The years between the two World Wars have been well documented as a time of great social upheaval. The familiar way of life of pre-First World War Britain had become a distant memory, and the world had changed forever. Class distinctions were beginning to break down and women were taking a more active role in the world at large, leading to a change of attitudes in society. It is against this background that this essay will show not only how ballroom dancing became the single most popular pastime in Britain, but also how it evolved from an unstructured activity into a standardised form with a written technique. This came about due to several factors including the rise in dancing schools, the opening of public dance halls, the American influence through popular music and cinema, the introduction of recorded music, and certain pivotal events such as the formation of the Ballroom Committee by the Imperial Society, and the setting up of the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing. It is, however, the personalities at the forefront of the dancing world at this time who made the greatest impact on the development of ballroom dancing and who ensured it’s survival and continued success as a serious art form.
To understand the dancing scene of the chosen period, a brief look at the preceding years is necessary. The Waltz, with its origins in Vienna was still popular in the early 1900s, despite opposition on moral grounds due to its close hold and rapid turning movements. The Foxtrot was gradually introduced to this country just before the First World War; “It crept in, like a cat, from America” (Shute 1984:18). Vernon and Irene Castle, the famous exhibition dancers, popularised the Foxtrot with their exciting and original performance. It became more popular than the Waltz during the War, and remained a favourite for many years to come. The Tango, originally from Argentina with its disreputable beginnings in the back streets of Buenos Aires, was performed in Paris just before the First World War, and soon ‘Tango Teas’ were being hosted by hotels and dance halls. It gained respectability, especially after Queen Mary requested a Tango demonstration in 1914, and although popularity waned during the War, it revived during the 1920s, as will be shown.
By 1918, rag music and jazz had arrived from America. This new sound was the inspiration behind the modern dances and the syncopated rhythms were instantly popular.
“They [the working people] took to various forms of American popular music from 1918 onwards, including jazz influenced black music; the dances which became staples of English Ballroom Dancing (itself a worldwide phenomenon) such as the Quickstep and Foxtrot were derived from American ‘rag’ dances.”
(German, L. 1998 internet)
People began walking to the rhythm, and the turned out feet of previous styles of dance were replaced by a preference for parallel feet. This was the modern style, and a challenge to Old Time dancing; it was the beginning of the Onestep, Twostep, and Foxtrot. All the modern dances were unstructured as there was no strict tempo or written technique at this stage, and improvisation and experimentation were the only tools the dancers could use to develop steps to music.
The opening of the Hammersmith Palais de Danse in 1919, along with many other dance halls at this time, and the popularity of tea dances held at all the best hotels, demonstrates the public demand for dance venues. Dancing schools started to appear all over the country as everyone wanted to learn to dance to the new and exciting music they were hearing on the radio.
“During the early 1920s the tea dance grew in popularity and through the 30s tea dances were popular in Britain’s seaside resort dance halls – from Blackpool to Brighton as well as in London’s Covent Garden.”
The dancers of this time were the founders of the modern ballroom style, and as will be explained, laid the foundations for the future.At the beginning of the 1920s a young girl named Phyllis Haylor started training with Josephine Bradley at her School of Dancing at the Knightsbridge Hotel. At about the same time, a young man who was about to start at Sandhurst attended a tea dance, and the direction of his life changed completely. His name was Victor Silvester, and it was at the tea dance that he met Belle Harding, a well known personality in the dancing world. He trained with her as a dancing teacher at the Empress Rooms in the Royal Palace Hotel, Kensington, which was the start of his long career in ballroom dancing. These three, Victor Silvester, Phyllis Haylor and Josephine Bradley were to become key players in the formation and standardisation of the ‘English Style’ during the inter-war years.
Josephine Bradley, an accomplished dancer, formed a partnership with a talented American dancer called G.K.Anderson and together they won an Open Foxtrot competition in 1920. After gaining other titles such as the first ‘Ivory Cross All England Competition’, Josephine Bradley became the acknowledged authority on the Foxtrot. She certainly deserved the title affectionately given to her by the dancing world – the ‘First Lady of Ballroom Dancing’.
