Dance halls were the Tinder of their day | Ian Jack
At least those who are rejected on Tinder dont know about it. We had to traverse a dance floor and risk being snubbed
According to the Online Dating Association, a quarter of what it calls new relationships in the UK are formed by the use of dating sites. The exact nature of these relationships, how long they last, the methodology used to arrive at the above figures of one in four: these things are unknown. The world of dating sites and apps is an apple-and-pears orchard of contestable statistics. In 2013, a study by the Pew Research Centre found that one in five Americans between the ages of 25 and 45 had tried online dating at least once, but at the same time acknowledged that only 5% of Americans who were married or in a long-term relationship had observed their partners online. The Guardians own Soulmates site says it has 230,000 active users, which was a figure that impressed me until I read that the Tinder app, launched in 2012, was by 2014 registering around a billion swipes worldwide a day.
Tinder owes a lot of its remarkable success to a simple movement of the hand. The apps algorithm provides the user with a stream of likely matches, which he or she then rejects by swiping the screen to the left, or accepts by swiping right. The leftwards movement takes only a second and is literally dismissive; the face fades and another takes its place the user has in his hand the power of rulers, slave-masters and triage surgeons choosing who can and cant be saved. But at the least the rejected never know of their rejection. When dance hall rather than laptop screens or smartphones were the places you went to meet the unknown and desirable, you knew it too well. You walked across the floor of the hall to the side where the girls stood and said to one of them something like, Would you like to dance? She might say no. In the years to come you would encounter worse things in their own lives, but that small shame always stood out in the memory: your blush, your retreat back to the male side by an indirect route so your friends wouldnt notification, the band starting out on Moon River. Whenever you heard or read the word snub, this was what you remembered.
Dance dormitories were the Tinder of their day. In 1953, the Economist described them as Britains second-biggest entertainment industry after cinema, with an estimated attendance of about four million a week and 200 million over the year. Footballs 80 or 90 million spectators didnt come close. The figures for the consequence of all this dancing are, like those for online dating, less dependable: the Daily Mail suggested in 1950 that 70% of couples in Britain had first met on a dance floor, and in Glasgow as high a proportion of marriages were often said to have originated in the same way. But Glasgow was dance-mad. In James Notts recently published history of dance hall, Going to the Palais, several authorities speak of the ability of the Glasgow dancer, though somehow nobody has recollected the famous line from a 1949 pantomime sketch, Polly at the Palais: He says Im a champ dancer, but I think hes a damp chancer.( Spoken by Duncan Macrae in drag, it was still being quoted 20 years later .)
Nott quotes a Glasgow tally for 1952 of 14 permanent dance hall, some of them among Britains largest, as well as dozens of other venues licensed for dancing: dormitories owned by churches, the city firm, the Co-op and Orange lodges. By the time I got inside a Glasgow dance hall, that figure hadnt shrunk much “the worlds biggest” shrinkage is in the accomplished dancing that now survives, in an overbred, Crufts Show way, in television depicts such as Strictly as the last relic of this great social phenomenon. Occasionally a couple might carve a passageway through the crowd on the floor like a well-driven dodgem he in patent leather shoes, steering but, to quote one of Notts witnesses from that time, The masses are content to shuffle. All they want is to get around[ the floor] tolerably comfortably. What mattered about dancing to the young was that in a more segregated age within and outside the workplace it allowed us to meet and touch members of the opposite sex.
My shuffling days began in Fife. The Kinema Ballroom in Dunfermline, the Raith in Kirkcaldy, the Aberdour Palais. The Palais wasnt much more than a big shed with a lemonade stall inside, but unlike the Snake Pit( nobody knew it by any other name) near the dockyard in Rosyth, it was felt to be respectable and free of sailors.
Only after I moved to Glasgow was the full splendour of the ballroom exposed. The Locarno, and perhaps the Majestic too, had a revolving stage that allowed( say) a band mainly of saxophones to be replaced by a band mainly of guitars, each inducing music as they swung in or out of view. The Plaza the Plazas the place said the adverts had a fountain in the middle of the floor. No-alcohol polices were strictly enforced. Doormen at the Majestic would come down the queue and turn away anyone they thought might upset the interior decorum, including a friend I was with one night who at most had had two pints of beer. He was a kind and considerate man who introduced me to the music of Brahms, and to my continuing disgrace, I ran inside without him.
This has been history for a very long time. Few dance hall survived by the end of the 1960 s. Some lived on a little longer by restyling themselves as discotheques or nightclubs( Tiffanys, Joannas ); others became bingo venues; many were demolished. What I hadnt realised until I read Notts account was how swift the transition had been from boom to bust. Throughout the 1950 s an entertainment that had jumped to life between the wars went on expanding. It applied 50,000 dance musicians and made good gains for dance-hall chains such as Mecca( a carefree name, in hindsight, for a company devoted to dancing, gambling and beauty tournaments ). The boom at the Palais is fantastic, Mecca reported in 1960. Our business increases by 10%. Its shares trebled in value between 1958 and 1962 as it opened new dormitories throughout Britain. Unlike the cinema, which thanks to television had considered a steep fall in numbers, dancing had no obvious rival.
Notts explanation for its downfall is that a new era of prosperity and job security had turned the working class away from such communal pleasures and towards homebuying, homemaking, family life and individualism. That may well be part of it, but I guess a bigger reason was the slow but steady erosion of male/ female separation. Tom Harrisson, one the founders of the Mass Observation, is quoted memorably in the book where reference is writes of young men coming to prewar dance halls perhaps wanting love, but very vaguely. A different male generation began to realise that “youve met” females as “youve met” humen arbitrarily, by odd roads, at work, in pubs( where they were much more present ), as the friends of friends, in circumstances where you were relieved of the ulterior motive and the silly hope that something might come of it when the last number objective and you asked the second most important question of the night: can I see you home?
Going to the Palais : A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918 -1 960, by James Nott is published by Oxford University Press .
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