Sunday, 1 November 2009

What could you do for 2/6 in 1924?

Where to dance, originally uploaded by Trevira.

You could go dancing in one of the palatial new dance halls that were appearing all over the country, the first of which was the (recently demolished) Hammersmith Palais de Danse, built in 1919.

The murky newsprint photographs don't give much idea of their scale and splendour, but you can make out the huge, 'oriental' style lanterns that became a signature feature of many of these Palais.

H.V. Morton made a visit to 'A Suburban Dance' recounted in his book Nights of London, published in 1926. His account helps fill those murky little photos with the people and life that is absent from them:

You give eighteenpence to a young woman who is imprisoned behind a brass grille, and you enter the dance hall.

The floor is covered with young men and girls fox-trotting to the music of an excellent band. The hall is large. Big yellow lanterns hang from the roof. Your first impression is that the girls are extraordinarily pretty and the men surprisingly ordinary. The girls have dressed for the dance; the men do not possess evening clothes. Here and there a star dancer has changed into a special kind of trousers, grey or black Oxford trousers as a rule, which billow over very pointed brown shoes. With these trousers he wears the coat and waistcoat of his lounge suit. Young men who do not dance linger in vague, drifting groups on the outskirts of the floor, smoking cigarettes and making comment. Pretty little wallflowers sit out by the dozen. Now and again two girls rise and dance together.

The music ends, the lights go up. Then a surprising thing occurs. In an instant men and girls have parted! The girls go over to one end of the room to sit on chairs ranged against the wall; the men group themselves in bands and coteries around the floor and light up the cigarettes which they had left parked on the radiator!

You look at the girls with interest. Most of them work in the big shops in the district. Each one wears a knee-short, tasteful evening frock and light stockings. You look along the rows of chairs and realise that here are seen the prettiest, neatest legs in London. In the Ritz, the Savoy, Claridge's, the pretty woman is easily picked out from the crowd; in this eighteenpenny suburban dance 'hop' a new beauty dawns on the sight of each minute; the girls are all between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. Perhaps that is the secret; they have abundant vitality and youth. They also have abundant lip-stick and powder, and one or two have Eton-cropped their heads.

It strikes you again and again that they are too vital and brilliant for the dull youths who lean against the wall and smoke cigarettes and whisper.

And if you'd like to see a glimpse of possibly 'the prettiest, neatest legs in London' the British Pathé film archive has a short clip of the Wimbledon Palais (the dance hall at the top of the advert) filmed in 1926:


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