I stopped watching Strictly Come Dancing when the whole thing deteriorated into a circus by the show-off panel of judges. However it did strike me recently that they are restricted by the format to very few actual dances. Off the top of my head I can recall a dozen or more that were common in the dance-halls of my youth.
The dance-halls of my youth began in a local church hall on a Sunday evening where I was taught by girls older than myself, and girls of my age by older boys. The dance most used to begin with was the Bradford Barn Dance: this is a progressive dance where a ring of couples with boys inside and girls outside complete a sequence of steps which end up with a change of partner. It usually started the evening to break the ice and remove the excuse for ‘sitting-out’.
Another mixer dance is the Paul Jones where the type of dance changes when the music stops. You change partners with no right of refusal and may not dance with the same partner twice. The name of the dance is decided by a caller.
Most dances are for two people, but there were a few group dances I recall: the oddest was The Palais Glide where six (or more?) dancers in a line, boy-girl alternately – arms around waists – carried out a sequence of steps which ended with three or four noisy stamping steps forward; another was Strip-the-Willow, basically a Scottish country dance for four couples involving a lot of swinging round and linking arms and finally the Dashing White Sergeant another Scottish country dance, but oddly for two groups of three.
Before I move on to the dances themselves all of which can be found on You Tube, I ought to mention some etiquette of the dance hall. Entry was open to couples and to single people of both sexes, although I visited one many years ago which, some nights, had a minimum age limit (21?) for men (but not for girls). Males usually approached females and asked them: “May I have this dance?” Usually the request was granted, and after the dance the polite male escorted the female back to her seat. It was asking for trouble if a lady with her boyfriend was approached. Perhaps because the less physically attractive females might never be asked to dance, two females could dance with each other. Men would never do this!
There was one exception to the rule which was the ‘excuse-me’ dance which came in three forms gentlemen’s excuse-me, ladies’ excuse-me and general excuse-me; in each case a couple already dancing could be approached and the excused partner was expected to leave the floor or ‘excuse’ someone else.
You might have noticed that I said ‘some nights’ earlier, because in cities, one or more dance-halls were open every night, but Sunday. Smaller towns might only have one which probably was only open on a Saturday. Although village-halls might only have a gramophone or record-player, many dance-halls would have a live a three -piece band or even a full dance band or even two. Most people of my generation could dance to a greater or lesser extent.
The dances themselves divided into old-time and modern, or ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’, and there were plenty of them. The ‘easy’ dances tended to be old-time and had pre-determined steps which were repeated time and again these included: the Gay Gordons, Square Tango, St. Bernard’s Waltz, Boston two-step and Veleta. The more difficult dances were ‘free style’ where although the steps were learned you were free to move around the dance floor at will (always anti-clockwise for some unknown reason). These included: The Waltz, Foxtrot, Slow-foxtrot, Rumba, Tango, Quickstep, Samba, Viennese Waltz, Jive and Cha-Cha-Cha. If you could do most of these competently you could regard yourself as a decent dancer and people who did not have the early church-hall tuition I had, would pay for lessons rather than trample on some girls toes.
Things changed as music changed from what was known as strict-tempo into pop. You could waltz to Elvis Presley, but not to The Rolling Stones. The Dance made way for The Disco which produced dances which did not involve contact with your partner and which eventually did not involve having a partner at all. The Jive involved a lot of skill to do well, but the Twist involved none at all; the Shake involved even less as it consisted of standing still and, well, shaking with an intense look of concentration on your face. Back then there was always a chance to dance close to a partner for the Last Waltz which by this time was probably no more than a shuffle round the floor and the chance to make a new friend.
By this time the band had gone to be replaced by multiple record decks and lurid flashing lights controlled by an expert with a microphone and mixing skills.
As far as I know the disco name has gone, but the idea lives on through a sequence of (illegal) raves and other incarnations to what exists today.