Ballrooms were located in every nook and crannies across the United States during the BIG BAND ERA. Patrons danced to the tunes of local bands and relished when the big boys like Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman hit town.
In these memorable ballrooms, people could hang out with their friends, meet new ones, and dance the evening away. One of the biggest dance halls in the country, the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, drew crowds of almost twenty thousand people every week.
These public ballrooms admitted both men and women. Taxi-dance halls, though, were very different. The only women allowed were employees hired by the hall. These women went by various names: dance hostesses, taxi dancers (because the male customers rented them, like taxis), dime-a-dance girls (because each dance cost a dime), and nickel hoppers (because out of that dime, the girl usually got to keep five cents.) Some very derogatory terms in today's society but the reality of the era saw things perhaps from a different perspective.
In the Big Band era, there was no social media or dating services or easy ways to meet a female friend. So why did some men prefer taxi-dance halls to public ballrooms?
One reason was that paying for dances eliminated the risk of rejection. It didn't matter if the man was shy, homely, too short, too tall, too bald, or didn't speak English. If he bought a ticket, he got to dance.
Other customers liked the prospect of a pleasant evening's entertainment with no strings attached. A man could simply walk away at the end of the night, with none of the entanglements or obligations of actual dating.
For still others, the taxi-dance hall was a social outlet. The patron might be a recent immigrant with few opportunities to meet and socialize with single women. Or he might be non-white, and therefore unwelcome in the public ballrooms. He might have no friends or family or simply be in a town on a business trip. For the price of a few tickets, a man in any of these situations could dance and talk with a pretty girl, without the burden and effort of meeting new people and forming friendships.
It was a tough life for the taxi dancer who faced ridicule, innuendo, and demeaning insults about their profession.
Taxi Dancing was not considered a respectable job. Most people assumed taxi dancers were prostitutes. In fact, police and social agencies worried that it was a cover for prostitution, that the dancers would use the hall to solicit male customers. For this reason, many taxi-dance halls were called dance "academies," and the dancers, "instructresses." But that didn't fool the authorities. Some cities passed laws requiring a policeman or social worker to chaperone the premises. Others prohibited dancers from meeting customers on the streets outside. A few outlawed taxi-dance halls altogether.
Why would a young woman work in a place like this? First and foremost: money. For girls with no skills, taxi dancing offered substantially more money than alleged "respectable" jobs. Not to mention that dancing in evening gowns and high heels must have seemed far more appealing than washing other people's laundry or packing meat. For the girls who would become taxi dancers, money and the prospect of a good time outweighed the problem of respectability.
Many Taxi Dancers, afraid of being disgraced, kept their jobs secret from their families. Many of these women lied, pretending to be employed in a "safe" occupation.
New taxi dancers quickly learned that there were more opportunities in the hall besides nickel-hopping. "Fishing"—finagling meals, clothing, jewelry, cash, or other material goods from male customers—was widespread. The most successful taxi dancers were not necessarily the most beautiful. Instead, they were the ones who understood the key element of the taxi-dance hall: the illusion of romance. And they knew that some men would gladly pay for it. In this way, the give and take between dancer and customer, far from being a simple ticket-for-a-dance, often became manipulative and emotionally complicated. The illusion wasn't always one-way, either. Studies and interviews with Taxi Dancers documented that many of them "fell" for their customers, as the lyrics to the popular 1930 song, "Ten Cents a Dance," attest:
RUTH ETTING - TEN CENTS A DANCE
I work at the Palace Ballroom,
but, gee that Palace is cheap;
when I get back to my chilly hall room
I'm much to tired to sleep.
I'm one of those lady teachers,
a beautiful hostess, you know,
the kind the Palace features
for only a dime a throw.
Ten cents a dance
that's what they pay me,
gosh, how they weigh me down!
Ten cents a dance
pansies and rough guys
tough guys who tear my gown!
Seven to midnight I hear drums.
Loudly the saxophone blows.
Trumpets are tearing my eardrums.
Customers crush my toes.
Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
can pay for their ticket and rent me!
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbors
are sweethearts my good luck has send me.
Though I've a chorus of elderly beaux,
stockings are porous with hole at the toes.
I'm here till closing time.
Dance and be merry, it's only a dime.
Sometime I think
I've found my hero,
but it's a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.
—Lyrics by Lorenz Hart