The Dance Craze and The Birth of the Dance Band

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at

In 1914, while the British Tommies, singing “Pack Up You Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” as they marched away to do battle in a senseless war, America was in the middle of another kind of craziness — albeit of a peaceful, if frenetic and sweaty and even sexual nature: citizens rich and poor, high and low, were involved passionately in an extraordinary and spontaneous mass movement enacted not just in public dance halls but also in exclusive restaurants, frenchified cabarets, high class hotels, outdoor amusement parks, and public beaches where there were children and babies.
They were ragtime dancing — and their mania embraced wriggling, hobbling, wobbling, shivering, quivering, backing the lady, hugging her tight, bumping bottoms with all of their might.
Gone was the ordered decorum of the Victorian ballroom, so lengthily and so carefully established by the old-world lords of the dance. No longer, as per the etiquette books, did the gentleman encompass his partner’s tiny hand as a symbol of protection. Now partners laced fingers, moving hungrily within the lacing. And that was about all that was fixed. In dance-crazed America the ragtime spirit told old-time choreography to go to the dogs — and many other animals. Americans were behaving like beasts in a flurry of animal dances that came and went like scares on a fun-fair ghost train. There flashed by: the grizzly bear, turkey trot, bunny hug, chicken scratch, buzzard lope, monkey glide, and kangaroo hop.
Tin Pan Alley, acting as always like a musical news commentary, reflected the movement accurately. Irving Berlin’s “Everybody’s Doing It Now” described couples swaying from the hip, throwing shoulders in the air and shouting, “It’s a bear!”-- the very opposite of what had been correct ballroom behavior. What’s more, Mr. Berlin, like his Alley colleagues, was encouraging folks to get with it, be up-to-date.
Cheeks pressed close, bodies shimmering--no holds barred, no rules. And in the low-class commercial halls, where “tough” dancing was the norm, sexual intercourse was simulated in pelvic thrust movements. “Everybody’s Overdoing It” amusingly headlined a 1913 newspaper article.
The religious leaders of The Third Great Awakening, then at its zenith, were incensed by such moral turpitude. Billy Sunday, star evangelist, thundered from his pulpit, “Don’t go near that dance! It causes more ruin than anything this side of hell!” He was addressing the gentle sex — for it was the New Woman who was the real concern of these guardians of morals.

Women, it seemed, were the cause of it all. They were out of control. No longer content to be stay-at-home wives and breeders, they were starting to get out and take work as stenographers, telephonists, and song demonstrators in music stores. They drove cars and smoked in public places. For the new dance steps they wore freer clothing, throwing away their Victorian armor playing. They became hostesses at dance “academies” and taxi dance halls (for ten cents a whirl). The more militant women were vociferously demanding the vote.
A 1913 pop told of the “The Ragtime Suffragette” who ragged with “bombshells and sticks, haggling and naggling in politics”. While her hard-working husband was “waiting down to dine” she was “ragging up and down the line” demanding suffrage. Ironically, the composer of this number, Nat D Ayer, had earlier provided the preferred accompaniment for the most controversial of the new ragtime dances: “King Chanticleer” drove The Texas Tommy, a wildly acrobatic step of swooping and rocking in which couples left the ground, or a partner might be tossed away and then pulled violently back. Not a closed dance at all, as of old, but a novelty “breakaway” dance. (Father of The Lindy Hop, king of 1930s swing steps). A New York Board of Education inspector warned of dances from “untutored sources” and of movements that ”stimulate too much abandon, too much freedom”. From whence came this unlicensed freedom? Where were these untutored sources on the map?
Over a decade earlier, at the height of the cakewalk fad, George Hall had warned in his book “Pitfalls Of The Ballroom” that an “army of shame”---500,000 prostitutes, to be exact — had been created out of sweet but naive girls enticed into the ballroom in order to be sold into white slavery. But, more to our focus, the music that was an integral part of that lure was Un-American—the hypnotic syncopations of the African-American: ”Behold Africa must teach America!”

