Maureen met Keith at a dance in Middlesbrough Town Hall, sometime in 1955. They were both in their early twenties; she was a nurse and he was in the merchant navy. The week before – she went dancing every week, if she didn’t have a shift – Maureen had been followed off the bus by a man who then stalked her all the way to her front door, lingering outside even as she slipped off her shoes in the hallway. It was with this in mind that she accepted Keith for the last dance of the evening, knowing he would be obliged to escort her home afterwards (a much shorter man was turned down; you didn’t want someone with ‘his nose in your bra’). It should have felt like a risk, embracing one stranger as a guard against another, except that it didn’t, surrounded as she was by other, similarly spontaneous couplings, all of them brought together under the slow swirl of the glitterball. Later, secure on her doorstep, Maureen arranged to meet Keith again.
Maureen and Keith became my grandparents. Most families in Britain have a story like this one: in 1950 it was estimated that 70 per cent of couples met in a dance hall. Yet family stories – especially love stories – are usually cherished as evidence of particularity, not connected to a narrative of the collective past. The social institutions that gave them their original context remain hazy in the background. The historical specificity of the dance hall is especially hard to recover. Dancing still plays such a significant part in our culture that its having been popular in previous decades surprises no one; at the same time, we have a clear mental image of the sort of dancing that took place before the 1960s, deriving mainly from newsreels and films: smiling, smartly dressed couples, tilting and turning, or jumping and jiving, on a polished wooden dance floor. We think we know the story.
The task of the historian is almost always one of translation: to make the languages and customs of previous eras comprehensible in the present. But the history of the recent past must do the reverse: make what seems familiar – the world of our grandparents and parents, or one’s own youth – unfamiliar, revealing its full complexity and difference. James Nott’s parents also met at a dance, but his book impressively resituates their story in that strange and vanished world which, for three generations of young Britons, revolved around the dance hall.
Never before the period 1918-60, Nott writes, had ‘so many people, from so many sections of society, danced as much as they did in these decades … Dancing moved from a craze to a habit, cementing itself as part of … daily life in Britain.’ Traditionally, dancing as a formal activity, with particular steps appropriate to different kinds of music, had been the preserve of the upper and upper-middle classes. This changed with the opening of the first purpose-built dance halls after the First World War, intended to cater to a lower-middle and working-class public whose wages were rising and who were eager to hear the new jazz music performed live. The new halls, constructed in every major town and city in the country during the 1920s, were known as ‘palais de danse’. This was partly a bid for glamour, but also an acknowledgment of a long-standing French influence on dance fashions – just at the moment the Charleston swept in from the US. Its wild popularity in Britain established the pattern for the rapid take-up in subsequent decades of the jive and the jitterbug. These fast and physical styles appealed to fit and energetic working people, stripping dance of its statelier associations. Dancing became an industry, with big chains competing to provide the most comfortable and up-to-date surroundings. The golden rule of running a dance hall, the manager of the Hammersmith Palais said in 1928, was ‘never to stand still’.
In the 1930s, dancing strengthened its position in the national life despite – or rather because of – the crash, offering excellent entertainment on the cheap (entrance could cost as little as 6d). There was dancing in many places besides the palais, including church halls, department stores (on the fifth floor of Lewis’s in Manchester, shoppers could put down their bags and dance during the day), political clubs and swimming baths – with flooring laid over the pool. Birmingham in the 1930s had 179 venues licensed for public dancing, Newcastle 251 and Glasgow 256, with a total capacity in the city for more than 32,000 people. In 1938 annual admissions to dances stood at around a hundred million.
Dancing was a recession-proof industry, and it also prospered in wartime. After 1940 the authorities recognised its importance for general morale, and made special provision for dancing in the armed forces. Many palais doubled as air-raid shelters, renting bunks to dancers after the music stopped and the lights went out. To dance through the Blitz was to cock a snook at Hitler; in November 1941, a London dance hall was in full swing when suddenly
a heavy thud shuddered through the sprung maple floor. Crashing of glass followed … On the music dais the pianist shot off his stool. The trombone player’s silver instrument flew from his hand across the room. ‘Carry on, boys, keep playing,’ said the band leader – and prevented what might have been panic … Brushing plaster and brick dust from their clothes, the dancers began the ‘Lambeth Walk’.
