Thursday, March 28, 2019

Maynard's Dance Ban

A tad over one hundred years ago the weekly local newspaper The Maynard News served the towns of Maynard, Hudson, South Acton, Stow and Concord Junction (West Concord). From the paper on November 14, 1913: “At the Selectmen’s meeting Wednesday evening, it was decided that the objectional dances which have been indulged in in the dance halls in this village must be stopped. All parties holding dances in the future will be notified that these objectionable and so-called animal dances are prohibited and must not be permitted in any dance hall in this municipality. This action is the opening of a vigorous campaign to suppress these objectionable forms of dance and Rev. Walter J. Browne, Father Sheehan, and other clergymen if the town, as well as a large percentage of the men and women are in sympathy with this movement and will sustain the Selectmen in this action for a cleaner and better Maynard.”

Sheet music for The Bunny Hug, circa 1911.
According to Wikipedia, the “Animal Dance” craze was directly related to the popularity of ragtime music, derived from African-American traditions, with a syncopated beat. To name but a few: Turkey Trot (and the more sedate Fox Trot), Chicken Scratch, Bunny Hug, Kangaroo Hop, Texas Tommy and the Grizzly Bear. Scott Joplin’s ragtime scores, especially his Maple Leaf Rag, were the archetype songs for these exuberant partner and solo dances. Silent movies (shown with live music accompaniment) spread the fad dances across the nation.

Maynard was not alone in prohibiting provocative dances. In 1912, New York City placed the Grizzly Bear under a "social ban", along with other "huggly-wiggly dances" like the Turkey Trot and the Boston Dip. Fears that partygoers might do the Bunny Hug or Turkey Trot may have even led to the cancellation of the official inaugural ball of newly elected President Woodrow Wilson in the spring of 1913. Catholic bishops in Nashville and Cincinnati told their flocks that dancers of the Turkey Trot would not be forgiven for their sins. Everywhere, people were ejected from dance halls, even arrested, for performing these lascivious dance moves.

A big problem with acceptance of these dances were that they called for close personal contact, a novelty at the time. There was belief that these were imitative of the lower animals in their sex life, sex desire, sex excitement and sex satisfaction; and these things are in the minds of the dancers who understand the meaning of the animal dances. Or as one critic put it “A wicked and scandalous, infamous and immoral, bawdy and obscene song and dance, or act, corrupting the morals of the public and youth, and too filthy, obscene and immoral to be in decency further described…”  Ragtime gave way to Roaring Twenties jazz and big band swing. People found other things to worry about (Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, Rock and Roll).

Footloose, the movie, addressed a ban on dancing of any type. In the rural Baptist town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, dancing has been strictly forbidden since 1898, on moral grounds. In 1980, students from Elmore City High School initiated a proposal to overturn the ban, for a prom. The community's religious leaders have major objections; one Reverend F.R. Johnson, from a church in a neighboring town, was quoted as saying "No good has ever come from a dance…. When boys and girls hold each other, they get sexually aroused. You can believe what you want, but one thing leads to another." At a town meeting to consider the question, a local citizen predicted that after the dance there would be a surge in pregnancies at the school “because when boys and girls breathe in each other’s ears, that’s the next step.” Despite these objections, the students won the case, and the prom took place. The events inspired the 1984 film, starring Kevin Bacon (and a 2011 remake).

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