The Association for Public Art kicked off Site Seeing: Rediscover Public Art This Spring! – a month-long celebration of public art – with “An Evening of Tango at the Swann Memorial Fountain,” a free public tango dance party on April 5, 2012. The evening re-imagined a historic event when thousands danced the tango around Logan Circle to the music of a live band the day Swann Memorial Fountain first opened to the public on July 24, 1924. This impressive dance gathering on the Parkway was in fact one of the many weekly “Parkway dances” that took place during the summers of the 1920s. The following is a brief look at this Philadelphia pastime of a bygone era.
During the summers of the early 1920s, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (known as the Fairmount Parkway at the time) saw thousands of Philadelphians take to the streets every Thursday night for the weekly “Parkway dances” around Logan Circle. Sometimes referred to as the open-air or municipal dances, the Parkway dances reportedly had anywhere from 3,000-25,000 attendees each week between 17th and 18th streets or 20th and 21st streets dancing the waltz, fox-trot, tango, and other “appropriate” popular dances of the time (no quivery, wiggly jazz dancing allowed). The dances featured live music from the City’s Police or Fireman’s Bands (sometimes both), and they were always unique events from one week to the next: There were special “navy” or “army” dance nights, tango-dancers-only events, guests singers, professional dancers giving demonstrations, themed dance competitions, fancy dress balls, and evenings where moving pictures on dance etiquette were shown. When cash prizes for the “smoothest” dancers were introduced in 1922 – anywhere from $4-$10 – the gatherings became known as “the weekly dance contest on the Parkway,” and those couples who had won prizes throughout the season were invited to a final dance competition at the end of the summer. The Evening Public Ledger, a Philadelphia paper no longer in print, wrote about these Parkway dances almost every week, and typically published the names of the winners as well as the number of attendees.
Far from a dance “free-for-all,” the Parkway dances were highly regulated and overseen by Miss Marguerite Walz, Philadelphia’s first policewoman and official dance censor. Under her authority (she donned a whistle, badge and club), Parkway dance attendees needed to adhere to strict dance codes and attire, and couples would be asked to reform or leave if they did not follow the guidelines. Cheek-to-cheek dancing, the toddle, hip-dip, and any other “objectionable” dancing was not allowed. It was mandatory that men wear coats and collars (ties were preferred), sweaters were out of the question, and women were not allowed to chew gum. Though Miss Walz had the authority to arrest the unruly, only five reprimands were ever needed and no arrests were made.
A leading national figure on dance, poise, and etiquette, Miss Marguerite Walz began supervising public dances on the Parkway in 1921 as an experiment to tackle what she saw as a dance epidemic. She felt that young people were embracing “vulgar” dancing due to sheer ignorance, and believed that by teaching youths the “proper” way to dance – introducing alternatives rather than simply banning – she could effectively address the issue. Given the success of her initial public dances on the Parkway, Miss Walz approached the Mayor of Philadelphia in 1921 to suggest that public dancing throughout the city be monitored by the authorities. The Mayor, delighted that her Parkway dances were helping to solve the city’s problem of improper dancing, was in complete agreement, and decided to appoint Miss Walz as Philadelphia’s first official dance censor and policewoman. After being sworn in soon after in 1921, Miss Walz was put in charge of 75 policemen who she instructed on what was permissible and unacceptable in public dancing. The Mayor was so pleased by the work of Miss Walz and her Parkway dances that he hoped to sanction similar dances throughout the city.