I went to the Age Concern intergenerational tea dance today at Shehnai in Reading. I’d been along to a research chat about the event with the organiser and a local lady who used to dance in Reading in the fifties. She told us that Shehnai used to be the Olympia Ballroom, where the people of Reading have been dancing since far earlier than the fifties. That means there would have undoubtedly been some twenties dancers gracing the floor at some point, I’d just love to know what kind of twenties dances they favoured in Reading – whether they went the more sedate ballroom route or whether the Charleston found its way into the small town English provinces at its energetic finest.
The highlight of my Autumn Sunday in 2010 however, was being asked to leave the dance floor by an old lady! She said that we shouldn’t be doing that (Charleston) in the middle of the dancefloor and that we might accidentally kick her. So me and my fellow Charleston dancing flappers and sheiks moved away. In our defence, we had been dancing in the middle of the floor, thinking that would be the best way to avoid the strict anticlockwise rotation of quickstepping people around us, because Charleston isn’t danced well in circles like that.
As we left the dancefloor an old man who’d just a half hour before been on the microphone singing and leading sequence dancing beckoned me over and said, “What did that dolly bird just say to you?” Was it some kind of fantastic 50s Reading slang? When I explained he said that she had no right to tell us to leave the floor and was rather unexpectedly frank in his opinions about her sending us off – I won’t repeat the words he used here, it wouldn’t be decent! It did make me laugh. But what really surprised and pleased me (from a social history re-creation point of view!) was that there could still be this kind of politics on the dance floor at an afternoon tea dance in 2010 in Reading, and so many opinions on the right and wrong way to do things. The organiser told me that one person had complained about the sequence dancing being on too late even when there was only ten minutes to go until it started, and some others about the tea and cakes not being served in quite the right way or at the right time.
In reality it was a successful event attended by 350 older people from all over Reading plus young people who’d been learning jive and other dances alongside them in preparation. We joined in with the jive and the sequence dancing too and enjoyed it. There were plenty of really positive comments, and a lot of enjoyment was evident. Age Concern must have been very pleased to have served the community so well. It was interesting to experience some fifties influenced British social dance rules and mores first hand, and the dances of those who were young in the ballrooms back then. Ballroom and sequence dancing seemed to dominate in Reading over jive in the classier ballrooms. The Charleston was actually banned in some dance halls in the twenties, due to being seen by some as too scandalous and exuberant. And according to BBC 4 documentary, The Social History of Dance in Britain, ballroom was actually invented in reaction to the lavish hip movements, high leg kicks and wild abandon of Charleston and other American twenties dances. People actually believed that this radically freeform new dance might cause widespread moral downfall. Though plenty of enjoyment is gained from ballroom dancing today, it was a very English phenomenon and initially an attempt to tame, to set up rules and regulation around dancing and to define a right and wrong way of doing it that could be scored and judged. It was an attempt at social control. Nowadays the introduction of Charleston to the Strictly Come Dancing TV competition shows how attitudes have changed and how something becomes kooky and safe in retrospect, but it’s still a highly choreographed version that owes homage to an improvisational dance that was African American in origin and pretty radical and rebellious for the young British who took it up.
So with this in mind I feel a sense of flapper kudos for having been asked to leave the dancefloor in 2010 by a lady who probably danced in the ballrooms in Reading in the 50s! I’m sure that in the day, Charleston dancers were probably told off by uppity old ladies rather a lot. You’d have to be doing a lot lot worse these days to be thrown off a dance floor, like starting a fight or taking your clothes off or having full sex in public. In fact it’s probably virtuallly impossible to be thrown off a nightclub dancefloor these days just for dancing in the wrong way. If I’d been at an intergenerational tea dance for the elderly in the 1970s or 80s, maybe there’d have been a good quantity of old people once young in the twenties who’d have approved, and who might even have applauded us, who knows.
Well done to Age Concern for a fantastic event though. Long may the people of Reading keep dancing into their old age. I hope my knees hold out for that long. One other thing to note was an elderly British Indian lady who came to join in with us Charlestonites, and said that she really wished there could be some Bhangra music to dance too. It’d be great if Age Concern could consult the elderly Caribbean and Indian communities of Reading on preferred dance styles before their next tea dance. It’d be great to know what dances they liked in the fifties and what they’d like now at their tea dances – whether they foxtrotted and quickstepped along with the rest or encountered welcome or hostility in the dance halls. Whether there was an unwritten social segregation and whether had other places that they danced. Would Caribbean or Indian influenced dancing have been frowned upon by some, like the Charleston? How might this next year’s elderly tea dance, if at all? A Caribbean calypso or mento interlude at next year’s tea dance between the quickstep and sequence dancing (mento was the music that preceded Calypso) to music by The Jolly Boys? A bhangra section before the foxtrot? The arrival of the Caribbean community in the fifties must have had its own influence on the English dance floors, even if it was only on the way the jive was danced, or on the difference in footwork or style between individual dancers. America held the biggest sway of course, but subtle influences are often so much more interesting to delve into. There must be some more great dance related stories out there amongst the elderly residents of Reading, or some existing social dance historical research to draw on. Whether or not anything other than ballroom and jive had an impact on the dance floors of Reading in the fifties, you’re never too old to learn something new, that’s what I say.
For more on the history of Charleston dance see: