- Contributed by
- Frank Mee Researcher 241911
- People in story:
- Frank Mee
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- Contributed on:
- 23 April 2004
On Leave in Port Said, Egypt, in 1948. I could always find a dance. The WVS ran this one and I am the chap in the middle with the flapping jacket, I never conformed. The ladies on either side were Miss Mary Coatson and Mrs O'Neal. Those wonderful WVS ladies made our leave very enjoyable, I remember them with love. They danced my feet off for a change.
A Morale Booster
Today's generation have no idea what part the dance halls played in keeping up morale during the war. Every town and village had a hall where dancing could take place. The bigger dance halls had orchestras, the smaller ones had a three piece band or records, sometimes only a piano.
In the large halls you danced on sprung floors, or at least highly polished and prepared floors. In small halls it was plank floors with nails sticking up or concrete with linoleum squares glued down. NAAFI or Garrison Theatre type floors were often polished linoleum.
Any kind of footwear would do, but some had dancing pumps and others wore what they had down to hob nail boots - this would be frowned on if it was a polished floor. Most people could dance, after a fashion, and get round a room without crippling their partners for life: well, usually.
The lights, the music and the company let you forget the misery, austerity and danger of the war for a few short hours. You could live your dreams in a make-believe world on a par with a Hollywood film.
I lived for dancing, young as I was. Dad said I would have danced on the pigsty roof if he had played the music - too true. Where most lads saw dancing as a means to an end, to me dancing was the end, the girls were the means.
My Personal Story of the Ballroom
At age 10-11, I had been given an insight into the wonder and splendour of the dance hall. Mother and Dad were competition dancers at a time when money or gifts could be won. They had different partners for the competitions and we had a house full of prizes of various kinds they had won.
As the babysitter was loathe to look after me (I was a bit of a handful, she said), I was dressed up and taken to the local Co-op. I would sit quietly and take it all in, overawed by the combined beauty of the music, lights and swirling dancers in their multi-coloured flowing dresses. That was the ladies, of course - the men wore sober suits or tuxedos. I would be taken home at the interval by a lady living near by and went to bed without argument to dream. I had found my Arabian Nights.
All my life I never failed to be amazed at the splendour and ambience of those large halls. The high, often domed ceiling, with masses of spotlights that changed colour as they turned. The huge mirrored ball with the spotlight in each corner of the room shining on it as it turned, casting scattered beams of moonlight on the dancers as the main lights dimmed to a soft haze. The coloured spotlights would weave among the dancers, wrapping them in a warm ethereal glow as it passed and I would be transported - it was wonder indeed.
Most halls had plush settees along the walls, with a scattering of tables and chairs. One end would be a standing area and the other end taken up by the stage. We had some large dance bands in some of those halls, the players would come on stage in their tuxedos and the Prima Donna Band Leader would stand up front. He waved his arms about, did his little dance steps and sang the odd song, smiling all the while at the ladies passing. Whether the players took notice of him was another matter - he was part of the whole kaleidoscope of music, lights and swirling dancers.
During those early days of watching, I was often taken on the floor by ladies during the interval between competitions. I was quite tall and a quick learner, so I could soon do most of the old-fashioned dances, as they were called. In the interval, records would be played of the modern dances, so I got a feeling for the quickstep, waltz and foxtrot. It got to a point where I did not sit many of the dances out, so it was an early learning curve without doubt.
The Next Level
At age 14 I had the ego to be MC (master of ceremonies) at the monthly cadet dance. After organising the program with the leader of the four-piece band I would stand on the stage and announce the dances. It usually took the form of 'Mary, Joan, Tansy', or whoever was flavour of the month. 'You are my next partner and the next dance is chrysanthemum waltz, foxtrot, dashing white sergeant, or whatever.'
The MC always led off the dance with the other couples forming behind him until the circle was formed. I do not remember any refusals, so I honed my dancing skills with the best dancers. There would be mature couples as well - we had guests and the officers brought their wives. Those nights were very popular, we were never short of girls.
Church and school halls often doubled as dance halls for the young ones, it was to keep us out of trouble. Whatever that was, we never found out. The vicar or church workers would run the dances, mainly to a record player or on occasion a three-piece band. We got a night of Victor Sylvester records though us scallywags would try and sneak a Glen Miller onto the machine.
We had to do a duty dance with the vicar's wife and the tea ladies as beholds young gentlemen of impeccable manners. One local spinster, of undecided age, took a shine to me and would come dashing over. She would wrap me in a wrestling hold from which there was no escape, pull me to her bosom and then do a sort of military two-step to whatever dance was being played. My memory is of an overwhelming smell of mothballs wafting round my nose, it ended all lascivious thoughts right there and the smell of mothballs was a passion killer all my life. I did get a tea and bun paid for, so stood the punishment.
I did have another brush with mothballs. A fill-in teacher whom we were all in love with came to help at those dances for a while and would dance with me. She raised my status in the school sky high, but the smell of mothballs and cigarettes was a little off putting, that story has been told on the site so I will not repeat it.