Full employment after the war, combined with a still limited number of public entertainments, made the 1950s a golden age for dancing in Britain, with five hundred permanent halls and a further two thousand licensed venues, sustaining more than fifty thousand professional dance musicians. In 1953, the Economist estimated that dance halls had four million visitors a week, and 200 million a year (compared with only 80-90 million for football matches), generating at least £25 million in revenue. Only the cinema was more popular. By the time Maureen and Keith had their last dance in 1955, going to the palais was a nearly forty-year-old tradition and had become an integral part of British social and cultural life.
Girls would begin dancing in their early teens, and boys only a little later, starting out at ‘training’ halls to practise their steps before moving into adult venues. ‘When you leave school you learn to work, to smoke, to bet and to dance,’ Tom Harrisson, a founder of Mass-Observation, noted in 1938. One 15-year-old boy in Glasgow, London’s main rival as Britain’s dance capital, found himself open to reproach:
‘Are you no away tae the dancing, yet?’ Uncle Jack looked at me as though considering reporting me to the police. Every time we had visitors during the summer of 1954 someone would ask me that question. You leave school, get a job and start going to the dancing. It was written down somewhere. Tribal. Another rite of passage … He drew on his Capstan Full Strength. ‘Aye, a night down the Locarno or the Barrowland. Ye cannae beat it. Time ye were away.’
Women rarely needed such encouragement. For the majority, denied any meaningful opportunity to play sports or even swim in childhood, dancing was an activity pursued with an enthusiasm and seriousness rarely shared by men (who, according to Maureen, ‘did the same steps to everything, only slower or faster’). Women were usually in the majority on the dancefloor, went dancing more frequently (often two or three times a week), and thought nothing of practising ‘bust-to-bust’. Knowing they would be appearing under lights, and might be viewed ‘close-up’ by a partner, they took pains over their appearance: some dipped their bras in sugar water to stiffen them; one woman remembered cycling to a dance standing all the way so as not to crease her hand-stitched skirt.
The most eloquent testimony comes from married women. Many working-class husbands banned their wives from dancing altogether, and the misery this inflicted can be inferred from the reports of those women still – occasionally – allowed out. ‘In such a happy atmosphere,’ one Hammersmith housewife recorded of a night at the palais, ‘one can forget that Monday is a washday’; another admitted that her weekly dance ‘was the one evening I long for and am most unhappy when unable to get there’.
A great part of the attraction of dancing, for both sexes, was the experience of the palais itself: with its soft lighting, plush décor, slick bands and well-dressed clientele, it represented the acme of glamour for a population not oversupplied with it. Inside, according to one teenager, ‘you could live your dreams in a make-believe world on a par with a Hollywood film.’ The dance floor was an aesthetic object; one woman involved in setting up a dance hall in Rochdale in the 1930s knew it was ‘the thing of the ballroom’: ‘It had to be maple. And there was a great, great lot of discussion and talk about that … And it was beautiful when it was finished … It was really inviting. You know, a long stretch of this maple flooring. It looked really good altogether.’
Nowhere in Nott’s book is there an evocation of what it felt like to step onto that gleaming floor, with its fizzing alchemy. I had to look in David Kynaston’s Family Britain to find Steven Berkoff, a frequenter of the Tottenham Royal in the 1950s, who said that in the palais ‘you were who you wished to be – warrior, lover, Jimmy Cagney, Tony Curtis, villain, spiv, leader, loner, heavy, Beau Brummell,’ all the while in ‘drapes and rollaway Johnnie Ray collar’. The hall ‘had a particular aroma of velvet and hairspray, Brylcreem and Silvikrin lacquer, cigs, floor polish’; ‘You wore your costume and walked … beneath the glittering ball and when you saw someone that you felt was about your stamp you asked her to dance … as the clock ticked away until the terrible hour of 11 p.m. when the band would stop.’
Inevitably, when writers lifted the roof and peered into the ballroom to watch people at play, it was the women onto whom they projected their most anxious fantasies. In the 1920s, women in the palais were versions of ‘the flapper’, liberated and libertine; during the Second World War, when not seen as masculine in their uniforms, they were attacked as ‘good time girls’, thrill-seeking and easily bought by American troops; in the 1950s, rising wages contributed to the emergence of the ‘palais pearl’, overdressed and predatory, with the nerve to buy her own drinks.
Men too might be suspect. Dancing could always be characterised as effete, a betrayal of the straight-backed, tight-lipped national character: a commentary in 1931 bemoaned the ‘soft-faced, mealy-mouthed, dolled-up pomaded puppet’ masquerading as an example of British manhood. Still, nothing could reverse the trend towards dressing up for the palais – lads understood that it paid ‘to look like a Brando or James Dean’. In 1957, Marjorie Proops, the agony aunt and all-round sage, detected that men were no longer content to be ‘a quiet, neat backdrop to our glamour’ and the following year a study concluded that ‘with this awakened interest in clothes and looks, it is not uncommon to hear an adolescent express a wish for a wardrobe.’
