The Dancing Class

Dances For Any Party: Harry Leader & His Orchestra, Columbia EP 1956

The  mixed dancing class as an institution ran solidly for much of the 20th century before fading in the late sixties. Ballroom dancing wasn’t seen as a pastime, but as a necessary social skill. A skill that could be exercised at the firm’s annual dinner and dance or at a freemasonry ladies night. Or failing that at weddings. You’d need to know a worrying number of steps.

Gallery of dance EPs … click to enlarge

So boys had their hair Brylcreemed and girls put on frocks with layers of petticoats and set off to the dancing class. This was done with some degree of anticipation. At fourteen this was a rare opportunity to socialize with the opposite sex.

Cyril and Dawn Rumbold were the proprietors of the local dancing class upstairs over the Conservative Club. The wall was decorated with their certificates and awards from their glory days ten years earlier as Grand Champions Latin and Quickstep (Southern Area), together with framed photographs of their days starring in the ballrooms of the Union-Castle and Cunard shipping lines. Cyril lived in his tuxedo, with dandruff sparkling on the collar. Many people see the word gigolo as an insult. For Cyril the word was pregnant with aspiration. Not that he’d ever found a client during The Palais Glide or The Veleta at the Darby & Joan Over Sixties Ballroom Class and Tea Dance on Tuesday afternoons.

Dawn had a mask of make up and clownish lipstick, reapplied hourly. But Dawn always took the trouble. Her peach ballgown was a little stained below the arms, her hair now brittle blonde after years of bleach and hairspray. But you could never accuse Dawn of not taking the trouble. For the fourteen year old boys, being forced to dance with Dawn was terrifying. Most of their practice was conducted with Cheryl, a sullen girl in her twenties with deep bags under her dull brown eyes and shabby silver silk stilettos. Cheryl had never been seen to smile. She had worked for Cyril and Dawn since she left school. They ordered her around like a skivvy, and rumour had it that Cyril regularly rogered her royally in the toilets. When you’re fourteen you believe rumours like that about most adults.

Cyril had a pile of strict tempo records on specialist dance labels, there was a long Strict Tempo series from German Polydor. In 1962 we associated Germans with ‘strict.’ There were piles of Edmundo Ross, Joe Loss and Victor Silvester ballroom dancing records. Wide trousers in the era of tight trousers and winklepicker shoes were known as Victor Silvesters … plenty of ball room. In 1961, Joe Loss (aka Dead Loss) covered The String-A-Longs current  instrumental hit, Wheels, and turned it into a Cha-Cha. Wheels Cha-Cha gained notoriety in 1964 when a bodybuilder called Tony Holland used it as a soundtrack for muscle-rippling on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks TV talent show. Tony Holland won. For weeks people watched in fascinated horror as his veins bulged and wobbled. The tune has never recovered.

Party Dances gallery … click to enlarge

‘Party dances’ were said with derision, and were only allowed briefly at Cyril and Dawn’s last evening lesson before Christmas, when dilute cider cup was served, with bits of brownish apple floating in it. ‘Party dances’ involved the conga, the veleta, the hokey-cokey and for the more accomplished, the Gay Gordons, a Scottish dance.

Cyril and Dawn had survived the Jive. The Jive had routines. The Jive had steps and moves. They preferred Billy Haley and His Comets to the more raucous end of rock and roll; they’d even run a Jive class (Thursday evenings 8 pm to 10 pm) which had proved reasonably popular. Mind you Cyril put his Back (he always used capital letters to speak of it) down to the jive, and to Dawn’s scissor jumps onto his waist level. Terribly vulgar, really. But this twist thing was different. This was a serious threat to their livelihoods.

Must Be Madison. Must Be Twist: Joe Loss Orchestra, HMV EP, 1962

Like Cyril, the bandleaders had been badly shocked by the advent of the twist in 1961 to 1962. When the Twist exploded, the era of non-contact dancing that no one had to learn had arrived.  The old bandleaders tried to buck the trend by promoting The Madison heavily. Then they added the New Madison. It was non-contact but had a complicated step sequence that had to be learned, and better, could be taught.

