Kansas Folk Music and Dance Resource Center
KansasFolk.org Home Folk Here & Now Finding Materials Stories & Photos
Section Home
Preserve It!

Earlier Days of Dancing

by Elfriede Fischer Rowe
Lawrence, Kansas
ca. 1960

According to a recent news story, learning the waltz with its body contact, was being offered to interested K.U. students.  And the article pointed out it was not to revive by-gone days but purely to learn the dance.

Lawrence has had dancing teachers as far back as the late 1800's. One such class was conducted by Georgia Brown in one of the rooms of the Commercial Club.  The club rooms were on the third floor of the old First National Bank building on the northeast corner of 8th and Massachusetts.  The bank's name then was the Merchants National Bank.  The Commercial Club was made up of local Lawrence merchants and citizens in other professions.  Mrs. John Bell, mother of the late Bonnie Bell Houston, played the piano for the dance students. Georgia Brown not only taught dancing, but she put on local plays as well.

When we started to dancing school, Betty Wagstaff, aunt of Richard H. Wagstaff, was our teacher.  We were pre-teens.  Every Saturday afternoon, boys and girls trudged up, the stairs of IOOF Hall, which was across the street south of the present fire station on 8th and Vermont.  We were dressed up in our "Sunday" clothes and we wore our Mary Jane black patent leather, one-strap pumps if the weather was good.  Otherwise we carried them in a slipper bag.  The boys were dressed up too in their "Sunday" clothes and dancing pumps.  Knickers were the style then.  You didn't wear long pants until you were a grown man.  It didn't take the boys long to get pretty bored and restless and to let off steam they would "skate" on the waxed dance floor and hang out the windows and yell at anyone passing by.  In those days, they never would have dared refuse to go to dancing school, knowing full well it wouldn't have been worth the physical pain that would have followed such outright rebellion.

We had "live" music but the pianist is not recalled.  Let's say she was the background music.  Our eyes were focused on the boys.  For most of the dances, the girls lined up at one end of the room facing the boys across the floor.  The boys would "skate" across to take a partner. You were terrified that you might be the last one chosen, or if there were an uneven number of boys and girls, you would have to dance with the teacher.  You had to go through that agony all afternoon.  Lessons were on a cash basis. You took your money each week. For some unaccountable reason, 25¢ seems to come to mind.

Jean Piatt, who became Mrs. Arthur Henley, taught University men and women after we had mastered the art and were going to dances.  Someone recalled those classes were held in Pythian Hall.

When Helen Friend Lindsey and Laura Rankin Haggart were pre-teens, they took dancing lessons from "Professor" Skaar.  (spelling not sure of). He taught dancing at the Post in Leavenworth and also in Atchison.  Those classes were in Ecke's Hall (above Duckwalls on Mass. Street).  He brought his own pianist.  Among other things, they remembered his mustache and swallow-tail coat.  When he demonstrated a dance, he would stand in the middle of the dance floor and as he twirled, his coattails would sail out. He saw to it that there was always an even number of boys and girls for those lessons.  Professor Skaar was very strict and formal and he demanded certain musts. One of them was the boys always placed a white handkerchief where the hand touched the girl's dress at the back.  Tile idea was to protect her dress from getting soiled from those sweaty hands.  He also lectured on manners and he insisted no one could sit out a dance. His classes were on Friday afternoon after school.

A much more enjoyable dancing class followed Professor Skaar. Alice Guenther (Mrs. Harold Bagby) and Nelli-May Schall started a class at IOOF Hall. They were young and still in school, so discipline was slack.  These young teachers seemed to go in for costume dances for the class on certain occasions. On Washington's birthday, the girls dressed up as Martha and on Valentine's Day, they made up as valentines, There were other dance teachers through the years that followed. Bernice Ackerman (Lopez) taught ballet, as did Helen Topping.  Jane Breidenthal taught tap dancing in Eagles Hall.  A group of boys and girls of Junior High age met on Saturday mornings at Holloway Hall above the grocery store at 19th and Massachusetts, Pinckney School offered ballet after school for a small sum.  This was in the 30's.  Square dancing was a popular dance with University High School boys and girls.

