Dance Hall Girls

Mount Holyoke used to have a January session: two weeks in which you took a specialized course you’d never think of taking during the regular academic semester. I loved it, and even dropped in on courses that weren’t mine for the lectures. The courses, such as an overview of Film Noir, were essentially exactly the sort of enrichment courses professionals pay for in evening lectures. They were required for two of your four years. I loved them, even though it meant being in Massachusetts in January. But I think the rich girls complained it cut into their skiing season, so the January session was killed before I graduated.

Anyway, one of the classes I took was a review of 20th-century American popular music. For it, we had to write 2 papers, and for one of them I decided to write about dance hall girls. Besides the textbook, I think the only other reference I had was a 1920s sociological study of dance halls girls: luckily, academic libraries hang on to every book forever, because I would never had found the book in a public library.

For those who don’t know what dance hall girls were, they were the proverbial “10 cents a dance” women. Young women who needed money but who couldn’t find respectable work as a shop clerk or maid would register to work at a dance hall. Lonely men would go to the dance hall and buy tickets, and hand the girl of their choice a ticket, which she could put in the top of her stocking, and dance one dance with him to the music of some mediocre band. At the end of the night, the girl could exchange the tickets she’d gotten for cash: usually 50% of the ticket price.

It was disrespectable work, though most of the girls interviewed said the men were simply there to talk to a woman. They spoke disparagingly of the girls who took the men into a dark corner and essentially dry-humped them standing up, though those were the girls who had by far the most tickets at the end of the night. In this particular study, most of the men who frequented the studied dance hall in Boston were Filipino immigrants, and some of the dissolute dance hall girls ended up marrying the immigrant men, despite the disapproval of their families.

I thought dance halls had been a short-lived phenomenon, replaced by burlesque houses and strip clubs, but I was surprised to find out at least one was still in existence as late as 1969. In her 1988 autobiography rock groupie Pamela des Barres wrote about coming back from England, and accepting a job at a dance hall in Los Angeles. She didn’t like it any more than her 1920s counterparts did, but like I said, I thought by then they’d become obsolete.

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