Local history: Long Beach’s joyless dancing ordinance in the 1920s

Local History is a weekly feature that looks at the people, places and events of Long Beach’s past. Have a question or a piece of history you want us to explore? Email [email protected].

In Long Beach, the Twenties didn’t roar so much as let out the occasional meek meow.

In many cities, people were having a bit of a blast in the 1920. Financial calamity would hit at the tail end of the decade, but for the most part the decade was the era of speakeasies in defiance of Prohibition, the jazz age and the height of the flapper era, when young women, freshly given the right to vote, wore daring fashions, bobbed their hair, drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes and danced wildly.

Long Beach wasn’t having any of it. The town was still dominated by a prudish citizenry and ruled by a similarly puritanical group of politicians and, while dancing was extraordinarily popular in the city’s many dance halls, particularly along the Pike amusement and theatrical zone, the city fathers kept a tight rein on exactly what sort of dancing was permitted by passing ordinances that regulated dance.

An early draft of the ordinance, which would go into effect in July 1921, forbade: “the hula hula, the kan-kan, the Pedro Bowery, the shimmy, the camel walk, the dip, the stiff step, the toddle, the lame duck, the jiggle, the walk the dog and the bunny hug.”

Perhaps unable to keep pace with the continuing evolution of new appalling dances, the outlawed dance-hall behavior  included “suggestive dancing or any dance involving the shaking of the body” as well as “cheek to cheek contortions.” To demonstrate, a photographer from the Daily Telegram was dispatched to take pictures of a couple showing the banned dance moves.

Some towns had it worse: Pasadena in 1920 banned dancing after 10 p.m. along with dance music being performed in halls and residences within 25 feet of another dwelling. It also banned the playing of the piano or phonograph after 10 p.m., religious music excepted.

Further, Long Beach did not allow people under the age of 17 to dance unless accompanied by an adult  chaperone.

Long Beach, of course, was a Navy Town in the post World War I days and you might wonder how the sailors who frequented the Pike felt about the ordinance.

Not well as it turned out.

There were a few arrests made in the wake of the ordinance, the first occurring on July 19, 1921 with the arrest of two women who were dancing together. Subsequent arrests often dealt with sailors and their dance mates (the former were turned over to shore patrol, the latter to their parents).

Things turned nasty on Dec. 6, 1922 when two policewomen arrested a sailor and a young woman on charges of violating the dance ordinance. During the course of the apprehension, according to the Daily Telegram, they were threatened by a mob of about 200 sailors who attacked them before the policewomen were rescued by a police sergeant.

One sailor punched one of the arresting women in the mouth, whereupon the sergeant grabbed him by the throat with one hand and grabbed his revolver with the other in order to keep the mob at bay until reinforcements arrived. According to the Telegram, “two times the mob advanced, but each time the blue steel muzzle of the officer’s revolver held them back.”

The dance ordinance was fun—or, rather, not fun—while it lasted. The Roaring Twenties, even in more permissive cities—ended with a whimper with the decade-long Great Depression and Long Beach threw in its 1933 earthquake just to shake things up a bit, then came the Second World War and then the post-war boom. Dancing got lost amid the tragedies and other entertainments followed, everything from television to amusement parks and the proliferation of automobile and air travel. The dance halls disappeared and the flappers with them and, eventually in Long Beach  the Pike itself. Prudism fell from favor, morals relaxed and today, as you might have noticed, and far as dancing is concerned, anything goes.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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