He was wrong about Africa. The dances were bred in California, an exotic wild west that was also producing another 20th century sensation, the movies. At the height of the animal dance craze East Coaster Irene Castle, teacher to High Society, idol of the dance hall masses, admitted, “We get our new dances from the Barbary Coast. Of course, they reach New York in a very primitive condition, and have to be considerably toned down before they can be used in the drawing room.”
Making a lady out of Texas Tommy — many knew that a “Tommy” was a whore -- and her barnyard brutish pals was to be the achievement of Irene & Vernon Castle, as we shall see. The barbarism of the mob would be held in check and channeled — for the moment. A civilized world required a smoother and less raucous music accompaniment. This void was filled by another West Coast innovation: a specialized unit — the dance band, fashioned for smooth, sleek use in hotel and ballroom. The mellow tone of the saxophone, the muted trumpet, the swish of the drum brush. And all from a San Francisco hotel close to the Barbary Coast.
To trace how the modern dance band developed out of the needs of middle class social dancers we need to flash back to the ordered and genteel—at least in aspiration--Victorian Age………..

The Industrial Revolution created a middle class — nouveau riche at the top — anxious to learn aristocratic style and behavior. This was, of course, still imported from Europe, center of western civilization. There was a big demand for etiquette manuals, for guides on proper deportment, for advice on how to lay a formal dinner table. As for dancing, these arrivistes were under the direction of professors of dancing, often with unpronounceable French names by way of New York. Their pupils eagerly absorbed the essential handbook, Dancing and its Relation to Education and Social Life by Allen Dodsworth, America’s foremost dance master.
His main dictum was a good one: “All pleasure depends entirely upon the kindly cooperation of others”. His contention was that the ballroom, being a glittering idealized reflection of the outside world, must demonstrate the elimination of all thoughts of self in such precision group dances as the cotillion and the quadrille. Individuals must subjugate themselves to being members of a well-drilled team under the captainship of an official dance master.
In 1879 these professors formed a society for teaching the right behavior in the ballroom (and thus, it followed, in life itself). That they had their work cut is shown in this extract from a period dance manual:
Loud conversation, profanity, stamping the feet, writing on the wall, smoking tobacco, or throwing anything on the floor, are strictly forbidden. The practice of chewing tobacco and spitting is not only nauseous to ladies but it is injurious to their dresses.
However, by the end of the 19th century the dancing establishment had achieved such success that it could boast of a national ballroom that was a model for the world, part of a great democratic society where even ploughboys and cowboys read books as they worked, where every American could, through hard work and good guidance, become every bit as civilized as the most high-falutin denizens of wicked old Europe!
Few could deny, though, that outside of polite society — across the untamed frontier, down in the boondocks, deep in the gurgling red bellies of big cities — were places of disrepute where the law of the dance masters held no sway: saloon dance “hells”, hurdy-gurdies and jook joints, where the floors were slick with spit, where tobacco smoke, dust clouds and the stench of sweat had teenage girls fainting, where there were prizes for the kid who could put away the most liquor. And where the music was loud, furious and marching to a different beat, a jerky yet fluid syncopation, played by musicians who blew how the felt rather than what the man told them to do, because they maybe couldn’t read music and so “faked” it up with odd harmonies and fast “freak” fingering with catchy fills and sudden “spasm” breaks —encouraging dancers to break away and do their thing for an instant — who weaved in and out of each others’ melodies in what could have been cacophony but actually came out as a crazy quilt of intoxicating gorgeousness, driving the kids to create their own steps right there on the filthy floor.

The Mecca of unbridled, unlicensed dancing and dance music was the Barbary Coast, three blocks of dance halls and saloons. Blacks just arrived from Texas and the South strolled in to a joint to show off, for nothing but drink, a new dance. What d’ya call that? Looks like a tart sashaying -- The Texas Tommy. What’s that? Looks like a turkey flapping -- The Turkey Trot. And so on. Slumming parties of well-to-do white tourists flocked in nightly. Vaudeville people watched the action, notating in their heads, to then take the routine on the road, eventually to New York, the place that set the styles.
In 1913 two real Barbary Coasters made it to the center of show-biz: blacks Ethel Williams and Johnny Peters-- showing off their original Texas Tommy-- were the sensation of “The Darktown Follies” show at a Harlem theatre. Ziegfeld, the great impresario caught the act and put the whole shoot in his latest Follies.

And so we return to 1914 and to a nation in the throes of a craze, motored by ragtime. As the song said, “My Wife Is Dancing Mad”. She yells, “I’ve got to get thin and lose this big double chin” (dancing could be healthy too, not just licentious). So wifey is out at hotel, cabaret, ferryboat, dance hall, at all times of day and night and the husband is paying the bills.
For the poor immigrant girls, many from broken homes, living in jam-packed tenements, dancing was a way of escape, a way to meet other people from other cultures. Dangerous perhaps. In a saloon dance hall, where the gloaming was lit by glitter sprays from a central rotating cut-glass ball hanging from on high, a new world was shaping as an alternate to home. Here folk from many walks of life and odd languages could be transformed into whirling dervishes, or Latin lovers. Girls, some from good families, became shimmy-shaking Jezebels, leaping up on tables to call for more ragtime and faster.
The attraction of the ragtime dance was that immediate satisfaction, by instant contact, was promised. The circuit of dance halls covering America constituted that urban hobo life of passing kicks so beloved of the new city folk. The rag girl saw men as ‘easy dough”, as ‘saps’ and ‘suckers’, as providers of fur coats and diamonds. The men took a back seat and would do so for the next decade.
Meanwhile the forces of puritanical repression -- social reformers, evangelists, prohibitionists, anti-immigrant nativists, de-throned dance masters -- had joined together to protest this social change, this breakdown of the old order. Dance halls were threatened with closure, turkey trotters were jailed. “Harper’s Weekly" asked, “Where is Your Daughter This Afternoon?” At an endless the dansant no doubt, deep in the arms of a dago tango pirate with flashing black eyes and slippery reflecting hair.

The dance reformers needn’t have been concerned: respectable, regular Americans chose to follow the graceful living style set by Vernon and Irene Castle. In 1914 there were plenty of other society ballroom exhibition dancers and instructors but the Castles were celebrity specials reeking with class. They were the nation’s number one ideal married couple — that they danced too was just part of the package. She was a willowy New York State beauty; he was a well-mannered English gentleman. Both were svelte and slim. (Very un-Victorian). Both were decorative and decorous, bang up-to-date in the latest steps and fashions. High society, and the rest, adored and followed these entertainers, early members of that cafČ society which was soon to usurp the trend setting older ‘high society’. Ironically it was Old Money that bankrolled the new Moderns.
The Castles established a dance empire that embraced ballrooms, Castles-In-The-Air (on a New York roof-top) and Castles-By-The-Sea (on Long Island), with Castle House in Manhattan as their HQ. Elegant social dancing was the couple’s goal: their bible, Modern Dancing, denounced the ragtime dances as ‘ugly, ungraceful’ and, far worse, “out of fashion”. There’d be no more shaking of shoulders or hips.
No home was complete without this book; no song was complete without a dancing capability. The Castles regulated the nation’s beat. Tin Pan Alley obeyed, making every song into a one-step, two-step, maxixe, or whatever. Orchestra leaders, in disarray, quickly ordered stock arrangements of the latest hits. New beats had to be mastered by men who’d been trained to play with starchy-straight legitimacy.
And so from out of the earlier anarchic mess — the libertarianism, perhaps — of Barbary Coast syncopation came a style acceptably All-American. The rough and rude dances of the naturals from the outback had been smooth-stroked into one all-conquering step: the fox-trot, a brisk walk in straight time that anyone could master and remain gentle. The step became a dance staple even into the 1950s: when “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets was first released the label described this rock’n’roll anthem as a fox-trot.

Vernon liked to tell how Jim Europe, the black dance bandleader whose music accompanied the Castles, had been quietly playing “The Memphis Blues” one afternoon at a languorous pace and had thus inspired Vernon to create the fox-trot. The dance public had been frenetically marching to the one-step -- but this slowed-up blues was a new kind of “drag” complete with a “Get Over Sal” embellishment. All straight from the netherworld of black culture. Vernon was crazy about Negroes as source-beat musicians and he insisted on employing them as musicians in his court. Society hostesses loved them too -- so very exotic, so different.
That year, 1914, the Castles set off on a whirlwind tour to show ordinary Americans how to dance and what to wear. Jim Europe’s’ boys came with them, albeit in separate railroad cars. The Castles became the highest paid act in vaudeville. Imagine —people paying hard cash to watch a man dance with his wife!

