Time Machine

When Cedar Rapids banned dancing, it was illegal to Charleston, jitterbug and other 'indecent' dances

Teenagers dance to the Variety Club Orchestra in this photo from the 1950s. Variations of the jitterbug remained popular
Teenagers dance to the Variety Club Orchestra in this photo from the 1950s. Variations of the jitterbug remained popular in the ’50s, despite the dance’s controversial wave of notoriety and a Cedar Rapids City Council ban of the dance in the late 1930s. (The History Center)
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Just as older generations tried to save American youth from the dangers of the lambada and the twist, even-older generations were in tizzies over different dances. They feared the worst when young people did the jitterbug, the Charleston and the grizzly bear.

The only difference is: Those older generations were successful in getting the dances banned in Iowa.

Animal dances

A front-page article in the Nov. 20, 1912, Evening Gazette told of the associations between suggestive dances and Chicago’s vice district.

In a successful effort to shut down a seedy side of town, undercover Chicago police witnessed women doing exaggerated versions of the grizzly bear and the bunny hug. Ragtime music was all the rage, spawning dances like the fish walk, the chicken scratch and the horse trot.

By 1913, the Cedar Rapids City Council passed Ordinance 1019 banning the worst of the beastly jigs. Section 8 specified the prohibition of the grizzly bear, bunny hug, turkey trot and the Texas Tommy. It also banned “similar dances of a questionable or indecent character.”

The Charleston

By the 1920s, hot jazz numbers blending Dixieland, ragtime and brass band marches came with a dance that would exemplify the decade.

Rooted in South Carolina’s African-American culture and enhanced by a Black Broadway show and Harlem dance halls, the Charleston was as carefree and spirited as the speak-easy vibes of the day.

In 1925, a Fourth of July rager was underway in Boston when a hall full of Charleston dancers collapsed, killing 44 people.

The collapse probably was caused by an earlier fire, water damage and an excavation next door, but cities across the country now had a reason to ban the dance.

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In December, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wes Benesh and Building Inspector Otis Leefers decided they’d ban the Charleston and the flea hop within city limits via a safety edict.

The city council followed up by adding the Charleston to the existing dance ban, along with dances “with similar steps.” A champion Charleston dance duo that had already been booked for an exhibition in town was allowed to continue after performing a special demonstration for Benesh and Leefers.

A Gazette article on Jan. 2, 1926, described the arrests of teenagers Robert Clark and Beulah Curttright, who were charged with stealing a coat and a purse on New Year’s Eve.

As it turns out, Chief Benesh had run into the pair earlier in the night and stopped them from doing the Charleston on a crowded dance floor.

A follow-up, front-page headline a few days later declared “Dancing Couple Given Chance To Go Straight.” Miss Curttright was placed under suspended commitment to the House of the Good Shepherd in Davenport while Mr. Clark was given a choice between joining the Navy or remaining under supervision of the court.

The jitterbug

Young Cedar Rapidians were shredding rugs to the jitterbug by 1938, fueled by a Danceland booking of the “King of Swing” himself, Benny Goodman.

Within a year, the jitterbug was illegal.

This time, the city’s evolving dance ban ordinance was adjusted to specify the jitterbug, the big apple and the shag, as well as “similar dances causing undue vibrations to dance floors.”

The “urgent” ordinance included a penalty of up to $100 and 30 days in jail.

Still on the books?

Many cities have odd, outdated laws still in place, simply because they were never repealed.

That might be the case with Cedar Rapids’ prohibition of certain dances.

City Clerk Amy Stevenson’s office is digitizing old city council meeting minutes from way back when — which will eventually make it easier to look up old, forgotten laws — but says they still have a long way to go.

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As far as she can tell at this point, the jitterbug, big apple and the shag might be illegal, along with similar dances causing undue vibrations to dance floors.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, who writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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