Attention, young people: Your music’s terrible and your dancing is so disgusting we might outlaw it, just as Petaluma did.
For several months between 1912-1913, the nation’s fabric was threatened by a new dance fad called “ragging.” President-elect Woodrow Wilson cancelled the inaugural ball to block the risk of dancing guests creating a scandal. In Patterson, New Jersey, 18 year-old Ethel Foster was sentenced to 50 days in jail for doing it. A New York City club owner named Wallace W. Sweeney died in prison while serving nine months for “keeping a disorderly place” that allowed the dancing, while at least two men went to jail in Petaluma for disturbing the peace by doing the “rag.”
So what was this vile dance that had the power to shatter the country, if not civilization itself? It was… the “Turkey Trot.”
Today it’s nigh impossible to understand the enormous fuss. It’s a silly, up-tempo dance step that has a couple holding each other in (non-controversial) waltz position, one arm out and the other on shoulder/waist. You can see a snippet of professional dancers here, although in practice it was probably more like this clip, with sweaty couples just bouncing around the dance floor more or less in time with the music. In some descriptions the couple was supposed to flap their elbows like an agitated turkey which led more than a few newspapers to pun about the “poultry of motion.”
The Turkey Trot might have been the most (in)famous dance around that time, but there were a number of equally dumb novelty dances such as the Bunny Hug (cheek-to-cheek but hips canted as far back as possible). Other dances with animal themes that year included the Monkey Glide, Fresno Flea, Angle Worm Wiggle, Possum Trot, Kangaroo Dip and Horse Trot (see photo below). Sometimes the dances had a specific gimmick; the music for the Grizzly Bear would stop abruptly whereupon the dancers would shout, “It’s a bear!”
These were called at the time “huggly-wiggly dances” (!) and now scholars seem to agree they were popular because of the opportunities they offered couples for “lingering close contact.” I don’t completely buy that explanation – a major part of the appeal was that dancers looked silly because the dance instructions required them to look silly. America was mostly a rhythm-challenged nation that liked the catchy toe-tapping tunes such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, but had no clue as to how to dance to this new pop music. So let’s follow the dance directions and wiggle our hips doing the Jelly Jiggle and laugh about how ridiculous everyone looks.
(RIGHT: Excerpt of NY Times article, January 21, 1913)
The ragging crisis led Press Democrat gossip columnist “Dorothy Anne” to write a lengthy essay, transcribed below. Normally she penned a boring weekly column on the doings of Santa Rosa’s gentry (she was Mrs. Mary McConnell Houts and her husband owned the town’s major auto dealership) but occasionally she dished up an offering like this, posing as the snooty arbiter of decency and good taste – often with unintentionally funny results (see “IN LOVE WITH DOROTHY ANNE” for more).
Here she began by pointing out Santa Rosa was torn between those who “ragged” and the “anti-raggers,” while Petaluma had done the right thing and banned it outright. “The result is that the crowd that dances on Saturday night do not dance in Petaluma, they come to Santa Rosa!” she moaned. Women’s groups in other Bay Area cities were trying to shut down the dancing at “exclusive” venues, she continued, and it was time for Santa Rosa women to do likewise:
|When the “rag” drifted into Santa Rosa is not quite definitely known. It was first danced at the Sunday night dances in the Italian quarter, west of the track. There it is rumored certainly society young men learned it. They liked it so well they taught it to their society girl friends in a modest form. An attempt to stop it was made but teaching it to society proved a boomerang. If society can “rag” at their exclusive dances, anybody can “rag.” And the result? Well, there are several stories–numerous ones that drift in from different quarters–but they are unprintable! That’s why my strong plea that Santa Rosa women come to the realization that “ragging” is what it is–a dance of the tenderloin and has no place in polite society.|
Whether Dorothy Anne’s moralistic hissy fit had much effect is unknown, but there were a few stories in the local papers of raggers being kicked out of dances. Police apparently were called to break up a dance at a Fulton roadhouse.
Santa Rosa’s National Guard Company E announced it would hold “clean and appropriate” Saturday night dances at their downtown armory. “Nothing will be permitted at any time that savors of ragging, and those who want to rag are warned that none of that character of dancing will be permitted under any circumstances,” the Republican newspaper stated. But only a few weeks later, the paper reported, “the dances were discontinued because of the small amount of patronage which was given them.” The article also mentioned, “…other parties who have maintained strict decorum at their places of entertainment have also suffered from a lack of patronage.” The headline for that article: “DO SANTA ROSA PEOPLE WANT DECENT DANCES?” Clearly, the answer was no.
As a Comstock House footnote to the Turkey Trot tumult, it was probably at one of those Company E dances where 21 year-old second lieutenant Hilliard Comstock met his future wife Helen. In her oral history, she recalled Hilliard always said he asked to dance with the pretty little girl who had “red cheeks and curls up on top of her head.” According to him, 13 year-old Helen stuck a finger in her mouth and replied, “I don’t rag, thank you.”
Raggingby Dorothy Ann
For some weeks past Santa Rosa society has been in the throes of a discussion that has divided itself into–not four parts–but those who did not.
For the benefit of the uninitiated will explain that “ragging” is a dance and that one of its mystic mazes is the “Turkey Trot.” All are closely identified with “Alexander’s Rag Time Band.” In fact, so close is the relationship that even the “anti-raggers” show symptoms of motion when the first strains of “Come on Along” are heard.
Society in Santa Rosa has “ragged.” From the children that compose the sub-debutante set to the staid married people, all have taken a fling at the dance that had its origin in Barbary Coast in San Francisco. Those who had charge of the Saturday night dances announced that if society could dance the rag in the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, they also could dance it. They did. This merely to show you that the “rag” is not confined to one class. Mercy, no!
Nor is it confined to one town. Petaluma is a bit conservative. They do not allow the “Turkey Trot,” the “Bunny Hug” or the “Grizzly Bear” danced in their halls at any time. They have printed signs to warn one. It does not make any difference which crowd hires the hall, the sign remains in the same place. And they say that the result is that the crowd that dances on Saturday night do not dance in Petaluma, they come to Santa Rosa!
There has been much discussion as to the actual origin of the “Turkey Trot.” Every one knows that the waltz originated in Germany. The Germans are very proud of the fact. But the “Turkey Trot” originated in San Francisco. No one has yet stepped forward to accept the laurels for introducing it. The actual origin of the dance is said to have been at the time that the fleet visited San Francisco, when a few half drunken sailors taught it to the demi-monde of the Barbary Coast.
Quite recently, Sacramento society was split asunder by a discussion that resulted in the Tuesday Club, the prominent woman’s club of that city, pass the following resolution:
“Resolved, That the Board of Directors of the Tuesday Club of Sacramento deem the consideration of ‘ragging’ of sufficient importance to be referred to the Women’s Council.”
The Women’s Council is the moral arbitrator of Sacramento. The reasons given for this step were as follows:
“It was brought out in the discussion that such dances were questionable in their origin, had a bad influence, especially on the young and impressionable, and that the general nature tended towards evil.”
The ban has been put on “ragging” by the Board of Directors of the Ebell building which is occupied by the prominent Ebell Club of Oakland. This club is composed of 600 representatives of Oakland’s best families. These women followed the example of the Home Club, another exclusive women’s organization of Oakland, who passed resolutions “the craze which has swept from Barbary Coast to New York and back again.”
The L’Amida Assembly of Oakland, an exclusive dancing club, cut its invitational list almost in twain in order to eliminate the “raggers.” They solved the problem simply. They did not invite those who had “ragging” proclivities.
The new mode of terpsichorean art has aroused the ire of the patronesses of the exclusive Junior Assembly in Oakland, with the result that an announcement was made that the rag would not be tolerated. A meeting was called of the patronesses who discussed the various glides and turns which have their origin in the “Turkey Trot,” “Grizzly Bear” and “Bunny Hug,” with the result that any suggestion of “ragging” was unheard.
The San Jose Cotillion Club quite recently gave a party at the Vendome. During the evening several couples dared to dance the “rag.” The haughty matrons of San Jose did not mince their opinions. They took their daughters and went home. They would not even be a party to looking on. The controversy still wages at blood heat in that city.
When the “rag” drifted into Santa Rosa is not quite definitely known. It was first danced at the Sunday night dances in the Italian quarter, west of the track. There it is rumored certainly society young men learned it. They liked it so well they taught it to their society girl friends in a modest form. An attempt to stop it was made but teaching it to society proved a boomerang. If society can “rag” at their exclusive dances, anybody can “rag.” And the result? Well, there are several stories–numerous ones that drift in from different quarters–but they are unprintable! That’s why my strong plea that Santa Rosa women come to the realization that “ragging” is what it is–a dance of the tenderloin and has no place in polite society.
Many local observers have expressed their unfavorable opinion of these dances, and among these I note one which is brief and clear to the simplest understanding:
“The dances are not graceful in motion, are not dignified in character, and having originated in places of vile repute, they have not the approval of respectable people. If the beautiful old waltz, the more modern two-step, et als., have lost their place in society, cut out the dancing and take up politics.”
The “Turkey Trot”, the “Texas Tommy,” The “Grizzly Bear,” The “Fresno Flea”, the “Chicken Reel,” the “Bunny Hug,” the “Frisco Flip,” are all on a par and belong where they originated on Barbary Coast–where half drunken sailors dance with the demi-monde.– Press Democrat, January 14, 1912“RAGGERS” EXCLUDED
Several couples of young people who attended Miss Vitale’s dancing academy Wednesday evening were made to leave that place because they refused to desist from ragging. Their money was refunded and they were asked not to attend the academy dances in the future. Miss Vitale conducts an orderly and proper dancing academy and will at all times prevent ragging at her institution.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 11, 1912BROKE UP RAG DANCE AT FULTON
Yes, we had a little ragging at Fulton Saturday night, but no orgy or free for all fight in my premises.
I never violated the mandates of the officers.
At 12 o’clock sharp my place of business was closed, according to law.
What happened in the streets or on the railroad track–I don’t pay any more poll tax, and I don’t think I had any business–
But just about the time the dance was broken up, every body was in the hall, dancing.
They were all too hungry to be carousing or fighting in the streets o [sic] any place else.
And then they all had to leave without their supper, after paying for it.
It’a a conundrum to me why the Rag dance was broken up.
A. DALESSI.– Santa Rosa Republican, October 10, 1912COMPANY E WILL HAVE ONLY APPROVED DANCING
Company E, N. G. C., has determined to inaugurate a series of Saturday evening dances at their armory at the corner of Fourth and D streets, and will cater only to those who desire and believe in clean and appropriate dancing. Nothing will be permitted at any time that savors of ragging, and those who want to rag are warned that none of that character of dancing will be permitted under any circumstances.
An able floor manager has been secured and he will be assisted by members of the company. The dancing will begin at 8:30 o’clock and will continue until midnight each Saturday evening, and the soldier boys hope to have the patronage of the good people of the city, who are pleased to dance properly.
Good music will be furnished at all times, and the floor at armory hall is one of the best and roomiest in the city. With this combination and appropriate behavior, people can enjoy themselves at all times.
The invitations which the militiamen are presenting to their friends has the following on it:
“We are running a clean dance and want clean people. You are invited to bring your wife, sister, daughter or sweetheart, and enjoy a few hours’ approved dancing. Good floor; good music. Gentlemen 50 cents, ladies free. The other kind not admitted at any price.”
The militiamen are in earnest and hope to make their dances among the most popular in the City of Roses.– Santa Rosa Republican, December 5, 1912EJECT TWO DANCERS FOR “RAGGING”
After repeated warnings to desist from “ragging” at the Woodman hall dance Saturday night, two men were ejected. There was considerable excitement for a time, but the management insists that no “ragging” will be tolerated. All who desire to dance, according to the rules are welcome to the dance, but those who will not abide by the rules will not be allowed to dance.– Press Democrat, December 8, 1912DO SANTA ROSA PEOPLE WANT DECENT DANCES?
Recently Company E started a series of Saturday evening dances and announced they would permit nothing but proper dances at their parties. After a thorough trial the dances were discontinued because of the small amount of patronage which was given them. Other academics and dances in this city secure crowds, possibly because they were not so strict in their interpretation of what constituted “decent” dancing. Most of the places where public dances pay [sic] are places where “ragging” and “dipping” and other questionable dancing are permitted through the connivance of those in charge. Certain parties have announced that their places would not permit such questionable dancing, simply to induce mothers to let their daughters attend their public dances. The question arises. Do the people of Santa Rosa want decent dances? If they do they should have patronized the Company E dances instead of other places where rules were less strict. Other parties who have maintained strict decorum at their places of entertainment have also suffered from a lack of patronage. It seems only proper that the public should patronize those places which insist on strict deportment, and are attempting to elevate this pleasant pastime.
The Saturday evening dances under the auspices of Company E were discontinued at the suggestion of friends of the organization, who though perhaps some other night might be better, and the members may soon inaugurate a series of Thursday evening parties.– Santa Rosa Republican, January 11, 1913PETALUMA BARS ALL RAG DANCING
If you go to a dance in Petaluma don’t “rag” or you are liable to find yourself in jail charge with disturbing the peace. This is the fate the befell E. F. Soutz, a visitor to the Egg city. Soutz attended a dance at the Unique theatre the other night and started to “rag.” He was arrested and after a time spent in jail was released on $25 bail. He will be tried on the charge of disturbing the peace.– Press Democrat, February 7, 1913“RAGGING” CHARGE WAS TRIVIAL; DISMISSED
The arrest of one E. H. Silva of Petaluma on a charge of “ragging” at a public dance given in that city has been dismissed. The charge in this instance was considered trivial. The evidence of a number of witnesses is said to have been somewhat amusing and did not warrant a conviction. Silva may bring an action for damages in the Superior court against his accuser for false imprisonment. “Ragging” does not go in the egg center.– Press Democrat, February 18, 1913