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Putting the “Toddle” Back in “That Toddling Town”

 

Postcard designed and sold by appshop.

The “toddle” was a jazz dance step that became popular across the nation just in time for the Roaring Twenties. And Chicago became known as “that toddling town” thanks to the lyrics of Fred Fisher’s 1922 song “Chicago (That Toddling Town).” While many still know Frank Sinatra’s famous cover version of that song, the dance step has largely been forgotten.

In a 1921 South Bend News-Times article, dance teacher Arthur Murray describes the toddle as having the “delightful abandon so characteristic of everything American.” According to Murray, the toddle was similar to the shimmy but without the shoulder shakes. It also bore a resemblance to the fox trot but with an extra bounce added to the steps.

Songwriter Fred Fisher was not the first to associate the toddle with Chicago. A variation of the toddle, which focused on movements of the hips rather than the feet, was called “the Chicago toddle” or simply “the Chicago.” In 1921, a print advertisement from Chicago-based Melrose Bros. music publishers touted their song “Take It Easy” as “the toddle tune from toddle town.”

Dancers taking a break in between songs at the Morrison Hotel. Postcard publisher is unknown.

The toddle was popular among college students and flappers alike. And like many other popular trends of the era, the toddle was not immune to controversy. The Chicago Public Schools and some local colleges banned the dance at school functions. Evangelical Christian preacher Billy Sunday spoke out against the toddle and other contemporary dances of the time, calling them vulgar and indecent. But the popularity of the dance persisted, as memorialized in another line from Fred Fisher’s song that refers to Chicago as “the town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down.”

In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist March Schmich asked everyone from personal acquaintances to people on the street to an English professor and a music librarian what the word “toddling” meant in the famous song about Chicago. Nobody she asked knew the definitive answer, as she later described in an article on the subject. Luckily, readers who were old enough to remember the toddle dance step wrote in to the paper to set the record straight, making sure that Chicagoans didn’t forget their toddling roots. 

 By Emily Ruzich

 

Sources:

Monica Eng, “The Cha-Cha Slide and More: Which Dances Were Invented in Chicago?” Curious City podcast (August 31, 2019),

 Peter Jensen Brown, “Gimme a Shimmy, Hold the Shiver: Why Chicago Was a ‘Toddling Town.’” Early Sports and Pop Culture History blog (April 25, 2016), https://esnpc.blogspot.com.

Sonny Watson’s SweetSwing.com

Kimber Rudo, “Arthur Murray describes ‘How to Dance the Toddle’ to The South-Bend News Times.” Fascinating Rhythms: A Collation of Primary Sources blog. https://daletremont.com.

Mary Schmich. “A Toddlin’ Town Without a Clue, But Right Nonetheless.” Chicago Tribune (June 18, 1997).

Mary Schmich. “Town Eventually Toddles to Right Conclusion.” Chicago Tribune (June 25, 1997). 

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