Back at home the audience could try out the Castle steps by way of their record machine. 1914 was a bumper year for dance records but to our ears today the music, played by large quasi-military bands, sounds stiff. Even Europe’s Society Orchestra, though full of pep, full of barnyard cries, and driven by battalions of banjos and mandolins, grows wearisome after several choruses of virtually unison playing. Jazziness isn’t present.
Regular ball orchestras were few and far between. They played only at the finest houses. They were patched-together affairs consisting of concert musicians making a few extra bucks or spirited amateurs. Anyway syncopation was tough to perform. Trained musicians of the old school couldn’t or wouldn’t master it. Stuffed with flutes, piccolos, harps and so forth, erect in training and minus feel, the fat old orchestras were of no use to the modern dancers.
As dance mania gradually settled into regulated social dancing during the exact years of World War One (1914-18) a special accompaniment evolved. What was needed was a smallish unit of syncopation specialists playing night after night together and able to provide suitable sounds for not only dancing but also for eating, drinking and conversation
This dance new unit was built over in California, near the shell of the Barbary Coast -- shut down by the authorities in 1913. That same year Art Hickman, an ear musician who specialized in trap drumming and dabbled in piano, landed a steady gig at the swell St Francis Hotel. By 1916 his unit — still called an “orchestra” although there was only a lone violin — had settled comfortably into a brass and banjo dominated band, hard-driven by Hickman’s assortment of percussion, called “traps”.
Around this time there arrived yet another craze: this one was for saxophones, those curvaceous machines, all shiny and sexy, with a moan and a wobble and a cute popping. Hitherto Adolph Saxe’s 19th century Belgian invention had been only found in military and circus bands. Later it became a novelty sensation in vaudeville, where groups featuring all sizes of saxes honked and whooped. The Six Brown Brothers dressed as clowns.
Hickman, catering to a hotel clientele who liked their music for not only dancing but also as a pleasant background to conversation, realized the usefulness of the sax. He started employing a two-sax section, calling upon them too play soothingly so as not to intruded on the customers’ table talk. The brass was made to cup their horns with mutes; Hickman himself alternated with wire drum brushes instead of constant sticks. In-house arrangements, made by pianist Ferde GrofČ, divided the unit into sections provided color and variety, a change from the blaring unison of the New York bands. The Hickman orchestra was soon hailed as ‘supreme in this new line” of dance music.

Watching and waiting in San Francisco was a classically trained string player called Paul Whiteman. More an organizer than a musician he became a supplier of dance music for hotels in San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. GrofČ left Hickman to join the organization as arranger. Both he and Whiteman wanted to spruce up the new dance business by employing the devices of classical music. In particular they wanted to free the world from the barnyard cacophony of the East Coast jazz craze that, by 1918, had spread like a horrid virus everywhere. The idea of this jazz seemed to be to make as much racket as possible, to know nothing about written music, to be more a reflection of the boom, bang and mindless slaughter on the Western Front.
But Whiteman, purveyor to the dancing public, had his eyes and ears on the future. By 1922 he boasted a press agent and a million dollar corporation. His bands were available for hire anytime, anywhere any place. He was at the top of a heap of sleek bands, led by musician/businessmen, featuring tight sax and brass sections, providing general utility foxtrots for America and the world.

However, the heavy cloak of European pretentiousness still threatened to smother the originality, the individuality of the American mind. You were only acceptable if you were respectable; you had to elevate your music into the heady realms of serious music, of the concert hall. You had to stop the syncopation locomotive in its rustic Yankee tracks.
As “The Jazz Age” picked up steam Whiteman’s press agent proclaimed his master had invented “symphonic jazz” and that this would be demonstrated at a grand concert in Aeolian Hall in New York on Feb 1, 1924. A rhapsody specially composed by ex-Tin Pan Alleyman George (“Swanee”) Gershwin, orchestrated by Ferde GrofČ, would be premiered. The Whiteman organization would “make a lady out of jazz”. Instead a strenuous, racing and red-blooded demotic native art form was to be draped in classical clothes, plonked onto a concert platform and told to sit still and be like a high-hatter.
Fortunately the dance band train sped on without Whiteman’s help, leading its happy passengers into swing, boogie and what-have-you until it was knocked off the tracks by rock’n’roll.
But that’s another story.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at