May 28, 1912 – Fifteen Women Fired for Dancing “The Turkey Trot” on Their Lunch Break

On this day in history, fifteen women who worked at the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia were seen dancing the “Turkey Trot” on their lunch break. The Turkey Trot was a fast-paced ragtime dance that originated in African American communities. According to Wikipedia:

It achieved popularity chiefly as a result of its being denounced by the Vatican. It was thought that the positions assumed by the dancers were offensively suggestive. Conservative members of society felt the dance promoted immorality and tried to get it banned at public functions, which only served to increase its popularity.”

Alas, Edward Bok, editor of the “Ladies Home Journal,” witnessed the dancing while at the Curtis offices and insisted the women be fired. As recounted by music and dance blogger Monica Dale:

The incident made national news, with assonant headlines such as “‘Girls Danced the Turkey Trot – And Editor Bok Saw Them and Was Fearfully Shocked.’”

Women’s recreation lounge, The Curtis Publishing Company, 1912.

Monica Dale opines:

I think there was something about the movement of ragtime dances that suggested their African-American roots even more clearly than ragtime music alone. It’s easy to imagine that the derivation itself was enough to frighten an already anxious, segregated society. Consider the same pattern’s recurrence through the decades since then: Black culture creates something fresh and inventive; white people become horrified when their own youth begin to adopt it; then it is covered, often in watered-down form, and sold to white audiences with great commercial success.”

This theory seems to be borne out by reading some of the objections to the dance, as this one by Dr. R. A. Adams published in 1924, provided by the Library of Congress, and sounding a lot like white horror over blacks at the time:

It is a sad reflection on the people of this Nation that they should run out of dance steps and dance names and come down to the level of the brutes whose sexual actions they imitate in what are called animal dances. It is well known that these animal dances are imitations of the animals in their sex relations and sex exercise, and that they are intended to arouse sexual desire and result in sex satisfaction … “

Turkey Trot by Joseph M. Daly, 1912

The Library of Congress reports further:

In 1913, President-elect Woodrow Wilson, so fearing a scandal if people danced the Turkey Trot at his inaugural ball, opted not to have a ball and held a public reception in the Capitol instead. It was banned at the Naval Academy that same year.”

Fortunately for moralists, the popularity of this “notorious” dance was eclipsed by the comparatively more sedate Fox Trot.

When you read the description of the Turkey Trot given by the Library of Congress, you wonder what the appalled spectators would have made of today’s “dirty dancing”:

The basic steps for the Turkey Trot consisted of four hopping steps sideways with the feet well apart, first on one leg, then the other with a characteristic rise on the ball of the foot, followed by a drop upon the heel. The dance was embellished with flicks of the feet and fast trotting actions with abrupt stops. Dancers were encouraged to also raise and lower their elbows while they danced to imitate the flapping wings of an excited turkey.”

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