Dance-Hall Lady – Lou Wylie – The American Mercury, 1933

The American Mercury
Vol. 29, Number 116
August 1933
Pages 269-274

Dance-Hall Lady

Lou Wylie

A TIP from an Associated Press man that additional jobs had been made for women in dance-halls by the return of beer sent me scurrying over to Manhattan in spite of the rain.

I picked the biggest hall I knew of to apply for my job as hostess. The A. P. man had said they were weeding out the old types and wanted college women. I didn’t know it as I clambered up the red velvet carpeted stairs, but this was just one more phony rumor. It was like the story another A. P. man told me last Summer about out-of-work newspaper men sleep ing on the floor at the Press Club, and picking up cats off people’s doorsteps and peddling them around the chain stores at fifty cents each for money to buy dough nuts and coffee.

Looking backward, I could see across the wet pavement the reflection of the coruscant lights blinking along Broadway. Ahead of me two youths were buying tickets. I fumbled with my bag, but the clasp was mashed and did not open quickly.

Before I had time to protest one of them had paid my admission and handed me the string of tickets the chopper passed him. They ascended the rest of the stairs ahead of me, and turned aside to check their coats.

I was bent on asking for a job and so walked straight into the foyer, which was gray with tobacco smoke. Through it paunchy men in unpressed clothes, and shallow, shiny-haired youths in double-

breasted coats could be seen galloping up and down the dance floor with women in evening dress, or standing aloof and self-consciously watching the dancers. Here and there I saw a woman clad in street clothes.

Suddenly, for no conscious reason the words of a song I had heard many years before at a Holy Roller meeting began to run through my mind.

Dance-hall lady, you gotta die, you gotta die,

It may not be today and it may not be tomorrow

But you gotta die, you gotta die.

I could almost smell the odor of the bloom on the locust trees outside the pine meeting-house. It had been April then, and with all the superiority born of my freshman year at college, and all of the snobbishness of a faith that had long ago weeded such crudities of expression from its litany, I had stood within the meeting house door.

Coatless, barefooted men shifted wads of tobacco in their mouths to shout the words with more power. Mousey-haired, flat-footed women thick around the middle shrieked them with delight. Now for the first time since that night they danced in my mind again.

The boy who had bought my tickets advanced toward me. I noticed the shuffling way his feet in their square-toed shoes slid in and out in the wide cuffs of his trousers. I did not like him, but I could not decently refuse to dance with him when he asked me.

I attempted to slide my rain-soaked shoes across the polished floor in stride with the many unusual steps which he made. The music seemed to have no bearing on the case at all. One moment my knee was grasped firmly between his; then I was spun around, and his cheek was against mine, and his hand at the small of my back. In this latter pose, with his torso rigid, he would gallop off across the floor, disregarding the music entirely.

The dance was finally over and I made my excuses and retired to the ladies’ room. If I were going to ask for a job it be hooved me to look my best. The rain and the close proximity of my partner’s cheek had done no good to a nose always in clined to shine. I felt self-conscious about my hair, too. It had not been marvelled since the bank holiday.

As a newspaper reporter I have inter viewed judges and millionaires, and even talked to the mother of a President, but I never felt so self-conscious about my ap pearance before in my life. Perhaps that was because, with only thirty cents in my purse, a job never meant so much to me before.


In the ladies’ room I was assailed with the odor of talcum powder, sweat and tobacco smoke. I sank on a red-lacquered settee upholstered in bright blue imitation leather, and from it looked about me.

From a row of seats ranged before a mirror a number of hostesses were making up. They eyed me with evident hostility—the professional jealousy which the dance-hall hostess always feels and shows toward the amateur who crashes the hall in street clothes.

Street clothes make a woman something different from a hostess. She is plainly a hireling. She may be the wife of a well to-do speak-easy man, or a stenographer or a Swedish housemaid out for a nigh of adventure. Or she may be, as I was an out-of-work newspaper woman wishing someone would buy her a beefsteak sandwich.

