Looking Back: Seniors denied diplomas after dance seen as 'Hell itself,' defying authorities

·5 min read
In 1906, hysteria over the evils of dancing led to the graduating class of Sioux Falls High School being denied their diplomas. The red building left of center is Germania Hall, the site of the revelry.
In 1906, hysteria over the evils of dancing led to the graduating class of Sioux Falls High School being denied their diplomas. The red building left of center is Germania Hall, the site of the revelry.

Students in the Sioux Falls High School graduating class of 1906 worked hard all year, indeed, every year of their high school education. They took pride in the fact their class received, on average, the highest marks of any class yet to graduate in the city. At their commencement ceremony, however, they were denied their diplomas. The school board had gotten wind of their plans to hold a dance after the junior-senior banquet, which traditionally happened on the night after graduation.

There was a rising fear taking root in the nation that dancing was leading to other untoward activities and must be stopped. In the week leading up to graduation, Reverend W. B. Sherrard, the superintendent of the South Dakota Children’s Home Society, submitted a letter to the editor of the Argus Leader concerning the city allowing the auditorium to be used for public dances. He said, “More young girls are despoiled of their virtue by the public dance than any other way. Hell itself could not devise a more successful trap for the ruin of young girls than that proposed.” He continued, “First it will be acquaintance at the dance hall, and then an appointment to meet on the island (Seney Island, a pleasant getaway in the Big Sioux River at the time) to listen to the concert when they will be induced to wander along the bank of the river and their ruin will be accomplished.” One can imagine the good reverend dabbing the sweat from his forehead while reciting this in front of his congregation.

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Sherrard was supported in his opinion by Reverend H. R. Best, who was scheduled to address the class before the diplomas were handed out. He said, “I quit the dance before I was a Christian because I knew its tendency is to lower those incarnated virtues which alone make men great.”

On May 31, 1906, the night of the ceremony, the graduating class was gathered to one side of the stage at the New Theatre, formerly located at the southwest corner of 9th and Main. The young men wore black, while the young women wore white. The stage was decorated with “’06” in the class colors, purple and white, suspended behind them.

At the front of the stage, the class motto “One stroke against an untried current” was emblazoned. The graduating students sung their class song in unison, their voices clear and bright. Next an invocation was presented by Rev. Frank Fox. Several of the students put on musical presentations, which were so skillfully presented, one could only guess how many hours had been spent in preparation. Bessie Reid performed her valedictory speech, followed by Reverend Best’s address.

He told a story using a metaphor of the students in damaged rowboats. The students were told that they have the means at hand to patch the boats and make it, if only they keep their wits about them. Next up was the expected presentation of diplomas. School board president James W. Parker took the stage and said that no diplomas would be handed out that evening. They weren’t ready. There were audible hisses from the senior class, and shouts and jeers from the audience.

It was later discovered that members of the school board had learned of the students’ nefarious plot to dance the following evening, after the junior-senior banquet. Before the curtain went up, President Parker asked which of the students planned to abstain from the dance. Only 11 of the 51 students of the class of 1906 stood up.

After the faux commencement, some parents threatened legal action, and students and parents alike demanded the public graduation ceremony they were denied. Students argued that once graduated, the school board no longer had any say in their lives.

On June 1, 1906, the school board issued a resolution, delivered to each student’s household, saying that anyone who attended the planned dance would not receive a diploma. Those who would comply with the rule set forth could call at the superintendent’s office to receive one, sans pomp and circumstance, of course.

As was the tradition, the junior-senior banquet went on as planned. The event was held at the Elk’s lodge, which was on the north side of 9th Street between Main and Phillips Avenues. The students had a lovely time. They sat down for dinner at 9 p.m., and no speeches were made. After the meal, the young graduates gathered in the large hall and anterooms for conversation and singing. They had a good time. Some of the teachers in attendance tried to persuade the students to skip the dance, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. At 11 p.m., most who attended the banquet proceeded to Germania Hall, which was on the north side of 9th Street, near Dakota Avenue. The headline the next day said, “They danced just the same."

The headline and partial story from the June 2, 1906 Argus Leader.
The headline and partial story from the June 2, 1906 Argus Leader.

The students eventually received their diplomas, some as late as 1910, but the lack of document didn’t slow them down. By September, graduates who danced that night were able to depart for their colleges, or starting down their chosen paths. They became prominent doctors, lawyers, nurses, and civil servants. Graduation dances would not be held for years to come.

On a national level, dance was a hot-button issue for years. Woodrow Wilson canceled his inaugural ball for fear of the specter of forbidden dances like the Turkey Trot and Bunny Hug.

In an NPR interview in 2015, Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman observed, “Dance has long been targeted by people who have sought to exert control, because it's all about the body. And it's a supreme power to control what people can do with their bodies.”

Like Ren McCormack, Kevin Bacon’s character in "Footloose," the class of 1906 defied the directives put forth by the powers that be. The graduates danced to celebrate their accomplishments, but also to defy those wishing to exert control what they did with their bodies.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Sioux Falls seniors denied diplomas due to forbidden dance in 1906