In 1919, 28 people perished in a tragic dance hall fire in Ville Platte. In 2019, these dance halls have almost disappeared. It almost feels like a tradition so strongly immersed in Louisiana was swept away just as the fire did 100 years earlier.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dance halls bloomed all over the United States and especially in Louisiana. These places served as community gatherings where the whole family would attend and enjoy some music, dancing and even food. Couples would meet, families would have fun and the city in general had a healthy space to entertain its members. The article written in November of 1919 describing the tragedy in the Ville Platte dance hall fire shows us what was happening those days in history. On the night of November 22, an exploding oil stove started a fire in the ground floor of a building housing J.W. Deville’s Dance Hall, killing 28 people and injuring many more.
First of all, the list of victims in the Ville Platte fire reflects the family nature of these dance halls, where among the “unfortunate”, we could find adults and kids, ordinary, normal citizens as well as very important people in town such as the mayor. Secondly it gives us an idea of the lack of security planning around these type of “ballrooms” which were basically improvised at a fast rhythm and anywhere. This specific dance hall was in a second floor of two highly flammable commercial stores with only one narrow staircase to go in and out.
Dance halls spread all over Louisiana, to the point where every single little town had one. A historian named John Sharp has counted as many as 1700 dance halls throughout Louisiana from which only a couple dozen still exist today. These places gave community members a healthy environment to enjoy music, dancing and share moments with family and friends. Basically everybody in town would go to these dance halls. From grand-parents to grand children, from the mayor of the city to the unknown visitor who wanted to enjoy a fun time. While no alcohol was permitted, food and beverages were commonly served; of course the famous gumbo was present in many of these gatherings. During dance “venues”, women and men would stand in different areas of the dance place. They would bring “chaperones” to make sure men and women were behaving. Mothers would bring their small kids and some dance halls would even have an area to take care of small children so their parents could socialize and dance.
On the other side of the coin, around the 1920’s “taxi-dance halls” started to emerge. These were working-class dance halls which were informal, less family oriented and sold tickets for men to dance with women. Each dance ticket could cost between 10 to 20 cents each. They were called “taxi-dance halls” because men could find women named “taxi-dancers” who would dance with them at a similar price scale of a taxi ride. The price depended on the length of the dance. The privilege of dance halls assigned only to the “elite” was also accessible to working class people.
Around the 1930s dance halls started to become more and more violent and the use of alcohol was more common. These places were becoming more of a social place for young adults and adults, more like a nightclub. Dance halls as they used to be and what they represented for New Orleans and the other Louisiana cities are basically extinct.
Without a doubt, dance halls were an important part of society. It was supposed to help with community building and a healthy entertainment for people of different ages. Everybody could enjoy music and dance. This idea of community building has changed to what we have today that is more oriented to alcohol and listening to music. The dance part of the entertainment is reserved for night clubs exclusively for adults. Concerts and nightclubs are not a way of community building but a simple entertainment that is not always healthy. Unfortunately, what ones was part of the New Orleans culture and history, a healthy way to live and to build community has almost disappeared. Today, not many dance halls remain, having been replaced by other types of entertainment that are probably not as healthy and family oriented as the original “salles de dance”. The few “original” dance halls are now entertaining our past generations who still enjoy a healthy fun dance to finish each day.
- “Cajun Dance Halls” by Ryan Brasseaux
- “Heart of Louisiana: Dance Halls” FOX8News interviews John Sharp a researcher at ULL’s Center for Louisiana Studies on June 28, 2018
- Why Men in the 1920’s Paid Women for Spins Around the Dance Hall. By Urvija Banerji. March 11, 2016