Shanghai dance hall evokes vanished era of glamour
- 16 June 2012
- From the section Magazine
After years of frenzied demolition, many of the remaining buildings of Art Deco Shanghai have been been revamped and restored, but the one that stands out as a symbol of the city's polyglot glamour during the 1930s is the Paramount dance hall.
"Dao Bai Le Men!" [Take me to the Gate of 100 Pleasures!] I ordered the taxi driver, and we sped off through the cool Shanghai night.
At a crossroads near the Jing'an Temple, coloured lights pulsed up the facade of a grand Art Deco building.
The name of the Paramount dance hall - Bai Le Men or Gate of 100 Pleasures in Chinese - blazed over the door in red neon lights.
I paid the driver and rode the lift up to the fourth floor, where I took off my coat and slipped on my dancing shoes.
I had been intrigued by the idea of visiting the Paramount for years. In its heyday in the 1930s, it was one of the world's legendary dance halls, a place where Chinese tycoons and gangsters mingled with pretty girls and foreign adventurers in an atmosphere of giddy modernity.
Barely a decade before that, the idea of men and women dancing together had been scandalous, but Western-style social dancing had taken Shanghai by storm and this was the smartest ballroom in town.
Of course, like the rest of Shanghai's decadent pre-revolutionary past, the old dancing scene disappeared after the communist victory in the Chinese civil war.
In 1956, the Paramount closed - later to be turned into a cinema for revolutionary films. By 1990, the building itself was crumbling and falling masonry killed a passing pedestrian.
But then a Taiwanese businessman, Zhao Shichong, came to the rescue with a multi-million-pound refurbishment and the Paramount's famous cantilevered floor sprung into life once again.
Occasionally in China, when I have passed one of the open spaces where retired people gather in the evenings to dance, I have lingered for a while and joined in for a waltz or a quickstep.
But dancing at the Paramount is a more formal affair. You cannot just drop in and hope that someone will ask you to dance. Instead, you have to bring your own partner or hire one for the night.
In the glory days of ballroom dancing in Shanghai, men bought tickets on the door and exchanged them for dances with professional hostesses.
These days, a woman is allowed to hire her own man.
When I entered the ballroom, my dancing instructor and date for the night, Mr Cao, was waiting for me, elegantly dressed in a black shirt and pin-striped trousers, with slicked-back hair.
A professional dancer from Anhui province, he had been working the floor at the Paramount for nearly a decade.
And there was the famous dance floor, surrounded by tables and banquettes, illuminated by a grand chandelier and some multi-coloured lights. On the stage a small jazz band was playing a waltz as part of their set.
Mr Cao led me out onto the floor.
And although my dance steps were rusty, with his expert lead - and a few embarrassing tangles - I found myself remembering how to waltz.
Over the rest of the evening, he took me on a crash course of all the dances I had once learned and long forgotten - the foxtrot and rumba, the quickstep and jive.
A few other couples danced around the floor but never more than a dozen, and the surrounding seats were sparsely populated.
Most of the couples, Mr Cao told me, were students with their hired instructors, the female teachers in elegant qi paos (traditional Chinese dresses), the male ones sleek in their black trousers and shiny shoes.
Any of the old Paramount crowd - the Shanghainese who had danced here in the 1940s - I guessed were probably past their dancing days or no longer around.
Later in the evening, a Japanese tour group joined the fray, no doubt hoping like me for a glimpse of glittering, decadent, pre-war Shanghai.
But that old Paramount magic was elusive.
Outside, Shanghai was enjoying another golden age as a fashionable, international city but it had nothing to do with ballroom dancing.
On the Bund, the restored colonial waterfront, the rich and glamorous of the day were sipping cocktails and tasting modernist cuisine while, in the former French quarter, bright young things were eating pizza or dancing to garage music in the latest nightclub.
On the Paramount dance floor, my nostalgic fantasies crumbled every time the live jazz gave way to a session of recorded international pop, and it was hard not to be disheartened by the near-deserted floor.
But the jives and jitterbugs were as fun as they always are and the best exercise I had had in ages.
And when Mr Cao and I settled into the gentle pace of a waltz as the jazz band played, I closed my eyes to the disco lights and was able to imagine myself back into a vanished era.
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