Saturday, March 5, 2011

The seamy world of the Auckland dance hall, 1925

From the Auckland Star, 3 June 1925.

So much criticism has been levelled lately at modern dancing and dancers that, were one to try and judge the true position from the variety of opinions of all the writers, one would be left in a hopeless maze, with but a very hazy idea of just what does go on in the different dance halls of the city. But, while the various expressions given by the writers have included references ranging from chewing-gum to "sagging at the knees", one note sounded loud through them all. It was a note that left one confident that something, whatever it was in these dance halls, was wrong.

In order to gain the truth about them, a "Star" representative made a round of the dance halls of Auckland. What is set down in the lines that follow is not founded on mere hear-say, nor is it a mutilation of the truth as a means of being sarcastic or facetious at the expense of those concerned. It is a direct chronicle of what the reporter actually saw from the inside of the halls he visited.

Most of the public dances he went to were in side streets, and the price of admission was never more than 1/6 for men, and 1/- for women; or, as it was set out on the placards hanging up outside, "Gents 1/6, Ladies 1/-". The girls who attended them were obviously from the industrial class, and the men were, too. The girls had their faces painted and powdered so extensively that it made them look ghastly in the electric lights. The majority of the men wore those peculiar suits, the coats of which are split for an extraordinary distance up the backs, and they blended these with shrieking collars, ties and shirts, always being careful to see that huge expanses of the last named garments were showing. The general effect was incongruous.

In each of the particular class of halls frequented by these people, the procedure was religiously the same. The girls, some of them of little more than school age, sat around the walls and, as soon as the music of the band struck up, the youths would approach them. Their mode of approach was, in itself, casual in the extreme. Both sexes seemed to treat each other with the utmost indifference and disrespect. A young man, carefully nipping the end off a half-finished cigarette, and even more carefully preserving the butt, would saunter up to any girl on whom his choice fell, and say: "got this kid" -- "What about this?" or something equally polite. If she was favourably inclined the girl might rise without so much as a word and place herself in the arms of the waiting partner. If she wasn't, she would reply, in equally polished terms, "Got it!" or "Not with you, thanks!" or just wag her head and look bored. Whereupon the young man would go back to the doorway whence he came, and say something to his friends about "that sheilah", after which he would try another.

Congregating about doorways was another notable characteristic of the dance halls. Any youths who arrived before starting time would press about the entrance, smoking and swearing or laughing. Their language was of a particularly "slangy" type, and frequently profane. After each dance, the girls were hurried back to their seats and the "gallants" would troop back to the doorway, where butts were resurrected, slang resumed, and eyes cast around the room, in an effort to choose the "sheilah" for the next "jarz." [sic]

There were times when they did not even take the girls back to their places, but left them stranded in the middle of the floors. But the girls didn't mind it. That's what they were used to, and it never occurred to them that they were not being treated like "perfect ladies."

As for the dancing, it is most difficult to describe it. Let it be said first that, despite the critics that hold the contrary view, the ordinary jazz step, even with a few trimmings, is not consistent with immorality or anything else repugnant. It is a pretty step to see, a delightful step to dance. But what one saw in those dance halls was not recognisable as "jazz" or anything approaching it. The only thing jazz about it was the band music. If the contortions -- the perfectly ridiculous, the suggestive, swaying movements that were executed by the habitu├ęs of the dance halls had ever had a faint semblance of the original jazz, it was so badly mutilated and hacked about as to be unrecognisable. In its place were steps and movements that could never have been the products of the minds of original and healthy men. There was close, vice-like hugging, stamping of feet, hops, skips and jumps, runs from one end of the hall to the other, youths and girls bending backward and forward, kicking their legs in the air -- half running, half jumping -- strange neurotic movements. It was unpleasant to witness. One can understand exaggeration in many things, but that was not exaggeration. What was not foolishness was indecent, and what was not indecent was suggestive -- if there is any line between the two. To add to the grotesqueness of the whole business, chewing gum was essentially a part of the evening's proceedings. All night long jaws worked, and it was nothing to see a couple dancing together, gripping one another closely, cheek to cheek, and mouths moving in strict unison.

It is easy to understand the influence that this lax atmosphere of cheap powder and smelly chewing gum, at the indifference of the sexes, and the suggestive and ridiculous dances has on those to whom this article refers.

As though to bear out the above statements, it is interesting to note that at their last meeting, a certain borough council committee reported as follows on the conduct of the dances held in the borough hall: "Your committee is not satisfied with the manner in which dances are being conducted in the hall, as the supervision appears to be lax, with the result that an undesirable element gains admission."

The question of drink at dances has been much in the limelight of late, and there is no doubt whatever that there is cause for complaint. The reporter saw not only drunken youths but half tipsy girls in the dance halls, but they were in the minority. And one thing seemed certain. The liquor was not obtained on the premises. It was brought in "on the hop" or in overcoat pockets, the men, no doubt, supplying the women. Yet, strangely enough, there was no sign of actual drinking in the main halls. In the case of the men, the drink was taken in the dressing rooms. It is difficult to say where the girls got it, but some of these people who did attend the dances were in a well advanced condition before they entered the halls. Admission should have been refused them.

At a cabaret, visited “officially”, it was different. The dancing could not be taken exception to, although one or two gifted youths did endeavour to represent gliding snakes to the best of their ability. There was a refined atmosphere, bred of evening dresses and dinner suits, and the air did not reek with sickening fumes. But there was liquor there on the night the reporter visited the place and that liquor was drunk openly, the bottles being left on the tables during the dances. Again the liquor was not supplied on the premises, but was brought in by the dancers and consumed equally by men and women. And again, it must be clearly understood that there were only a very few parties who had drink with them. It was not general.

One thing to be borne in mind about a cabaret. People go along in their own parties, and often quiet, reserved couples might be seated next to noisy, drinking crowds, but it is always possible for the one element to ignore the other.

There was no sign of drink in the small club dances that are usually held on Saturday nights, although it was stated that sometimes youths who had been drinking had tried to gain admission. The dancing was, of course, above reproach.

The strange dance the Star reporter noted wasn’t the famous Charleston – that seemed to arrive here in New Zealand a few months after the report, in October 1925. If any reader can identify what dance fashion trend those described in the article were following (and the clothes!), I’d appreciate it.

6 comments:

  1. Sounds a bit like dances my parents dragged me to in the sixties. By then all had cars and consumed their alcohol outside in or near their cars. I was a kid and did not see the sexual nuances or overt, but I expect they happened.

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  2. Yes, the description sounds very much like a mix between the 1950s and 1960s (from what I know from vid clips etc.), rather than 1925. Maybe it was just some generic, cultural, time-transcendant thing. Put youngsters in a room with music, cigarettes and booze, and that's what they do, whatever the time period ...

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  3. I did not think of modern times, but it is not so different even now.

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  4. The first thing that came to mind was The Jitterbug. I thought it was more the mid-late Thirties but apparently it did start out in the early Twenties...New Zealand onto a trend that much ahead of time? Doubt it somehow...

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  5. The Jitterbug stemmed from swing dancing, yes. I reckon what was going on was a kind of generic swing dance to the jazz beat of the era. Probably not a standard dance, but a series of responses to the beat. Until they introduced imported American-style Charleston stuff, and the later Jitterbug. We might have been ahead of the times, though, you never know!

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  6. The whole article is great. I love the way it is written.

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