24. May I have this dance?

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.


19. The weekend

Many, or perhaps even most, people live for the weekend. It’s certainly  better if you enjoy your work or indeed your school or college, but otherwise Monday to Friday were just the days leading up to the weekend. If you were working, those five days provided the money to finance living, but until you got married, particularly the weekend.

Pay-day was traditionally Friday and pay was in hard cash just waiting to be spent. Fridays were special, but not as special as Saturdays. Until you were 18 or looked 18 then pubs and clubs were off limits. The places to be and be seen in were: the cinema, the theatre or the dance-hall.

Queues formed outside cinemas long before they opened, which could be as late as 7 pm. If you wanted to be in a particular place with your friends, particularly in ‘the back row’ then you had to be at the front of the queue. Once inside and settled, there would be adverts, a short film and the main feature. Some cinemas started earlier and showed the complete sequence twice. You could come in at any time and leave ‘where you came in’ or sit through the whole thing twice. However such was the popularity of some films that you might have to wait in the foyer until seats became free; at which point you were shown to your place by an usherette with a torch. Smoking of course was permitted and every other seat had an ashtray on the back for the smokers in the row behind. The place was always so smoky that the beam of the projector danced above your head in the cloud. At the end of the performance the National Anthem was played with a picture of the Union Jack fluttering on the screen. Those who were quick enough had nipped out during the final credits leaving the more respectful to stand up until it ended.

There were several theatres available: some serious and expensive with big stars from the London stage, others housed a repertory company with a different play every week, but most popular were the ‘variety’ theatres where jugglers, acrobats, singers, dancers, comedians and others plied their trade to a sometimes hostile audience. Usually the show ended with a well-known ‘name’ latterly from TV or a pop group with a following of screaming teenage girls.

As we matured, then the dance-hall became the place to find a girl and to ‘strut your stuff’. Of course, to begin with, you couldn’t dance, but bit by bit you learned until it was easy, but not for some. The bands were live, sometimes even two bands on a rotating stage in the bigger venues and even sometimes both playing at once in a kind of competition, as the stage rotated for one to replace the other. Mostly the bands were small with perhaps as few as 6 members. The dances were waltz, quickstep, samba, rumba and foxtrot. The great advantage of course was that you got to hold a girl as close as she would allow and to talk as you danced, always anti-clockwise around the floor, trying to avoid colliding with others doing the same thing.

In the 60s things began to change and the influence of US music and films brought in the era of ‘pop’ music. Couples started dancing apart; sometimes holding one hand, but gradually not touching and not even as couples, but in a group. Once completely separated then the skill and coordination was unnecessary, although some still gyrated better than others. The bands began to disappear to be replaced by record decks and flashing lights and a disc-jockey to join it all together, the ‘discotheque’ (disco) and the modern club scene were born.

The dress for the weekend was important. Suits or at the least a smart jacket and trousers, pressed shirt and tie of the current style; kipper and slim-jim were two styles that came and went. In the summer it was acceptable to omit the tie and to open the shirt over the collar of the jacket. If it looked like rain it was OK to carry a raincoat neatly folded over one arm or if you were really flash over the shoulders in the manner of a cape, but it tended to fall off and spoil the effect.

Girls of course went to great lengths to look right for the weekend, particularly if they expected to dance, when the dress took on flared skirts with layers of material to impress. The make-up was sometimes impressive and the hair piled high in a beehive. I t was always accepted, both in ballroom and later that girls could dance with other girls, but not until the punk era that boys could do the same.Girls seldom wore trousers, especially not at the weekend, and would not have been seen dead in tights without a skirt.

Pubs were never really places for the young. Back then every pub had a bar with tables and chairs, usually men-only and a lounge with posher settees and upholstered chairs, where a man could take his lady without getting her dress dirty from the working gear often worn in the bar.

For the young and not so young the club and late night drinking has replaced the dance-hall and the cinema has become big business. It will be interesting to see how home cinema, and films through TV/internet affect this part of future weekends

I haven’t mentioned Sundays. because despite the changes in shopping hours they are still mainly a day of rest and perhaps recuperation from the days before.