When we reached high school, subscription dances were popular. Most of them were held in Ecke's Hall or Fraternal Aid Union Hall, end after our time, there were the tea dances at Wiedemans.  Weekends of our first years at KU were gay.  There was a dance every Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday night.  New dances and new music came on fast. Most of the popular songs were from the wealth of musical comedy shows on Broadway. There was the Turkey Trot; Fox Trot; Shimmy; Bunny Hug; Tango, (after Rudolph Valentino movies became famous), and the __ __ __ (a variation). The Big Apple came a little  later.  Sometimes during the evening at these KU dances, the Virginia Reel would be called to pep things up.  And many years later the Circle Dance was popular at University Club dances.

The Boston was a variation where you would be dancing a waltz and your partner and you would bend one knee and dip to the floor.  We were wearing narrow ankle length skirts then and your skirt would slide up and expose your knee.  One sorority alum thought that dance too daring and requested an active sister to caution the extreme dippers to not dip so low.  When we had cheek to cheek dancing, our Dean of Women wrote to the Women's Pan Hellenic requesting the girls to not allow the boys to hold them so tight.  True, some of the boys did hold you so tight you could hardly breathe.  K-State banned the cheek to cheek from campus.

Printed programs were used for the dances. Each dance was numbered with the particular dance step to be danced. Often the title of the musical number was listed also. The last dance was usually "Good Night Ladies" or "Aloha".  This designation of the type dance worked out pretty well for the boys, as some girls could waltz better than dance the newer fast steps.  Your date always had at least the first and last dance and one or two in the middle. At the fraternity parties, dance trading was done at the chapter house before the party.  When we reached college, there were "stag" lines.  Boys who didn't bring a date would cut in and claim a girl to dance with him. Some of the fraternity parties got pretty elaborate and competitive. Favors such as silver mesh bags, lavaliers with the fraternity crest. "Doreens" (small loose powder containers for your purse or hung on a chain with a ring at the end to place on your finger), coin purses for your change to ride the street cars, were given at their biggest party of the year. Corsages too were sent to the girls.  Invitations were engraved.  This finally got too expensive and the custom was abolished.

The formal dances always began with a Grand March with the chaperones leading.  After circling the room to martial music, the tune changed and your partner would break the line and swing you into a fast two-step.

We had "orchestras" and not "bands" then. Some of the local players were:  Eric Owen; "Swede" Wilson; “Shanty" Newhouse.  These three often played together.  "Chuck" Shofstall played the piano for his orchestra to help pay medical school expenses.  "Buddy" Rogers was his drummer.  Haleys orchestra was a popular out-of-town group.  Some of the Lawrence piano players who played solo were: Baldwin Mitchell; "Jimmy" Benedict; Gordon Saunders; Henry McCurdy; and two of the most popular ones and black, were Pete Coleman and “Honey" Warfield.  Pete Coleman played entirely by ear.  Some of these players did not play for money but would help out if the "music" did not show up for a dance.

Of course in our giddy years, chaperones were always a must and protocol dictated that you pay your respects to them on arrival and departure.  When you were sitting down between dances, you never crossed your legs except at the ankles.  Any other posture stamped you as being not a lady.

Perhaps the separation of partners started when the Charleston came in the 1920's.  In that dance, you started out dancing together and then the band would strike up the music composed especially for the Charleston and you separated to dance it, facing your partner.  If we have now gotten as far back as the Waltz, who knows, maybe the next generation will go back still farther and will go to dancing school to learn the Minuet!  And just for the purpose of knowing how to do it.

© Elfriede Fischer Rowe.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted by permission.

Back to Stories & Photos Home