The hostesses returned to their makeup and their conversation. A platinum blonde in a poppy red taffeta sat directly in front of me. She was speaking to a fat woman with henna in her hair. Her dress was black velvet, cut high in the front and with no back. The rouge she was using was an obnoxious orange yellow.

“Get a slice of this, wontcher!” the platinum blonde said.

I could see Henna Hair getting a slice of it by regarding me intently in the mirror. I fumbled in my purse and found a cigarette to light and hide my nervousness. I was sure they knew that my room rent was unpaid, that I had made only six dollars during the past week at the office. They certainly could tell that my shoes were worn thin and that I needed new gloves.

They regarded me for a few moments longer and returned to a more intimate discussion.

“Ed ain’t brought nothing home for three weeks,” Henna Hair said to Platinum Blonde, as she expertly arched an eyebrow with a finger-tip dampened in her mouth.

“Whatcher goin’ do? Put him out?”

“Naw, I guess he can hang round an other week or so. There ain’t anybody else. Nobody’s got money these days. Only thing is, when he did have money I never seen him more’n twice a week. As ’tis, I can’t do nothin’, knowing I would find him home if I asked anyone in.”

“Men are like that, ain’t they?” Platinum Blonde replied, brushing the powder from her shoulders and the bosom of her dress.

They trailed out of the room, watching the undulations of their hips as reflected from the mirrors until they reached the door.

I ground out my cigarette in the ornate red ash tray, and with a futile dab at my face with my powder puff followed after them, conscious of the inhospitable stare of four pairs of eyes still making up before the mirror.

Outside the orchestra was grinding away. Women in all sorts and colors of cheap and tawdry evening gowns squirmed and galloped about the dance floor, or chatted in groups by the ropes, their eyes restlessly imploring the stag line for a dance.

In my gray unpressed tailored suit, seedy from its long waiting on benches outside editorial rooms and clammy from the rain, I felt in anything but a gay mood. All of my job-seeking ardor was gone. There seemed to be no one to apply to, and the effort of finding the office and get ting to the manager suddenly appeared as a stupendous task.

I was making my way toward the door when I was accosted by a bespectacled man in a tweed suit, who wanted to dance. I attempted to explain about my rain-soaked shoes, and that I was not there for the Purpose of dancing after all. Then I saw the floor manager, a tall, pimply-faced blond man in a shiny Tuxedo. He was looking at me in a way that really frightened me.

Without more attempt at explanation I danced with the man in the tweed suit. As we moved about the floor I noticed several other girls in street clothes. One of them, a small person with black bobbed hair and a Greta Garbo hat, gave me a knowing smile as I galloped by in the em brace of the man in the tweed suit.

When the dance was over, and it was not a long one, I left my panting partner and found myself a seat in a straight chair in a secluded part of the room. The girl with the bobbed hair soon found me.

“New?” she asked with a cynical smile, as if knowing the answer beforehand.

“Well, yes,” I replied, somewhat at a loss for an answer.

I could see that the black crepe the girl was wearing was greenish from age. A crisp white organdy collar and bow took the curse away from it to some extent, but its cut followed the fashion predating the big sleeve and wide shoulder period.

She opened her cigarette case with a polished thumb nail, saw it was empty and snapped it shut again. I opened my bag and fished out the crumpled package which still contained two cigarettes.

She took one, snapped it into shape against the arm of the chair adjoining mine, and seated herself beside me.

“Out of a job?” she asked pleasantly.
“Yes. I was on a Brooklyn paper until November: then they cut the staff. I have been on assignments and they have about run out. Nothing doing until next Fall, and I have to eat.”

It all came out in a burst, and then I was ready to laugh at myself. For two years I had been writing that same sort of drivel, trying to boost collections for the Emergency Relief. Now, in a maudlin mood, I was spilling it to a stranger who couldn’t do anything to help me, unless encouraging me to cry would be of benefit to me.