The Big Time
Stockton had some large dance halls. The Maison De Dance with Jack Marwood and his band. The Palais De Dance with Jack O'Boyle. The Jubilee Hall, which was the Co-op, and the Corporation Hall.
Having started work just before Christmas 1945 I met a group of older lads who went dancing and wished to go with them. They said OK we will go to the Palais, one of the larger halls with a Cafe and balcony were you could sit and watch when it got crowded. The big time at last, and with my usual confidence I had no qualms about going. An hour's preening and then two pence on the bus to town, one shilling in and then paradise.
What a site greeted me! Girls everywhere and only a few men, acres of floor space for me to open my legs and move, but no mates. I had not realised the form was to meet at the pub, under age or not, get some Dutch courage and then go in after the interval.
The band struck up and I was straight up with a girl I knew and did not sit down again until the interval.
My mates came in and asked where I had been, they took me aside and introduced me to the rules of going dancing. You must first get tanked up before asking girls to dance. You never go into the hall before the interval, it was unmanly. I then got a lecture on the various stratagems for getting a girl and dancing was only low on the list. They also told me I had to learn to smoke so I could offer girls a cigarette as an introduction.
I had never smoked and had no intentions of starting. I wanted to be in the dance and up on the floor at the first note, so with my usual bent attitude I did it my way. I could also fight so they did not argue.
After the interval the halls filled up and you could hardly move in the press of bodies. With a few adroit kicks you could clear some space or in the corners do a few twirls, but to dance you had to be in early.
The dances were full of uniforms of all nations, men and women, and it was exciting dancing with the women in uniform. They would be home for a short leave and then gone, so we had a good turnover of partners as well as the local girls.
Saturday Nights, The Highlight of the Week
I loved Saturday nights though we worked all day Saturday as part of the working week. It was home, bathed and changed, followed by a good tea, then make your way to town. A group of us would meet on the village green and then walk to town. We would have a wonderful night dancing, a relief from the constant austerity of the war, and then meet up again to walk home. We would be laughing and joshing each other, boys and girls arm in arm singing the latest songs. First stop, the Regal Fish Shop, and then on towards home, eating them out of the paper. Probably the reason we walked to and from town, to save the money for our supper.
A few minutes' chat on the green, where some of the girls' fathers would be waiting to see nothing untoward happened. Then home to bed to dream of the nubile ATS or WAAF I had danced with. I was a happy lad until the next dance night.
I had one regular partner with all the curves in the right places, who loved the Latin American dances. I thought she had a body like Carmen Miranda, a film star of the times. My mates would kid me up as facially she was not the best looking girl in the hall by any means. That attitude amazed me - if a girl was a brilliant dancer, why worry about looks? If you wanted a looker you had the last dance with her and took her home, a different thing altogether.
I had been having lessons for Latin dances and was stilted. During a tango she stopped and said, "Dance as if you were making love to me here on the floor." We started again, me bright red with embarrassment, but soon I melded with her and found out she was right. We often got space around us as we danced those sensuous dances and people watched, very heady for a young lad not old enough to drink.
Good Morale Booster
The local dance halls and the picture houses raised the spirits of the people. They were the escape from the mundane, the misery of rationing and the hard physical work most people did. You could live your dreams for a few sweet hours. Escapism? Yes, but we came out of those places light of heart and uplifted to another planet for a short while. We would come back down with a crash when some one asked whose turn it was to buy the fish and chips.
Throughout my life, dancing got me new friends wherever I was. I had some very unforgettable experiences and some very forgettable ones indeed. I danced in many of the largest halls in the country and loved every minute of it. Many of us met our partners in dance halls, as I did eventually.
There is an end to this story. Many years later my wife and I were on holiday in Vienna. We went to the Strauss Waltz Hall on a stormy night. The doors to the patio and gardens were closed so only around half the dancing space was available. It was packed to the roof with tourists, which made dancing impossible.
The routine was that a local group in ball gowns and suits would give us a demonstration, then they would play a couple of waltzes for the tourists. We could not get near so I took things into my own hands.
Fighting my way to the edge of the floor as the demonstration was on, we waited. At the last note as the group swirled off to applause, my wife and I swirled on, right to the middle of the floor.
The conductor raised his baton and we were off. I suddenly realised after a couple of circuits we were alone, no one else had come on, so taking advantage we gave our all. Fast and slow turns, forward and reverse, measured swings and flat-out waltzing. We completed the dance to an ovation from the audience. I wondered if they had thought us part of the demo and am mystified to this day why it happened. We had danced in the Strauss Hall, that was all that mattered to me.
We did dance in the Sound of Music Pavilion, my wife with a Hungarian gentleman and me more sedately with his wife, to end a marvellous holiday.
The young people of today do not know what they are missing. My memories of those long gone dance halls lingers on. Once again I see the happy faces as I write, hear the music and am enclosed with those amazing lights. I remember how we all forgot the war for a while. They were truly one of the reasons we won the war, well that is my opinion.
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