Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Taxi Dancers

Lawrence Morris Markey joined The New Yorker at the very beginning, and as of 1928 he was still writing his weekly "Reporter at Large" column. His reportage would be stopped in 1950 by a rifle bullet, long after he'd left the magazine and started writing novels.

I look forward to his articles because -- as I've said before -- they're often the only serious note in an otherwise flippant magazine. As part of his "New York Interiors" series, Markey explored the places that New Yorker readers rarely went: flophouses, tugboat cabins, construction sites, phrenologist's offices, choir practice. On April 21, 1928, he investigated a dance hall and -- in particular -- the lives of taxi dancers.

I'm fascinated with this by-gone profession, and I'm happy to hear that it still exists in so-called "Hostess Clubs." I hope they make more money these days; the women that Markey interviewed were making three cents a dance. By the 1930s, Anita O'Day was singing about "Ten Cents a Dance," so I suppose they'd gotten raises.

Markey really brings "The Happiness Hall" to life, along with its customs:
Lack of ventilation and the activity of so many bodies made the heat grow in the room. The saxophone player removed his coat. The faces of the girls were flushed. The odors of bay rum and cheap perfume became thick and unpleasant. In the short interval between dances, the girls talked idly with their partners or, deserted by their partners in the middle of the floor, roamed about in search of others. It was not rude, apparently, to complete your dance with a girl and promptly walk away from her. The girls accepted the custom with good grace.
And what about the men?
They did not seem like people out for a gay lark. There was no romance in their presence. The procedure was altogether businesslike, and well-ordered. Perhaps the men were, for the most part, the lonely inhabitants of hall bedrooms. Perhaps they came to "Happiness Hall" for no more sinister purpose than to find, for a little while, an acceptable semblance of that pleasant society which all men desire. They did not look upon the girls with greedy eyes.
After having stilted conversations with some busy (and suspicious) taxi dancers -- it's "all about business," they say -- Markey gives a nod to the "working girl" of 1928:
The music was blaring again--the drummer and the pianist had their coats off now. The men standing around the walls were mopping their foreheads. The girls were dancing--they would dance until one o'clock. I suppose only a few of them were able to forget that tomorrow they would be at their counters in Bloomingdale's, or Macy's, or Gimbel's.
These women were paid so little that they pretty much HAD to have a secondary source of income, whether it be gift-giving boyfriends or a "night job."


VanillaJ said...

I wonder if there was a percentage of girls for whom the taxi dancer job was a front for more hardcore prostitution? After hearing the description of how these dancers interact with their partners,this transaction doesn't strike me as cute as it initially appears. It's flesh peddling in a seemingly benign form, until you understand that these girls are trying to supplement their poor existence with a job that might appear less demanding than the crappy factory or office job. How long does could a girl do this job before she had to manage requests to meet some deluded man outside for courtship activities, or, maybe even a more sinster request, "So, do you fuck?"

Adam Thornton said...

I don't think anybody has really done a study of taxi dancers. The only thing that I think is "cute" about them is their name; if it could remain a not-too-painful way to make a buck without working in a sweatshop, depending on their relatives, or doing mindless calculations in a crappy dorm-style office, I'd view the "flesh peddling" in a relatively good light.

There certainly were (and are) women who used bars and dancehalls as pick-up points for prostitution, often in the employ of the venue owners.

Of the two women that Markey interviews (without them knowing it) in the article, one suggests that a nice tip is to pay a girl an extra ticket for a dance, and the other gets furious when she thinks he's trying to proposition her. I'm not saying that's the norm, but I don't think the job was anywhere as close to the cut-and-dried "front for sex" as a rub & tug.

Though I'm sure it also depended on the type of dance hall it was. Markey certainly did go out of his way to describe the more seedy and hidden places.