Phyllis Haylor, dancing with Cedric Raphael became World Champion in 1925 and, in 1926, Star Professional Champion with Alec Millar. After his retirement, she danced with a young man called Charles Scrimshaw: “They became known as perhaps the most elegant and gifted and sought-after couple of their time.” Shute 1984:18
These great dancers were creating the steps that were to become the basics in the ballroom dances. For example, Alec Millar and Phyllis Haylor invented the ‘Millar Cross’, later to be called the Cross Swivel and Maxwell Stewart and Barbara Miles, World Champions in 1925, invented the Double Reverse Spin. Alex Moore and Pat Kilpatrick discovered the Whisk while dancing a Closed Change.
“Apparently he lost his balance slightly and put his foot behind instead of closing. Pat being the perfect partner followed this movement and the Whisk was born.”
(E. Romain Dance 2005:74)
The first World Championship to be held in London (previously Paris) took place in 1922 at Queens Hall. Holding such a prestigious event in London was a major indication of the importance of ballroom dancing in the UK at this time. It was organised by Monsieur Camille de Rhynal and the Dancing Times, and was won by Victor Silvester and Phyllis Clarke. The four dances performed were the Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot and the Onestep.
The dancers, with their creative styling, and the music, with its new rhythms, were the key factors in the ever-changing development of the dances. The One-step, for example, was danced to rather military music, and its lack of syncopation was not in keeping with the new dance music, so it gradually faded out, and the dance with it. The Charleston exploded on to the London dance scene at about this time (1925) and was hugely popular, with people dancing in the streets as well as in the dance halls.
Signs in dance halls saying “PCQ” meant “Please Charleston Quietly” as dancers were being injured. C.B. Cochrane organised a Charleston Ball at the Royal Albert Hall in 1926 when the Charleston Rage was at its height. Gradually, a flatter style of Charleston evolved, with the Black Bottom being a rather quieter version, but eventually even this faded. Some would argue that it never went away: “The Charleston became absorbed in the Quickstep but has never died.” (Frank Borrows 1978)
After the Charleston explosion, the ‘Star’ Championship (promoted by the newspaper of that name) replaced the Onestep with the ‘Quick-time Foxtrot and Charleston’ later to be named the Quickstep. It was at the British Professional Championship organised by the Dancing Times that the name ‘Quickstep’ was used for the first time.
Changes were also appearing in the Waltz. Up to this period, a complete turn was made on every Reverse and Natural Turn, but now a three-quarter turn was being tried. This became known as the ‘Diagonal’ Waltz, and soon came to replace the full turn, especially when it was given first place at competitions.
During the War, the Tango waned in popularity, but in 1921, Rudolph Valentino appeared in a film called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ in which he danced the Tango with passion. This caused a sensation leading to a revival in the Tango and Tango Teas became a popular afternoon pastime. Phyllis Haylor, describes in her book ‘The World of Phyllis Haylor and Ballroom Dancing’ how in the mid 1930s, a German competitive couple, appearing in London for the first time, presented a new interpretation by emphasising the staccato effect and lengthening the stride. All agreed this was something that could be taught and given a technique and was soon being taught in dancing schools.
With all the new ideas and changes in dance happening so quickly, there was a growing need for order. Competitions were almost impossible to judge, with so much differentiation.
In 1924, a Ballroom Branch of the Imperial Society was formed and the committee members were Victor Silvester, Eve Tynegate-Smith, Muriel Simmonds, Mrs. Lisle Humphries, (later Lady Peacock) and George Fontana, all under the chairmanship of Josephine Bradley. The main purpose of the committee was to establish a standard of dancing and hours were spent discussing the technique of each step. One of the first decisions taken was that the dances were based on walking and the feet should not be turned out in the balletic style. This was very new. All aspects of the technique were written down, although CBM was not included until 1928 and Sway in 1930. For the first time, figures and variations danced by the best couples now became standardised and in 1933, amateur medal tests were introduced at Bronze, Silver and Gold levels. The Committee also created a syllabus for a teacher’s examination, and an advanced examination was brought in later in 1934. This became the Fellowship examination.
