Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »
Today Only: 50% off Atlas Obscura books and calendars at Barnes & Noble »
The Perfect Gift for Travelers: Our #1 New York Times® best selling book »

The Lost Lingo of Depression-Era Taxi Dancers

In the 1920s and ’30s, ticket-a-dance halls were full of “nickel-hoppers” and “fish.”

Taxi dancing was rarely this glamorous, and their slang proves it.
Taxi dancing was rarely this glamorous, and their slang proves it. Frances Benjamin Johnston/Public Domain

Dance halls where men could show up and dance with women for 10 cents a song were a hot ticket in cities like Chicago and New York in the late 1920s and early ’30s. These were places where a wide cross-section of lonely men could legally purchase some human contact a few minutes at a time. In 1931, there were at least 100 so-called “taxi-dance halls” in New York alone, visited by as many as 50,000 men each week.

During its lifespan, the subculture that developed in and around the taxi-dance halls evolved its own unique slang vocabulary. While some of the terms would spread beyond the dance hall walls to the everyday slick talkers of the day, others still belong exclusively to taxi dancing.

What is known of the subculture’s slang mainly comes from a 1932 publication by the sociologist Paul G. Cressey, The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life. Reported from Cressey’s investigations into the Chicago taxi-dance hall scene, it remains the most in-depth look at the world of taxi dancing as it existed. The book is a fascinating look at the world of taxi-dance halls, although many of the views and terminology on race and gender at best, dated.

Cressey describes the clientele of taxi-dance halls as a “motley crowd.” The types of men found in these establishments ranged in age, race, and respectability. Many were there just to dance, but others paid for prostitution, or got up to general crime and vice, giving taxi-dance halls an unsavory reputation. In the study, Cressey managed to catalog a number of the unique slang terms used within this complex social world.

While not exactly slang, taxi-dance halls are sometimes referred to as “closed dance halls,” thanks to their origins when they were closed to female customers, or “dance academies,” as many taxi-dance halls began as, or were clandestinely run as, schools. Authorities or investigators looking into the establishments might be simply referred to as “professionals.”

The taxi dancers themselves also had a number of nicknames, including most popularly “nickel-hopper,” in reference to the five cents they would often make off of a ten-cent dance ticket.

An artist's rendition of a taxi dance ticket.
An artist’s rendition of a taxi dance ticket. James Carroll/Public Domain

Some of the special vocabulary presented by Cressey speaks to the view of the taxi dancer as a grifter preying on lonely men, regardless of the fact that the opposite was almost certainly true in most cases. An easy mark for dance hall ticket-buying, or other exploitation, might be referred to as a “fruit,” or a “fish.” If a taxi dancer was carrying on a secret relationship with a mark, they might use some on-the-nose code like “paying the rent” or “buying the groceries.”

A great deal of taxi-dance hall slang recorded by Cressey has to do with race. Some of the halls were segregated while others, called “black and tans,” were mixed race. A taxi dancer who danced with people of races other than white could be said to be “on the ebony.” Black dance halls were referred to as “Africa,” while if one was “playing Africa,” they might be said to be engaging in prostitution in the African-American dance halls.

Cressey also notes a number of Filipino-specific slang, noting that nearly a fifth of the patrons of Chicago’s dance halls belonged to the ethnic group. Among the Filipino slang he mentions is a reference to taxi-dance halls as “class,” or “I have a class,” likely growing the instances where the establishments were associated with dance academies.

He also lists a number of terms that have survived into the modern lexicon, but may have been more specialized in the day, like referring to a novice taxi dancer as a “punk,” or “playing” someone as a term for exploiting them.

The taxi-dance hall trend survived into the mid-20th century in a diminished form, but was largely eradicated by increased social reforms and laws that targeted the popular establishments. While nickel-hoppers and their dance halls might be a thing of the past, through their recorded vocabulary, we can still get a glimpse of the intricacies of their world.