Flappers in the Roaring Twenties may have shocked the public with their independent attitudes, hip flasks and petting parties. But they were only following in the footsteps of the youth a decade earlier, who scandalized the nation with a now-forgotten craze known as “animal dances.”
These dances embraced an entire menagerie from land, sea, and air, often borrowing the creatures' most distinctive moves. There was, for example, the grizzly bear, the camel walk, the horse trot, the crab step, the chicken flip, the kangaroo dip, and the bunny hug, to name just a few.
But no dance was more popular or more controversial than the turkey trot. It was banned in multiple cities, denounced by President Woodrow Wilson, and even warned against by doctors of the time.
To perform the turkey trot, dancers took "four hopping steps sideways with the feet well apart, first on one leg, then the other," notes the Library of Congress. "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.”
Many Americans were appalled by the frenetic dance moves. P.H. Kelley, secretary of the International Association of Masters of Dancing, proclaimed the animal dance to be "absolutely vulgar." "The dancing is from the hips up, instead of from the hips down, as is proper," he sniffed. "It is not so much what the Turkey Trotters do with their feet. That does not count. It’s the position which lends to vulgarity.”
How and where the dance originated was a matter of debate. Many believed it was introduced in San Francisco. Some said African Americans there had invented it, others that sailors had brought it to San Francisco from Port Said, Egypt, reputedly “the wickedest town on earth.” Yet another theory traced it back hundreds of years to Native Americans. Wherever it came from, it was often unwelcome when it arrived—at least by the authorities.
Cities across America try to ban animal dances
Mayors in several major U.S. cities attempted to crack down on animal dances. Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, grandfather of future President John F. Kennedy, ordered that a matron and a policeman be posted at every dance hall in his city and vowed to personally revoke the license of any hall that allowed “the turkey trot and other dances of similar character.”
New York’s mayor, William Jay Gaynor, referred to the dances as “lascivious orgies,” and warned that the youth craze was also beginning to infect their elders. “I cannot understand how respectable people can dance those new dances,” he said.
The police in Chicago took it upon themselves to monitor their local dance halls, assigning plain clothes detectives to the task. “We were told to stop the dances and we are doing it,” one policeman was quoted as saying. “They were pretty bad, especially the ‘Grizzly Bear.’”
In Paterson, New Jersey, a couple were arrested and fined $25 each for demonstrating the turkey trot at a Saturday night dance. Unable to come up with $25, the female partner was sentenced to 50 days in jail.
Cultural figures cry fowl
Religious leaders entered the fray, as well. Some denounced the dances as encouraging “barnyard morality.” Billy Sunday, a onetime baseball player turned fire-and-brimstone evangelist, condemned “the turkey trot, and the grizzly bear and other God-forsaken hell-born dances.” (Sunday seems to have appreciated the tango even less, however, calling it, “the most rotten, stinking, licentious thing that ever wriggled out of the pit of hell.”)
The turkey trot even intruded into the workplace. Edward Bok, the powerful editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal, discovered many of his female employees practicing it on their lunch break one day in 1912 and ordered them all fired. Bok’s action made headlines across the U.S. and soon earned him a merciless razzing in the nation’s press.
“Mr. Bok was so greatly shocked that his maid had to administer smelling salts and fan him several hours,” one Missouri paper joked.
Bok, however, was not finished. Still disturbed by what he considered the “ungraceful and unworthy dances” of “dance-mad” America, he commissioned the popular dancing team of Vernon and Irene Castle to demonstrate “better and more decorous dances”—specifically, modernized versions of the waltz, polka and gavotte—in his magazine’s pages.
Unfortunately, the effort didn’t “in the slightest degree, improve the dance situation,” Bok recalled in his 1920 autobiography. “The public refused to try the new Castle dances, and kept on turkey-trotting and bunny-hugging.”
Meanwhile, the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, forbade cadets from dancing it. The Daughters of the American Revolution launched what newspapers called “a crusade to stop the turkey trot and kindred dances.”
The health implications of animal dances were also noted. Baltimore physicians warned of a painful new ailment they were seeing among members of the local social set: “turkey trot instep.” Scattered newspaper reports told of dancers dropping dead after performing the dance.
Ruffled feathers at the White House
Eventually, the controversy made it all the way to the White House, when, in January 1913, President-elect Woodrow Wilson announced that he didn’t want an inaugural ball to celebrate the start of his administration in March.
Wilson’s reasons for breaking with tradition weren’t immediately clear, so the Washington gossip mill went into gear. Soon the Washington Herald had an explanation: “Fear of ‘Turkey Trot’ Kills Inaugural Ball.”
The New York Times ran a similar story, saying sources close to Wilson told the Inaugural Committee that he preferred to cancel the event “because he feared there would be indulgence in the ‘turkey trot,’ ‘the bunny hug,’ and other ragtime dances, and thus provoke what might amount to a National scandal.”
Wilson, who was still employed as governor of New Jersey at the time, felt compelled to deny the accusations. “He said he had opposed the idea of an inaugural ball chiefly because of the indirect expense to the government,” noted one widely published account.
Later, Wilson would bar the turkey trot, along with the horse trot and the tango, from other White House dances. Visitors to the East Room were instead supposed to content themselves with the more respectable waltz, minuet, and two-step.
Animal dance advocates
The turkey trot and other animal dances did have some defenders, though. President Wilson's three daughters were all enthusiastic turkey trotters who danced up a storm whenever they could in Washington.
John Philip Sousa, the famous “March King,” composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and leader of the Marine Band, was an unabashed advocate. He called the turkey trot “a positive aid to longevity,” adding, “it is a cheerful sight when gray haired men and women do the trot.”
Dr. A.A. Brill, chief of the psychiatry clinic at Columbia University, declared that “modern dances must be considered beneficial to our present social system. They are as soothing to the populace as rocking is to the infant.” And although the turkey trot had been banned at many universities, Columbia’s graduating class of 1913 voted it and the tango as their two favorite dances.
By 1915 or so, with much of the world at war, people had other things to get worked up about and the turkey trot no longer seemed so scandalous. In succeeding years, animal dances fell out of fashion, with the exception of the fox trot, which escaped extinction and can be spotted on dance floors to this day.
With the coming of the 1920s, American youth would embrace such dances as the Charleston, the shimmy, and the black bottom, all considered risqué in their time. But they had nothing on the turkey trot, the first dance to be banned at the White House.