In 1929, the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing (now known as the British Dance Council) was founded under the chairmanship of Philip Richardson. The Dancing Times had called an Informal Conference of Teachers of Ballroom Dancing and this led to the OBBD being formed. The primary issue was the standardising and official recognition of the technique, and by 1930, the ‘Standard Four’ dances had become firmly established as the basis of the ‘English Style’. The tempi of the various dances were revised as the Foxtrot became slower (34/36) and the Tango changed from its ‘sinuous’ early style to the more staccato style of the modern ballroom (32/34). The Waltz had slowed to 36/38 and the Quickstep to 50/52.
In his book ‘Ballroom Dancing’ written in 1936, Alex Moore writes that after some years of chaos in the Jazz era,
“…the standardisation of a few basic steps and the gradual clarification of the technique that governs them, have resulted in tremendous progress being made, until today, the English style of Ballroom Dancing stands pre-eminent throughout the world.”
Music, as has been shown, played a huge role in the dancing world at this time as at any other, but it was the medium, the dance band, and the availability of recordings for the first time that had such a huge impact on the dancing public.
The dance band leaders of the day all played their part in the development of the dances, and none more than Victor Silvester. He formed his orchestra in 1935, after years of having difficulty finding records that were suitable for dancing. His own recordings were very popular and soon he was selling records every month. He secured a contract with the BBC and famously played on the radio every week for many years. He invented the phrase ‘strict tempo’, and played popular tunes with a consistent beat, which made timing so much easier to control for the dancer. He became a household name during this time, and because of his connections with the BBC, he popularised modern ballroom dancing by reaching a huge audience. By 1939 he was giving dancing lessons on the radio. His contribution to the development of ballroom dancing cannot be over-estimated.
Advancements in technology affected the dancing world at this time. In 1928, the radiogram (literally radio and gramophone combined) began appearing in dance studios and in 1932, the electric turntable replaced the wind-up spring gramophone motor, which helped dance teachers to modernise their studios and work more efficiently.
The arrival of the ‘talkies’ in the cinema in 1927 with ‘The Jazz Singer’ meant more exposure to American musical influences, as well as radio and records. Films such as ‘Flying Down to Rio’ and ‘Top Hat’ with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers inspired more interest in dancing. The public’s appetite for information on how to dance was enormous and publications such as ‘Ballroom Dancing’ by Alex Moore and ‘Ballroom Dancing – The Theory and Practice of the Revised Technique’ by Henry Jacques were bestsellers. Alex Moore’s Monthly Letter Service for dance teachers started in 1933 and continued for many decades, eventually having subscribers in over forty countries.
This essay has demonstrated the key ways in which the inter-war years were significant for ballroom dancing. The advent of the Jazz Age, with its syncopated rhythms heralded a new era in dance, and the elegance and style of the dances that evolved from those early days inspired the world to follow the English Style. Advances and changes were made, which were to retain their significance for the next sixty years. The founding of the Ballroom Branch of the Imperial Society, and the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing brought about the standardisation and written technique of the ‘Standard Four’. The dedication of the dancers and teachers of this period ensured the highest standards, and competitions and the introduction of medal tests meant that ballroom dancing now had a structure. The technological advances in recording brought dance music to the public on a huge scale, and the books written at this time have been revised and reprinted regularly. The result of these dynamic influences coming together during this short period between the wars was the creation of a new style of dancing unprecedented in its popularity. To this day, the ‘English Style’ leads the world.
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Blum, D. (1958) A Pictorial History of the Talkies, Spring Books, London
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‘Flying Down to Rio’ (1933) Directed by Thornton Freeland, RKO
‘Top Hat’ (1935) Directed by Mark Sandrich, RKO