The dancing itself didn’t escape the scrutiny of the swivel-eyed. The predominance of American dances threatened cultural degradation, and was counteracted by an army of dance teachers who insisted on a more moderate ‘English style’. Less easily smoothed away was the fact that Britons were dancing to black music; jazz, according to the Observer in 1919, was a ‘number of niggers surrounded by noise’ – one popular dance was the ‘Black Bottom’. This was troubling to an ‘imperial race’ used to enacting its cultural superiority over non-whites abroad. It also presented a terrible irony when some halls enforced ‘colour bars’, insisting on whites-only dance floors. The willingness of local women to dance with black GIs stationed in Britain during wartime – finally, men who could really dance! – caused consternation, especially among white Americans upset by the implied disregard for racial hierarchy. After the war, in the context of mass immigration from the Commonwealth, dance halls again brought locals and new arrivals into close quarters, with tensions erupting in disputes over ‘appropriate’ dance partners. ‘Colour bars’ persisted in parts of the country, and it wasn’t until the passage of the Race Relations Act in 1965 that ethnic minorities were legally guaranteed right of entrance.
Of course, what really pulsed through the palais was sex, at least in the heated imaginations of those on the outside: for Bernard Shaw dance was ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’. Romance, certainly, was never very far away. The palais was a key site for mixing between the sexes and made possible a degree of physical contact impossible anywhere else; ‘What can you do in the pictures?’ one woman asked. Interaction was constrained by convention: women waited to be asked to dance, and men were encouraged to be polite, even chivalrous, in their attentions. A Mass Observer present at a Streatham dance in 1939 found ‘No evidence of sex here. Dancing definitely not sexy. Lights extinguished for waltz … Even then … saw no sex. Danced and looked in all dark corners whilst dancing but couldn’t see anything of sex nature – no petting, or even chaps with arms round girls.’ This overstated the case – dark corners were worth looking into – but overt sexuality was usually absent from the dance floor. Dance halls enforced a strict line: ‘kiss killers’ were employed to break up any couples getting carried away. But much of the restraint was exercised by the dancers themselves, who on the whole found public displays of affection distasteful. ‘You didn’t want to be kissing on the floor,’ one woman recalled, ‘because that would look, they would think you look easy. If you didn’t know the fella.’
The climax of the evening was the last dance, with its tacit promise that the man would escort his partner home. The ticking clock prompted last-minute hook-ups, some of which must have been quickly regretted, but the obligation wasn’t to be shirked lightly. In Dundee, to flee your female partner after the last dance was known as ‘duffing’: ‘If you got duffed, you immediately told all your pals and … That wiz his erse oot the windie. He just got ignored from then on in.’ For those with better luck (or manners), the walk home afforded an opportunity for the expression of feelings that had been pent up in the palais. Walking one and a half miles along the promenade after a dance in Blackpool in 1937, a diligent Mass Observer noted 59 necking couples and recorded one less than chivalrous aside: ‘You want a tight fuckin’ tonight.’ Few couples got further than the doorstep, however, with the woman usually first to draw the line:
Oh, you’d only do a bit of kerfuffling in the parlour, hoping my father wouldn’t come out, you know … But not going to bed with them or anything like that. Oh good grief no … And if a fella got funny with you, you know, it’d go round all the girls. You know, you’d say ‘be careful of that fella.’
Neither the palais nor the superstructure of habit and ritual it supported could withstand the transformations of the 1960s. Already in the golden age of the 1950s there were warning signs. Dancers were exhibiting a greater casualness about swapping partners over the course of a night and inhibitions were breaking down: in 1956 the Daily Mirror reported that the nation’s youth had ‘brought necking into the open … in the cinema … in the park … on the dance floor’. It wasn’t just popular morals that were changing; so too was popular music and the ways in which it was experienced. The increasing prominence of solo vocalists, packaged and promoted as ‘artists’ – Frank, Elvis, Cliff – meant that the authentic studio recording was increasingly preferred to the live band. The record industry in Britain was worth £6 million in 1953 but £27 million in 1958, the same year in which sales of single records peaked at 64.5 million. The number of jukeboxes in Britain quadrupled between 1955 and 1959. A musical culture no longer built around live performance in dance halls normalised ‘solo dancing’: men and women now danced independently, following their instincts (however misguided) as opposed to the precepts of dance teachers. There was no longer any need to ask for a dance, or to wait for one. Nor could there be an expectation that a dance would last even the duration of a song: men were left grasping at thin air as women shimmied off into the crowd. This in turn re-engineered the spatial dynamics of the dance floor: halls built to accommodate whirling, lifting, high-kicking couples began to feel cavernous and lacking in atmosphere.
