The Palais After Dark: Two Histories of British Dance Halls

James Nott, Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918–1960, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015, 327 pp, £65.00, ISBN 978-0199605194.

Dave Haslam, Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues, London: Simon  & Schuster 2015, 448 pp, £20.00, ISBN 978-0857206985.

Reviewed by Tobias Becker, German Historical Institute London

The two books under review are both about dance culture and dance venues in Britain—and could hardly be more different. James Nott’s Going to the Palais, an academic study based on years of research and a wealth of sources, politely asks his readers for the next dance before gently putting them through the paces and accompanying them back to their seats. By contrast, Dave Haslam’s Life After Dark, a music-fuelled road trip through the history of British clubland that jump-cuts from one anecdote to the next, grabs its readers by their hands and drags them round the dance floor. Both books are about urban culture insofar as dance halls are located in cities. However, neither Nott nor Haslam fully explores the relationship between dance and the city, the venues under investigation and the surrounding urban space.

Going to the Palais is a social history of dancing and dance halls in Britain between the interwar period and 1960—or between the introduction of the Charleston and the knee-shaking, skirt-whirling explosion of Rock’n’Roll. The book examines why, when and how social dancing became the second most popular entertainment industry after the cinema and asks what this tells us about British society and culture at the time. It consists of three parts: part one studies the rise, expansion and decline of the dance hall industry and Mecca Ltd specifically, audiences and changing dance fashions. Nott sees the development of the dance hall industry as a result of larger economic forces. Yet while the rise in real wages and leisure time certainly opened the dance halls to the lower-middle and working class, its decline seems to have had less to do with the “long-term economic environment” (94) than with changing tastes: in the age of nightclubs and discos dancing clearly remained popular, it just took place elsewhere.

The second part of the book puts dancing in the context of a changing society. It looks at youth, gender and intimacy in the dance hall. The dance halls catered specifically to the young and they, with increasing pocket money to spend, time on their hands and eager for romantic and erotic exploits, heeded the call. The dance hall also “reflected and helped create changing gender boundaries” (159). Not only did women generally outnumber men, the dance hall was one of the few public spaces treating both sexes equally.

The third part, finally, is devoted to the perception of the dance halls with a particular focus on gender, race and youth. As one would expect, there was no dearth of criticism regarding loose women, feminized men, juvenile delinquents, not to mention a good helping of anti-Americanism and racism. Nott reminds us “that such negative opinions were only ever held by a minority of people” (212) but he nevertheless devotes three chapters to the misgivings of what he calls the “middle-class fuddy-duddies from Cheltham or Aberdeen” (302). Nott is, of course, right when he notes how public perception influenced the industry. However, as important as criticism, conflicts and control are, it would have been nice to learn more about the joy of dancing—admittedly one of the most difficult (and therefore probably most joyless) subjects to research.

Life After Dark covers some of the same ground as Going to the Palais. There are a number of clubs and people who show up in both books. However, Haslam’s approach markedly differs from Nott’s. Nott sees the dance hall as “a specific social and cultural phenomenon, belonging to a specific historical moment” (3). Haslam agrees with Nott but begs to differ. In his story, the palais is just one incarnation of the dance venue in a history that leads from the antics of music hall singer George “Champagne Charlie” Leybourne to the laser-lit, bass-thumping basement clubs of today. En route he discovers (or invents) some intriguing links as when the Victorian stage dancer Dan Leno becomes the godfather of breakdance (317). While perhaps historically disputable, this certainly makes the past accessible for a contemporary audience.

Blackpool mecca

Music venue “Blackpool Mecca” in the 1980s

With its hardly two-page long bibliography, Life After Dark is not an academic work. Instead, Haslam travels up and down the country to visit existing or, more often, extinct clubs and to talk to club owners, club promoters and club goers. There are lots of famous and many more unknown names among the dramatis personae of this clubland topography, some well-known anecdotes (the Beatles on LSD, Hendrix putting his guitar through the ceiling) and many less well-known tales. Life After Dark shares with Going to the Palais a distinctive whiff of nostalgia for what has been lost along the way. Yet, while Nott’s mourning for the palais (“The palais was lost for ever and Britain’s social and cultural life was the poorer for it”, 98) is not necessarily contagious, Haslam’s observation that “clubs have become car parks, discos have become Tescos” (viii) is timely given that in London alone the number of music venues has shrunk almost by half over the last decade.

Beginning with the Tango and the Cakewalk in the early twentieth century, music and dance became truly global products. Consequently, both books cannot but acknowledge influences from abroad. Nott mentions the appropriation of foreign dances by turning them into a tamer “English style” and the attempts of the Mecca group of dance halls to expand to other countries, notably Germany. Given the cosmopolitanism of dance, it is a pity that these transnational connections and processes of adaptation are not explored in a little more depth. On the other hand, both books are strong on the local and avoid the temptation of concentrating on London alone. The capital figures heavily in both narratives, but so do Manchester and Glasgow; and even Bristol and Leeds have their roles to play.

 

In short: Urban historians might be somewhat disappointed by the lack of interest in questions of urban culture and space. However, if you are looking for a comprehensive and thorough social history of the dance hall—business, audience and cultural perception—in Britain between 1918 and 1960, you are very well served by Going to the Palais. If you look for something lighter Life after Dark offers an entertaining read.


Tobias Becker is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute London, where he works on the ‘nostalgia wave’ in the 1970s and 1980s. He has published widely on popular theatre and urban culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Currently he is co-authoring a book on the history of popular culture in Europe since the eighteenth century.

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