The folks who lived 100 years ago, at least the ones who considered themselves keepers of the community standards, cast a very disapproving eye on dancing. In a January entry of this blog, I noted that the Winchester Star ran a clipping in their “Out of the Past” feature from January 17, 1920 in which the dance masters of America had grown apoplectic over dances such as the “half-Nelson, body hold, and shimmy lock.” In July of 2019, I discussed the commandant of the Virginia Military Institute’s warning to his charges not to bring any “unidentified girls” on campus for the final ball of 1919, especially if the cadets planned on doing the “Shimmy” or “cheek dances.”
Today’s edition of “Out of the Past” (September 28, 2020) features yet another such story. It seems that a reader of the Star who lived in New York, sent our Winchester paper a clipping from the New York Times stating that one Dr. John Roach Straton, in a sermon to his charges at Calvary Baptist Church, declared that he favored extending prohibition to dancing. Yes, he meant that Prohibition with a capital P. “These dances have come from the underworld of Paris, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, and Oriental cities,” said Dr. John Roach Straton, who then named the “French Can-Can, Argentine Tango, Boston Dip, Fox Trot, Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, Jazz-Shimmy, The Cheek to Cheek, and the Grizzly Grapple.” Stratton, by the way, was a very famous minister during his day and has his own Wikipedia page.
My second thought upon reading this was that the next erotic Fox Trot I do will be the first erotic Fox Trot I’ve ever done. (The dance was only six years old in 1920, by the way.)
My first thought was I have to know all about the Grizzly Grapple. Lo, and behold, Sonny Watson’s streetswing.com has an entire article on the “Grizzly Bear,” which is clearly the same as the Grizzly Grapple. A couple would basically bear hug each other and then imitate the movements of a bear. No doubt the bear hug part was what the good reverend and others found problematic. The article also features a brief video illustrating part of the dance, as well as a nice history, noting that Sophie Tucker was arrested “for singing the ‘Grizzly Bear’ and the ‘Angle Worm Wiggle.’”
A video of Sophie singing “The Grizzly Bear” appears below. The lyrics reference San Francisco, which must have been a particular den of iniquity (must have been a bear’s den) since streetswing.com notes that the Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, and Texas Tommy also began there.
I don’t know who Sonny Watson is, but his streetswing.com is a treasure trove of information on old dances. The entry for the Boston Dip, which was developed in 1870, notes that the “Boston dances’ were slow waltzes, and the Dip was just a dipping variation in the Boston, “done by a huge step that would make the knees bend or ‘Dip’ the body down and was danced with the partners holding their hands on each other’s hips.”
I’m pretty sure that it was the hip holding that sent Dr. John Roach Straton into the stratosphere of moral indignation regarding the Boston Dip. Indeed, he informed his congregation that “It is a well-known fact that a large proportion of girls who fall come to their moral ruin through the dance, especially the public dance halls.” This is demonstrably false; otherwise, boys would have been lining up to take dance lessons.
So, what have we learned here today? One, that Dr. John Roach Straton was 100 years too early in his quest to rid the world of vulgar dancing. Vaguely suggesting something sexual on the dance floor is a far cry from Cardi B. Two, Sonny Watson’s streetswing.com is a great site and if you are interested in these old swing dances, then click on the link and explore! Three, I need to further investigate Sophie Tucker, whose song, “Red Hot Mama,” includes the lyrics, “I could make a music master drop his fiddle; make a bald-headed man part his hair in the middle, ‘cause I’m a red hot mama, and I’ll have to turn my damper down.” Then, there’s “Makin’ Wicki Wacky Down in Waikiki,” but I’ll save that subject for another time.