The end, when it came, was swift. New establishments opened, branded as night clubs and discothèques, playing chart hits in more intimate, edgier surroundings. By the late 1960s, most of the great halls had closed, were boarded up or converted into bingo venues and supermarkets. Some reinvented themselves, and now suffer a half-life as superclubs: in my late teens I spent an evening at the former Nottingham Palais de Danse, now a sweaty, sticky-carpeted shithole, where at around 3 a.m. dancers enthusiastically removed their clothes to the theme tune of Baywatch.
‘The palais ,’ Nott writes, ‘was lost for ever and Britain’s social and cultural life was the poorer for it.’ There’s something of the aficionado’s special pleading about this conclusion. Some traditions deserved to disappear, not least the can-I-have-this-dance system, which punished shy men and left women largely subject to the whims of those bold enough to ask (it wasn’t always easy to just say no: in some halls women were barred if they turned men down). During the war ‘Ladies’ Choice’ nights were tried out in some venues, and at least one man became endearingly conscious of what we would now call his ‘privilege’: ‘It rather brought home to me how girls who are seldom asked to dance must feel. If I felt somewhat depressed after two or three dances, what is the effect of a whole evening of the same experience?’ Naturally, role-reversal didn’t catch on, and the male ego maintained its jealous, red-faced supremacy. ‘How stupid can these girls get?’ one refused man fumed in 1960. ‘They should feel honoured that a boy should ask them for a dance. It shows them that they have something that the boys admire.’ The fact that a version of this rant can still be overheard today is a reminder that some things have stayed the same. Dancing is still at the heart of British social, cultural and romantic life – albeit in different venues and in modified forms. Who doesn’t remember some dim and distant dance floor, where the music never stops? My parents met in a nightclub; I met my boyfriend in one. Dancing is still inextricably linked to growing up: its expressiveness, its hum of sexuality, the go-ahead given by darkness and noise, responds to the condition of youth.
In a survey of the dance industry in 1953, the Economist sought to explain why dancing was such an entrenched habit in Britain, finally attributing it to ‘a national disposition, which defies all comparison, to take pleasures seriously’. The names littering this book – the Grand Casino Birmingham, the Carlton Rochdale, the Locarno Streatham Hill, the Palais de Danse Newton Heath – are amusing at first glance, but they were intended to be taken seriously. Their wrenching together of glamour and geography articulates a distinct sense of civic pride. Dance halls belonged to the communities that used them: ‘In the palais you knew everybody.’ They also represented a new kind of space for the working classes, emerging not from charity or well-meaning authority, but instead from the pursuit of ordinary pleasure, dignified and elevated by the magnificence of their design and their centrality in the urban landscape. Despite their private ownership, they were ‘people’s palaces’.
In the new climate created by the postwar Labour government, this logic was pushed to its natural conclusion. Plans for the New Towns of the future had dance halls at their heart: the minister for planning, Lewis Silkin, promised that ‘provision is being made for all forms of social activity, and dancing, being the foremost of them, will be well provided for.’ Local councils, from Glasgow to Blackburn, Birmingham to Bristol, Cheshire to Camberwell, began to lay dance floors in youth centres, to build dance halls of their own and run dances at a substantial profit: in one town so much money was raised that residents received a 3d rebate on the rates. Here we see a vision of a public, communal, consumerist politics altogether different from the one – private, individualist – that eventually triumphed in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Tories won elections promising people cars, fridges, washing machines and televisions. Pleasure in Britain today has become increasingly privatised, something to be acquired or aspired to. The sell-off of playing fields and the closing of youth facilities, arts centres, libraries and swimming pools since 2010 has made clear that our public inheritances are to be regarded as perks, not necessities. The downscaling of dance halls was an early sign of that diminution of social potential, symbolised by the dropping of civic nomenclature in favour of proprietorial possessives – Annabel’s, Tiffany’s, Raquel’s. These days clubs have names like Home, Life, Fabric and Gatecrasher. They don’t pretend to belong to anyone.