“Sure, I know. I was on the Graphic when it folded. Now I am playing the dance-halls.” She shook her head bitterly.

“I came here to apply for a job,” I hazarded, willing to cash in on her experiences.

“Don’t do it. Look at ’em, just so much beef on the hoof,” and she waved to a bunch of hostesses trailing their draggled silks past us.

“Free lance, Pal, if you are going in for this racket, and let me give you a tip.”

She bent over to whisper it to me as a man approached with the evident intention of asking her to dance.

“Keep away from the young ones. There’s nothing to them. They’re either petty gangsters or underpaid office boys. If there is any hoarding around here it’s in the pockets of the older men.”

She walked briskly away with her customer, a fat man, slightly bald, and in her stead I found a girl in a blue suit and a plaid silk blouse.

“If you want a partner you mustn’t sit around,” she warned me. “Let’s walk. It’s the same here as anywhere. Nobody ever dances with the wall flowers.”

I stood up hastily.

“New?” she asked me.

I told her that I was.

“Well, you’ll find it a hell of a racket, but what isn’t these days?” She offered me a cigarette.

The youth who had paid my admission was advancing toward me.

“Steer clear of him,” she warned me under her breath. “He took one of the hostesses out from here, and when she wouldn’t do what he wanted he broke her jaw and knocked out two of her teeth.”

I felt a touch on my elbow. It was the man in tweeds, asking to dance again. He had no tickets and I bethought myself of the string I had in my bag. I brought it out, only to have it snatched from my hand.

“I guess I get something out of bringing you in here,” a voice said, and I recognized it as belonging to my host at the ticket box. “You are too good to dance with me, but you can at least give me the tickets I bought.”

My elderly partner blinked at the youth for a minute and I was glad to see that he did not feel called upon to make an issue of it.

“I guess the floor manager still has tickets,” he said mildly and purchased a dollar’s worth, as if to show how little he cared.

On our non-stop flight about the floor I got glances here and there of people on the sidelines waiting, and of those dancing, and I saw that while many of the hostesses stood idly along the ropes or danced with the men professionals about the place, all of the women in street clothes had dance partners.

The woman with henna in her hair was twisting and untwisting the skirt of her black velvet evening dress into unbelievable bundles about her legs as she contorted about the floor with a boy in a sailor’s uni form. With chins uptilted, cheeks together and eyes shut, they raced as one body round the floor. Sometimes they paused and squirmed about in one spot for several seconds, and then they went into a series of whirls that sent the wide black skirt whipping and flapping. After that they would settle down to a mad racing around again.

“Galloping dominoes,” my partner whispered in my ear when he saw me regarding them, although considering his avoir dupois he had not been moving slowly himself.

When the dance was over I remembered the wall flowers and did not return to my chair, although my legs ached and my back was tired. I stood awkwardly in the middle of the floor, feeling more out of place in my street clothes amongst these women in their pitiful evening finery than I had ever felt when, as a reporter, I had

gone to grand affairs at the Biltmore or the Hotel New Yorker, and was the only woman not in evening dress.

The girl who claimed to be a former Graphic reporter came to my rescue.

“Let’s powder our noses,” she suggested.

Back in the atmosphere of talcum and cigarettes we sank exhaustedly upon the red and blue settee.

“I got some cigarettes now,” she ex claimed exultantly, breaking open a new, cellophane-wrapped package.

“Not what I smoke but you take what you can get in this racket,” she continued philosophically.

Somehow I felt differently about the butterfly row before the mirrors now. I noticed there were sweat stains about the armholes of the light colored silks, and the acrid odor of cheap rayon was in my nostrils.

“Back home,” I was telling myself, “people bought the best in evening clothes that money could buy. When they wore out one stayed at home until there was money to replace them with something equally good.” This was somehow comforting to remember. I had a very good evening dress at home, but no shoes to go with it.

My revery was broken by a query from my newly found friend.

“Did you date your dancing partner?” I admitted that I had not.

