Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Are you dancing? Are you asking?

Christmas is the prime party season, and parties often involve dancing. Which gives me another opportunity to plunder the vaults of British Pathé for some vintage treasures on that very theme.

Ballroom dancing is fraught with dangers - where do I put my hands? What frock should I wear? Which foot goes first? - so here's a helpful, unnamed dance instructor to put you right in a very prim short filmed at the Empress Room, Kensington, London in 1938.

Watch out for the swing step that's "hot from Harlem" but, the narrator warns, is "rather too hot for English ballrooms":


The "English style" mentioned was developed by English dance teachers' organisations to regulate and tame the wild new dances coming from the United States, and was explicitly intended to eliminate any aberrant moves such as kicks or swinging hips, or indeed anything that smacked of self-expression, sexuality or spontaneity.

In the crowded conditions of most English dancehalls at this time, it could be argued that some control was needed to preserve the smooth rotation of dancing couples around the floor without things ending up in fisticuffs over collisions and painfully stomped feet. But the efforts of the dance instructors drained nearly all the personality and unique appeal (not to mention the fun) of these dances to the extent that it was difficult to discern one dance from the other.

We need an antidote to all that prim English reserve. And Earl and Josephine Leach, in this 1937 film demonstrating an hilarious version of the Big Apple, are here to supply it. They gleefully break all the rules:


This was precisely the time - the late 1930s - when dance hall managers realised that the sterling efforts of those dance instructors had succeeded in making many patrons scared of taking to the floor in case they committed a dreadful faux pas and showed themselves up. Dancing was in danger of becoming a difficult exercise only to be attempted by trained experts.

As a result, dance hall proprietors (including the dominant Mecca Ballroom chain) actively encouraged the development of easy dances that anyone could do after watching a short demonstration.

Watch this short film, shot at the Streatham Locarno (south London) in 1938, and you too will be able to do the Lambeth Walk with confidence:


Of course, what was around the corner was the all-conquering Jitterbug, which ruled British dance floors during the Second World War, and wasn't actually that easy to do well. But we had a useful influx of US servicemen to teach us how to do it properly.

This fun film - from Youtube rather than British Pathé this time - shows MGM's comic take on the dance craze in 1944:

Make sure you clear away all furniture and breakables before you attempt this at home.

Additional notes

This post neglects the original pioneers of most of these dances, the African-American community, which is sorely under-represented in the British Pathé archive. OK, that's probably understandable since it was a UK based operation. This post shows how their dances were interpreted on this uptight little island. But I can't let this pass without some acknowledgement, so here goes.

My all-time favourite dance sequence of all time is this clip from the 1941 film Hellzapoppin' featuring Slim and Slam and the Harlem Congaroos (I'm sure its many other people's favourite too, but it doesn't hurt to repeat it) which is approximately five minutes of pure joy. If you've never seen it before, prepare to be amazed:

No comments: