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For nearly 80 years, it was the social event of the year.
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The year they cancelled J-Hop
September 16, 2008
The decision to cancel J-Hop was not taken lightly. The events of February 8-9, 1913, were investigated thoroughly by faculty and student authorities alike. Scores of individuals were interviewed, with certain students in engineering and law drawing the closest attention. Across the state, the episode drew concerned comment in the press. Even after the faculty issued its ruling, shocked students held out hope for a reversal. But the answer remained a firm no, at least for the following year.
Even the editors of the Daily had to agree. "There can be absolutely no excuse offered for the Junior Hop episode," they editorialized. "We are keenly conscious that Michigan has been given a 'black eye' which will take long years to eradicate."
Since the first "Society Hop" in 1877 at Hank's Emporium on Main Street—some claim an earlier origin—the formal dance at the end of the first semester had grown into the great social event of the University of Michigan calendar. In the 1880s and early '90s it was run by the nine fraternities, who brought it to Waterman Gymnasium at the corner of East and North University. It was reclaimed from the Greeks as a University-wide function in 1896. The indignant fraternities rebelled, holding their own shindig in Toledo that year. But they came back to the fold the following year, upholding their honor by sponsoring elaborately decorated booths emblazoned with their emblems—a practice that lasted for decades.
The dance was called J-Hop for the sponsoring class, the juniors. By 1913 it had evolved into a Thursday-through-Sunday extravaganza of concerts, parties, and sleigh rides, all crowned by the big event on Saturday night, when couples danced until midnight. Home-town sweethearts were brought in by rail from across the state and sometimes far beyond, with much celebration of the "imports" who had traveled the farthest to attend.
The cost to the average Lothario was punishing. One who invited a girl from home in 1913 calculated his total costs at over $300—$150 for his date's gown (yes, the guy paid); $20 for her living expenses while in town; $100 for his own get-up; $10 for miscellaneous entertainment; $9 for the horse-drawn carriage on the big night, $8 for souvenirs and $7 for the actual ticket. Plenty couldn't afford the tab, which may have been one factor behind the trouble that broke out that night.
Still, hundreds concluded the cost was worth it, considering the spectacle that greeted the J-Hoppers of 1913. Dates and their escorts strolled into Waterman Gymnasium under a brilliant canopy of fringed bunting and chains of floral garlands, moving in procession behind the designated First Lady of J-Hop, Miss Josephine Clay of Detroit, who wore a gown of white charmeuse covered with white chiffon, and her date, George Duffield, scion of an old Detroit family. Behind Miss Clay (who by strict tradition carried the only bouquet of the dance) the crowd converged at the center of the spectacle in a giant block M.
The decorative theme was "a shrine to Terpsichore," the Greek muse of the dance. But old Terpsichore never saw some of the dance steps that started to appear out on the floor as the hour grew later.
In fact, "fancy holds" and "feature dancing" had been raising chaperones' eyebrows at university dances for several years. Ragtime, the irresistible new music that encouraged wild and individualistic departures from the restrained moves of the '80s and '90s, had brought a nationwide craze for such steps as the Bunny Hug, the Grizzly Bear, and the Turkey Trot, all of which required varying degrees of hugging, grinding, and other pleasant contacts between newly introduced points of the partners' anatomies. Most scandalous of all was the "clutch hold" of the tango. Student authorities were already talking about banning it from Union dances just to preempt faculty action.
As midnight approached, something rowdier than dirty dancing started to brew outside the gym. For some years, J-Hop organizers had allowed people who were not attending the dance to sit up in the Waterman gallery, just to watch. Then, as the dance came to a close, the doors would be opened and everyone allowed in to see the decorations. This year, the J-Hop central committee had decided to keep the gallery off-limits and the doors locked—a decision that rankled with the crowd outside.
Some number of well-oiled men outside the south doors—how many were students and how many townies became a matter of debate—now decided to attend J-Hop by force, and without a date. Somewhere a few of them found a heavy length of gas pipe, which they wielded as a battering ram. Windows shattered, then locks and hinges. But no sooner were the insurgents inside than they found themselves facing a small phalanx of intrepid campus janitors and a U-M purchasing agent named Loos. Wielding make-shift clubs and at least one fire extinguisher, Loos and his men held off the unarmed intruders for twenty minutes, long enough for eight of Ann Arbor's finest to arrive and bring the skirmish to an end.
Reaction built over the next few days, with newspapers, alumni and the University's critics around the state seizing on the brawl as only the most egregioius of J-Hop's excesses. Officers of the Union went ahead and banned the tango from future dances. But this failed to mollify the faculty senate, which voted a week after the dance to cancel J-Hop "until such time as the university authorities are satisfied that all objectionable features will in the future be eliminated"—not only to ensure against future violence but to curb J-Hop's extravagance, "ragtime and low vaudeville music," and "objectionable dancing."
Poor Willis Diekema, general chairman of J-Hop that year, said no mere committee could have resisted the J-Hoppers' determination to tango in 1913.
"Because of the extreme popularity of the tango," he pleaded, "and because of its almost universal adoption in the best dances given in Detroit and other cities, it was deemed unwise to try to exclude it. … The objectionable dancing could have been checked only by the action of police…on the floor of the gym."
The faculty stuck to the ban in 1914, but J-Hop roared back in 1915, only to be cancelled for a second time after unescorted "flappers" crashed the 1920 affair, displayed "scantily clad forms" and engaged in "drinking, smoking and individual caddishness." Again J-Hop came back after a one-year ban, reaching its zenith in the 1930s with Swing stars such as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
In the 1950s it began to fade. In 1959, despite the booking of headliner Johnny Mathis, only 500 couples bought tickets. Finally, members of the Student Government Council voted to take J-Hop off the calendar for 1962. They were, said U-M historian Howard H. Peckham, himself a member of the class of 1931, "members of a generation that preferred to sit and listen to folk music."
Sources for this article were found in The Michigan Daily, the Detroit Free Press, and the Bentley Historical Library.
is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.