The Wild West of Yester-Year

Dance Hall Girls
By Rachel Kovaciny

Thanks to the cowboy movies and TV shows produced by Hollywood for the past hundred-plus years, today we tend to think of the term "dance-hall girl" as a euphemism. A polite term like "soiled dove" or "ladies of ill-repute." A nice way to say a woman has a not-nice profession. But in the Old West, a "dance-hall girl" was a woman who worked at a place meant for dancing. They were not "fallen women," but respectable single ladies who needed to earn a living or supplement their family's income. While brothels did sometimes have rooms meant for dances, an actual dance hall was a place meant for social interaction and fun. They were the forerunner of the discotheques of the '70s or the nightclubs of today.

In the heyday of the Old West, unmarried men outnumbered unmarried women in drastic proportions. Dance halls provided lonely single men with a place to enjoy the company of women for an hour or two in an honorable and enjoyable way. Dances, conversation, and a shared drink or two at a dance hall were a respectable way for single men and women to meet and interact. Most dance halls made money in two ways. First, they sold tickets for dancing. A ticket entitled the purchaser to one dance with one of the female employees. The women then earned either a flat fee per dance or a specific percentage of the ticket cost. Popular dancers in some larger towns and cities could make more money in one day than a ranch hand would make in a month.  

Second, most dance halls also sold alcohol, usually weak and watered down. Dancers would encourage patrons to buy drinks, and they usually earned a percentage of the profits from those drinks too. Because dance halls sold alcohol, many respectable citizens looked down their noses at the people who worked there or patronized the establishments. But working at a dance hall was a way for women to earn an honest living and retain their dignity. Without such work, many more women would end up practicing the form of employment we today associate with the term "dance-hall girl." 

Dance halls also served as a place for unmarried women on the untamed frontier to meet possible suitors in a socially acceptable setting. In fact, many dance hall girls only worked for a short time before leaving to marry and settle down with someone they'd met at their job. Saloons also hired women who would encourage men to spend more time and money in their establishment. Like dance-hall girls, we now think of saloon girls as practicing the world's oldest profession. But although the towns often relegated saloons and brothels to the same disreputable districts, and some saloons had brothels connected to them, most saloon girls were not "fallen women" either.


So next time you're watching or reading a story set in the Wild West, pay attention to any dance-hall girls and saloon girls to see how they're portrayed. Are they shown as respectable women earning a living or as "painted ladies?" It's possible you now know more about their actual role in settling the American West than the story's creators!