Dance Hall Days

18 Jan

Several posts ago, I chronicled my graduate career and how I came to study prostitution in the American West. It’s not the industry that I meant to study, but I have found it to be an interesting topic for myself and my students. A few posts later, I began to share some of my research by introducing my readers to the women who worked in the brothels, the highest level of the industrial “whorearchy”. This post leaves the brothels and follows the women into the next work place, the dance halls.

In the American West, the younger and least experienced women worked in the brothels, the houses that catered to the wealthier men of a community. When the earning abilities of these women faltered, they moved from the brothels and into the dance halls, or saloons. The mythical representation of these establishments are depicted in almost every western movie, and saloon women are often used as background for the movie scenes. This is not too far removed from reality as saloon owners hired women to do just that – serve as scenery. Women were hired to be part of the decor and to attract customers. They danced with patrons for a fee and sometimes entertained by singing for tips. They had conversations with men who may be sitting alone and typically pressured them to uy watered-down drinks at inflated prices. (Not unlike Hooters) The dancing fees and obviously the drinks went into the coffers of the dance hall.

Women in these establishments did not earn as much money as those in the brothels because men usually did not go to saloons looking for sex. They were there to gamble and drink. If they wanted to have sex, then they would have gone to a brothel or, if that was unaffordable, to a crib, which I will blog about later. As a result, saloon women had to work hard to induce men to take them upstairs and pay them for sex.

Saloons and dance halls were everywhere in the West, but perhaps the most famous of the time was the Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona, a town famous for the Gunfight at the Ok Corral. The theater derived its name from the balcony boxes, which resembled birdcages, that overlooked the floor and the stage. Due to a lack of rooms, prostitutes performed their services in these boxes with the curtains drawn. Last summer, I visited Tombstone and toured the Birdcage. It is an interesting tour and showed firsthand that the boxes are aptly named.

One Response to “Dance Hall Days”


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