Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States

Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States

Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States

Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States


The rise of commercialized leisure coincided with the arrival of millions of immigrants to America's cities. Conflict was inevitable as older generations attempted to preserve their traditions, values, and ethnic identities, while the young sought out the cheap amusements and sexual freedom which the urban landscape offered. At immigrant picnics, social clubs, and urban dance halls, Randy McBee discovers distinct and highly contested gender lines, proving that the battle between the ages was also one between the sexes.

Free from their parents and their strict rules governing sexual conduct, working women took advantage of their time in dance halls to challenge conventional gender norms. They routinely passed certain men over for dances, refused escorts home, and embraced the sensual and physical side of dance to further accentuate their superior skills and ability on the dance floor. Most men felt threatened by women's displays of empowerment and took steps to thwart the changes taking place. Accustomed to street corners, poolrooms, saloons, and other all-male get-togethers, working men tried to transform the dance hall into something that resembled these familiar hangouts.

McBee also finds that men frequently abandoned the commercial dance hall for their own clubs, set up in the basements of tenement flats. In these hangouts, working men established rules governing intimacy and leisure that allowed them to regulate the behavior of the women who attended club events. The collective manner in which they behaved not only affected the organization of commercial leisure but also men and women's struggles with and against one another to define the meaning of leisure, sexuality, intimacy, and even masculinity.


In 1901, Veronica Loncki and her parents immigrated to the United States, landing first in New York and then moving on to Chicago’s north side, where she lived for the next seven decades. Loncki was fourteen when she left eastern Europe for America, and eventually married John Orkee in 1910, when she was twenty-three. Before her marriage, Loncki spent much of her leisure time at dances, regularly attended picnics, and, with a few of her girl friends, “maybe three or four,” went to the Crown Theater on Milwaukee to see a show. As she reached her late teens, the neighborhood boys increasingly became interested in her, and she reveled in the attention. If “you want to live with somebody,” she declared, “you ain’t gonna go [with] the first one you see.” Yet, while many of the neighborhood boys were eager to please and wed, she “just didn’t care for nobody.” “I wasn’t so anxious to be tied up with somebody I don’t know,” she explained. “I just like to be free.” Loncki insisted that she was “nice” to these men. But she would only “go out once or so” and only “be [a] friend” because she did not want to “make him feel serious or something.”

Loncki was certainly candid about her relationships with men, and she had apparently spent a considerable amount of time thinking about “boys” and how to handle them. She was careful about not making her dates “feel serious or something,” suggesting that the men she dated were unaccustomed to the idea that female companionship did not imply commitment. And she was concerned about ending up “tied up with somebody I don’t know,” as if she knew several women who had gotten married after a brief acquaintance with their future spouses, even though her own courtship lasted only about two months. Loncki explained that there was no single reason why she married on such short notice. She first met her husband, John Orkee, at Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, a clothing manufacturing plant where they both worked, and before long he started showing up unexpectedly at her home for visits. Her parents . . .

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