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Open Features: Palais Days

...So enthusiastic was public response to the Hammersmith Palais that soon similar establishments were glowing and vibrating all over the country. The new ballrooms were the places to show off your clothes and your dancing, to listen to feel-good music, perhaps to meet the partner of your dreams...

Jacqueline Finesilver recalls the glamour, pleasure and out-of-the-ordinary experience of Palais de Danse days.

To read more of Jacqueline’s highly-entertaining articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=jacqueline+finesilver

October 28th 1919, a dull, cold day in London: a camel was seen walking down Oxford Street.

Hurrying shoppers and workers stopped and stood still in the wind. They stared as the animal strode slowly past them. It had sandwich boards strapped to its hump which bore a message to all. A new ballroom, a 'Palais de Danse' was about to open. It is not surprising that, after such spectacular advertising, nearly 6,000 people turned up on the first evening. The management were delighted and somewhat overwhelmed; the Hammersmith Palais had been designed to hold 2,500.

The eager customers were not disappointed. For the 2/6d entrance fee they could dance on a floor of sprung maple wood beneath chandeliers to the music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A pair of dancing shoes and some sort of formal attire were also required. The Palais was the first 'popular' ballroom in the sense that you didn't have to be wealthy or 'in Society' to attend. You didn't need to bring a partner either; you could hire one for sixpence. An array of charming gentleman and lady instructors arrayed themselves in a sort of elegant corral at the edge of the dance floor until requested.

So enthusiastic was public response to the Hammersmith Palais that soon similar establishments were glowing and vibrating all over the country. The new ballrooms were the places to show off your clothes and your dancing, to listen to feel-good music, perhaps to meet the partner of your dreams.

The Palais Dancing News, circa 1920, pinpointed another aspect when it included stories of overwrought businessmen who learned to perk up and stop worrying by going to the Palais – it was Good For Your Health. Unfortunately, the magazine rather stuffily implied that certain preliminaries were necessary before any would-be Palais dancer even approached its portals:

'Stand in front of a full length mirror. Stand straight! Right hand on hip, left arm straight out in line with the shoulder. Do not move the shoulders! Do not move the left arm or bend the knee. Glide forward on the fore part of the feet, hardly raising them off the floor.'

And so on... