“If the jazz is not reformed,” said Mr. Weber, who has a studio in Brooklyn, “the first thing we know there will be a national law prohibiting all public dancing. It will be just like the story of the saloon. The metropolitan area stands in need of all the reform that can be applied.
“The jazz is simply rotten. It belongs in the underworld, where it is called a name that would shock a lot of respectable people who tolerate it if they heard that name applied. It must go and leave room for clean and wholesome dancing.”
“Don’ts” for Dancing Masters
AMONG the rules contained in the booklet for dance regulation issued by the organized professionals is one that separates extreme youth from age in public dance places or otherwise. Youngsters under eighteen are not to be admitted at grown-up functions. This coincides with regulations in some high schools and also with civic or state law in some sections. Animal names for dances, such as cat step, camel walk, bunny hug, turkey trot, and so on, are disapproved as of degrading tendency. Rapid and jerky music is condemned, while a medium dance tempo, ranging from forty measures to the minute for the fox trot to forty-eight for the waltz, fifty-four for the two-step and sixty-six for the one-step, is recommended. There are ten “Don’ts,” which may be summarized:
Don’t permit vulgar jazz music; don’t let young men hold their partners tightly; no touching of cheeks which is public love making, no neck holds, no shimmy or toddle, no steps very long or very short, no dancing from the waist up but rather from the waist down; suggestive movements barred; don’t copy stage stuff; don’t hesitate to ask offenders to leave the room. A public dance halt may be cleaned up by polite dismissal of one dozen offending couples, handing the young men cards for a refund of admission at the cashier’s office. If this does not work, “fire” another dozen couples. Don’t be afraid to lose patronage. All of which seems to be a sound line of advice.
The dancing masters are well organized and long established. There are indeed two organizations of them, the elder and better known being styled The American National Association Masters of Dancing. It was founded in the mists of antiquity, when quadrille and cotillon were vogue. It is composed chiefly of teachers who carry on their business in the larger cities, and there are about five hundred members equally divided between men and women. The other organization, called the International Association Masters of Dancing, is an offshoot of the first and includes in its membership owners or managers of dance halls as well as teachers. Some persons belong to both bodies, and it is expected that the two may soon unite in one association.
The first-named organization held its thirty-eighth annual convention in New York during the first week of last August and followed this by a “post-convention” at Salt Lake City the middle of September, the latter session lasting five days.
Teachers as They Are
A BANQUET hall on the eighth floor of the Hotel Astor was the New York headquarters of the dancing masters this year.
Thanks to a disclaimer of hostile purpose, I was permitted to view the post-graduate terpsichorean performances on the conven- tion floor.
A male dancing teacher, according to newspaper cartoons, is a wasp-waisted, effeminate young man. He has a tiny mustache and a violet-edged perfumed handkerchief. I looked for this chap but did not see him. In truth the men seemed to be of the business sort, the majority middle-aged or elderly, quite like hardware merchants at their annual convention. The women would pass for school teachers with the usual number of old maids, save for a couple of flappers and two or three little girls. The latter were either children of the teachers or pupils who had been brought on to learn or to aid in exhibition work.
Doubtless a newspaper humorist would find something comic in certain of the male types and in parts of the general spectacle. A piano supplied the music. A petite, comely young woman with bobbed hair and a decisive voice that rose to a musical shrillness acted as generalissimo to a motley crew of encircling dancers whose ages ranged almost from the cradle to the grave. There was a chubby-legged little girl next to an austere spinster, and then a deaf man with an ear apparatus, and then an understudy for Mark Twain in a Palm Beach suit, and further a pair of girlish figures, and down the line in his shirt sleeves a venerable individual with a long, white chin beard as rightly pertains to a veteran Confederate general. The old gentleman skipped along in heelless slippers and revolved as best he could at the musically shrill behest of the bobbed-hair instructor. Who was this Father Christmas, and what was he doing here? He was a professional dancing teacher of Chicago, I was told, seventy-eight years of age and the oldest member of the Association. Come to think of it, he is the kind of dancing master that a lot of parents would prefer to have for their children. He has taught three generations in the same family.
It is conceded that ladies do not use strong language. Yet one of them, with whom I was chatting, suddenly exclaimed:
“I could have strangled her!”
The speaker was a charming young woman of the blond type. Blue fire flashed from her eyes. Her smooth cheeks and forehead were swiftly aglow. She was a keen-minded and well-balanced person of exceptional worldly experience. Why such a state of mind and such an expression of primitive emotion?
“Strangle ? Great heavens! Why ?”
“Because she was publicly insulting my sex through her dancing!”
It was Miss Marguerite Walz who made the quoted statement, and she registered thus her reaction to a spectacle on the roof of a stylish New York hotel. It happened the night before. Miss Walz is a professional teacher of dancing. She is also the premiere policewoman in Philadelphia, serving without pay and charged with the special duty of supervising public dancing in that city.
Miss Walz went to the mayor of Philadelphia in the spring of 1921 and suggested that the authorities should supervise public dancing. She feared, like other teachers, the abolition of all dancing if the prevailing license continued unchecked. She was ad- vised to return with a delegation of her fellow teachers and did so. Testimony was given especially as to “Kaffee Klatches,” or clubs in private houses, with admission charge, dancing and drinking by girls and boys without restraint. The mayor declared a clean-up was due and he appointed Miss Walz policewoman to supervise dancing in conjunction with the Rev. H. Cresson McHenry, who conducts a mission.
Work for the Censors
MY DUTIES,” said Miss Walz, “are largely the instruction of about seventy-five policemen who are detailed to enforce the dancing regulations. They are taught what is permissible and what is not. Why so many police dance censors? Well, it is an index to the immense popularity of dancing in our city life. We may have twenty thousand people at our weekly Parkway dance, which covers several blocks of space. It is held every Thursday night. There are two bands, the police and the firemen’s, with about sixty pieces in each. No jazz music is played and no improper conduct is tolerated. You can see there is work for over half a hundred policemen in supervising twenty thou- sand dancers. There has been a marked improvement since this work began. The police class in censorship is told not to permit cheek-to-cheek dancing, abdominal contact, shimmy, toddle or the Washington Johnny, in which the legs are kept spread apart.”
That the reaction against lewdness in the terpsichorean art will have a consequence similar to that which resulted from the evils of the liquor saloon is a fear constantly expressed by all those interested. Nor does this seem to be an imaginary alarm or an unlikely event. We Americans are quiet and complaisant for a long time. Then we make a quick clean-up and are inclined to throw out everything, including the furniture.
Impossible? Well, San Francisco, whose Barbary coast is credited with originating those dancing scourges called shimmy and toddle, recently bent so far backward in virtue as to contemplate police permission to be required for all dancing, even in private homes! The measure was shelved for the time being through a fight of the sane minded.
A Proprietor’s Plea
NO CLERGYMAN in America has uttered such a scorching and authentic denunciation of the ultra-modern dance as a certain very successful proprietor of a dance establishment in Chicago. His name is J. Louis Guyon. He has long been a voice in the dance wilderness crying for reform. He has prospered by sticking to clean, old-fashioned dancing.
Mr. Guyon’s slogan for the new band wagon reads:
“Abolish jazz music! Abolish fox trot, one step, toddle, shimmy or any form of dancing or any position that permits the gentleman to walk directly in front of his partner.”
An advertisement by Mr. Guyon that has the fervor of a sermon and the frankness of biblical writers in speaking of vice was published in a Chicago newspaper some months ago. In this he says that dancing, our most universal form of amusement after motion pictures, has become a greater menace than liquor, segregated vice or “the brothels from which much of it sprang.” He declares that “many of the couples performing these dances should have a marriage license before stepping on the ballroom floor, and—if they had a marriage license there would be no excuse for committing such acts in public.” Anyone who says that “youth of both sexes can mingle in close embrace “—with limbs intertwined and torso in contact—”without suffering harm lies.” Add to this position the wriggling movement and the “sensual stimulation of the abominable jazz orchestra with its voodoo-born minors and its direct appeal to the sensory centers, and if you can believe that youth is the same after this experience as before, then God help your child. . . .”
Mr. Guyon asks his fellow proprietors of dance places and also dancing teachers whether they are coining “easy dollars” out of the corruption of youth. He says that if they permit jazz music and immoral dances their “effect on the community is worse than that of the unspeakable creatures who live from the scarlet earnings of women, for you are conducting a wholesale traffic in the souls of boys and girls.”
From Ladies Home Journal, December, 1921
by John R. McMahon