Censoring Philly Street Dance after the Shimmy Ship had Sailed

Police Band, City Hall Tower, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

Joseph Kiefer and the Philadelphia Police Band, City Hall Tower, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Those moaning saxophones,” fretted John R. McMahon in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “call out the low and rowdy instinct.” And with degrading names like “the cat step, camel walk, bunny hug, turkey trot,” McMahon figured jazz dance mocked the dignified traditions of social dance. Most insidious of all was a move they called the shimmy. “The road to hell is too often paved with jazz steps,” McMahon wrote in an article titled, “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!”

The shimmy rode in with Spencer Williams’ popular song, “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble,” from 1917. Within a few years, the shimmy had just about taken over White America’s dance halls and cabarets; thriving on stage, in recordings, all the while shaking America’s sense of decency.

“With hardly any movement of the feet,” described singer and actress Mae West, dancers “just shook their shoulders, torsos, breasts and pelvises.” West introduced her version of the shimmy to New York in the Fall of 1918, and a year later her image appeared on the sheet music for “Ev’rybody Shimmies Now.” While the shimmy amused people, its boldness also shocked them. Even West conceded there was “a naked, aching sensual agony about it.”

By 1919, the shimmy dominated American music publishing, recording and performing. The Ziegfeld Follies featured it that year on Broadway. Gilda Gray introduced the shimmy to Philadelphia in the “Shubert Gaieties” at the Chestnut Street Opera House, suggesting that if she hadn’t exactly invented the move, she owned it on stage. “I don’t know whether my shoulders were made to express the shimmy,” Gray told the Inquirer, “or whether the shimmy was made for my shoulders to express.”

America danced to “an explosion of shimmy tunes” and “everyone seemed to jump on the shimmy bandwagon” writes Rebecca A. Bryant in “Shaking Things Up: Popularizing the Shimmy in America.” The most famous, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” would be joined by the “Shimmie Waltz,” “Let Us Keep the Shimmie,” “Shimmying Everywhere,” “You Cannot Shake That Shimmie Here.” Irving Berlin’s “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea,” worried that Prohibition might kill the shimmy. But banning alcohol didn’t slow the shimmy. Philadelphia soon shook to its own song: “All the Quakers Are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker Town).

Others joined the scandalized Quaker on the cover of “Shoulder Shakers,” chiming in with their opinions about the shimmy. “Dancing Masters Join Clergy to Purify Dance,” read one headline, “International Association Blames Wave of Vulgar Dancing on Song Writers.”  Before long, from New York to San Francisco, moral authorities wanted to, and sometimes managed, to ban, restrict or censor the shimmy.

All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker town). (Duke University Libraries - Historic American Sheet Music.)

“All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker town).”  (Duke University Libraries – Historic American Sheet Music.)

Gilda Gray performs her famous Shimmy, 1931. (YouTube)

Gilda Gray performs the Shimmy, 1931. See 9:02. (YouTube.)

“The insidious thing,” wrote the Inquirer in an article confirming “the shimmy dance has been barred from Philadelphia,” is that “when one dancer starts the whole place must start, until the room rocks with the shimmy dance. It is more insidious than champagne, it is more insidious than drugs.” In the suburbs, the Lansdowne Club designated chaperones as “shimmy sleuths” assigning them to break up “the bunny-hugging and too affectionate ‘toddling.” In the city, the task of policing the city’s 4,000 licensed dance halls proved more challenging.

The solution? Dancing—and censoring—in the streets.

“Police Dance Censor Taboos Street Shimmy,” read the headline before the first Philadelphia street dances of 1919. Sergeant Theodore S. Fenn, assured that dancers “will do nothing ‘suggestive’ by way of street dancing while I am around…Philadelphia will dance with her feet, and her feet only. The Quaker City…will not be disgraced by the ‘shimmy’ dance.”

But the dancers had other ideas. When 15,000 jammed the Parkway to dance to the Police Band, reported the Inquirer, they were “happy in jazzing and shimmying…in…one jostling, swaying mass of sweltering humanity, in which a censor, if there had been one, would have had about as much change of imposing his ideas as the proverbial snowball.” Dancers “toddled and shimmied, dipped and slid to their hearts content….”

Someone needed to train police in anti-dance tactics and prevent “cheek-to-cheek dancing, abdominal contact, [the] shimmy [and the] toddle.” Enter dance master Miss Marguerite Walz, who would instruct 54 officers “to keep their eyes peeled for violators of the “No Shimmy” rule” while the Police Band played on. During their first outing, just “a few couples drew the attention of the censors, but policemen would step forward and touch one of the offenders on the shoulder and that was the end of it.”

Or so it seemed. The very next year, the “Hip-Dip” “wiggled its way into local terpsichorean circles,” complained Miss Walz. During a visit to South Philadelphia High School, she noticed the “Hip-Dip” and other “new and very undesirable dances,” including the “Flapper Flop,” the “Debutante Slouch” and the “Windmill Stride.”

Dance censorship, it turned out, would be a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole.”

 (Articles consulted: “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!” by John R. McMahon, Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1921; In The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Philadelphia Sneezes at Shimmy Dance,” January 18, 1919, page 3; “Police Dance Censor Taboos Street Shimmy,” May 7, 1919, p.3; “Dancing Masters Join Clergy to Purify Dance,” June 13, 1919, p. 16; “Another Creator of the Shimmy,” October 19, 1919, p. 8; “’Sedate Dancing Only’ Lansdowne Club Edict,” January 15, 1921, p. 19; “18,000 at City Dance Miss Walz, Censor, Finds Few Violations of ‘No Shimmy’ Rule,” July 29, 1921, p. 3; “New Dances Banned. South Phila. High Girls Promise to Eschew Latest Steps,” March 29, 1922, p. 16; “’Hip Dip’ Appears Here at City’s Public Dance,” July 14, 1922, p.3.)

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