Joe Loss’s Must Be Madison got to number 20 in the charts, bought by every dancing school in the country. It shows how many there were.  In vain, Cyril and Dawn harangued their teenaged audiences, desperate to persuade them that the Madison really WAS cool, not merely a last-ditch invention of the old men of showbiz.

It was a last ditch invention of the old men of showbiz, though.

It’s Madison Time! Joe Loss & His Orchestra, HMV EP, November 1962
New Musical Express, 1962
Dance The New Madison: Victor Silvester, Columbia EP 1963

Dance The New Madison: Victor Silvester, extract from sleeve notes:

This can be danced by couples without contact or hold. The girl uses the same foot as the man not the opposite as in quickstep etc. It can also be danced side by side, or in lines, or in groups, or even just solo as individuals. Mass calling is not recommended. Group leaders will probably develop their own calling if they wish to, but it should not be made a “must.”
The “New Madison” can be danced in a jive rhythm played at 34 to 36 beats per minute. New records are in the making and will be announced as soon as they are ready. Finger snapping and clapping are a feature of the dance.

Specialist labels gallery … click to enlarge

The major labels drew back on Joe Loss, Victor Silvester and friends as the 60s progressed.

The records kept coming on specialist labels, and were virtually always EPs, not 45s or LPs. … IDTA (International Dance Teachers Association), Silver Dollar (from Saga), Dancetime, Sydney Thompson and more. Dance records are specialist. Strict tempo is the issue. Mostly bands and orchestras adjust speed during numbers, slower sections, faster sections. That doesn’t help with intricate footsteps, hence that need for strict tempo records governed by a metronome throughout.

The labels had their own outlets. The Harry Engleman Trio EP has a sticker. It was supplied by Northern Dance services of Shipley ‘Specialists in records for dancing and audio equipment.’ I took my daughter to get ballet shoes once, and the shop sold dance shoes, ballet shoes … and several racks of ballroom dance EPs. It’s like Christian rock. Specialist bookshops have racks of records, more than you’d ever imagine. You don’t ever see the releases in mainstream record stores.

Some labels are very local and some dance band leaders had their own labels:

Foxtrots: Geoff Heald’s Music, Je Mar Sequence Records of 76, Springbank Avenue, Pudsey.
The address doesn’t sound like a record pressing plant.

The selections from Geoff Heald’s music are chart hits, done as foxtrots.

Ballroom dancing continued to have large numbers of followers and attendees at classes and socials and competitions. As all those who had kids know, ballet classes, piano or violin lessons, and martial arts classes are fed on exams and grades. It continues to adults. The IDTA is the largest examining body. From their website:

Dancing is the best form of exercise for anyone, social and friendly. Both my granddaughter and my great granddaughter are dancers. One is nearly 17, one is almost 4 yrs and both love it! All my family were dancers. Unfortunately I am 88 and can not do it anymore but I still go to all the comps.

I agree. My wife studied modern dance, but never did any ballroom dancing. We’ve always gone to modern dance theatre (which includes tango and flamenco as theatre) but by our generation, ballroom dancing was a hobby for many, but no longer a social essential for everyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a function where I was required to quickstep or foxtrot.

Come Dancing ran from 1949 to 1998 on TV and was always a popular programme with contestants from regions competing. Like ice-skating on TV, it was an attractive looking physical event for both women and men, with aspects of sport, but with added glamour. And frocks. And shoes. However, after the early 60s, ballroom dance records ceased to be major sellers.

What none of us had predicted was the massive popularity of ‘Strictly’ … Strictly Come Dancing from 2004 on. A 21st century TV spectacular in which celebrities, sports personalities, politicians, famous chefs, newsreaders and actors would line up to be taught then paired with professional dancers.

People buy Strictly Come Dancing … but on DVD, not CD or vinyl. After all, the appeal is visual, and the music is secondary.

When I first wrote this article, many years ago, I said:

Move forward a few years: the piles of strict tempo dance records, almost all EPs would be worth nothing. After all, those years of putting the stylus back to the start time after time had made them very scratchy.

That’s what I thought. It still seems to be true about scratchy grooves at the start, but they just could be a canny investment.