“You better land him before some of these professionals get hold of him. He looks like he’d be good for a supper and taxi fare home—if you don’t want to go any farther with him.”

“Taxi fare home?” I asked.

My companion explained that often an out-of-town man would pay a dance partner’s taxi fare home if he had enjoyed dancing with her. When this happened, she explained, it was a good idea to give some address in the Bronx or Brooklyn, and when the cab got around the corner pay off the driver and dive into the subway. That often left one three or four dollars in change, almost enough to eat for two weeks, if spent with care.

“I went to dinner with a man last night, and found out he was a truck driver,” my companion was confiding. “I don’t know why, but when he told me what his job was I was so sick and disgusted that I could have gone home and turned on the gas. Then I seemed to see them setting the story up in type, and it seemed even more cheap and screwy than what was happening to me, so I ordered beefsteak and mushrooms instead.”

“That comes from working on a news paper,” I told her, and we both laughed.

But she was right. I have had the same experience several times. Once, when I wasn’t used to being dunned for the rent, I went out on Brooklyn Bridge determined to jump off, but when I got to thinking of who would get the story, and that it would run about three sticks, and all that, it so disgusted me that I turned around and came back, although I had to tiptoe through the hall when I reached home.

“I guess we better be getting back so you can date Elmira,” the girl beside me was saying.


“Sure, don’t he look like Elmira to you ? A Kiwanian and a member of the Lions Club, and I bet he drives a sedan that has golf sticks in the back, and a little red worsted monkey that jumps up and down in the back window of the car.”

We slipped back into the dance room, which was so charged with heat and an inescapable mob something that it said “Congo” as plainly as the throbbing of drums in a jungle.

Elmira was evidently waiting for me, for he came toward me immediately. De

spite his age, which I guessed was around fifty, there was an exhilaration and a glow of health about him that were absent from the younger men in the room. His smile seemed sincere and sweet, even when he held me too tightly as we danced.

I felt that when he went back home he would be a little wiser and more tolerant of his home town people because he nourished the secret that he was a gay dog himself.

We danced a few more numbers, and although I was conscious that he was making advances over my shoulder at different women on the floor, in my sudden understanding of him I felt that he was as securely mine, if I wanted him for the night, as he was the woman’s back in Elmira who wore his ring, and pretended to believe the story of his business trips to New York.

When at last we left it was still raining, but the chill wet air had a sweet smell and I breathed it deeply.

We went to a little restaurant and had scrambled eggs and bacon, and bottled beer, and talked quite a lot about the wickedness of the city. Our knees touched under the table, and all of the things which seemed so possible up in the dance-hall, as I talked in the dressing-room, faded out of the realm of possibility as the sleepy-eyed waiter served us on a soiled tablecloth.

I suddenly invented an old maid sister who kept such a close watch over my morals that even now she was sitting at the door waiting to see me come home. I could not stay at a hotel all night because she thought I was at work and would call the office if I didn’t show up. That immediately tabulated me as one having a job and automatically put me out of the class of women that a man might like to help, even in a platonic way, because of the Depression.

The result was that I found myself going down the stairs to the Brooklyn trains, tearing up a card with an address and telephone number on it in case I should change my mind, for he was to be in town for a week.

“Dance-hall Lady, you got to die, got to die,” the train rattled and clacked at me. I could see myself back in the Holy Roller meeting-house, and I damned myself for ever having gone there, blaming the song for what I had done.

I had only thirty cents in my purse, and I knew I could have had more. I was not wise, neither was I good. I had wanted food and shelter and shoes at any price and I had been cheated out of them because once, on an April evening when locusts were in bloom, I had gone to a Holy Roller meeting. I had laughed to see the faithful squirm about on the floor. Ugly, common mountain people I had thought them, with their snuff sticks and bare feet, and because of them I would be hungry to morrow, hoarding my nickels to help me answer advertisements for jobs that never turned up.

I looked at the worn toe of my shoe, and sat crying in the subway train.

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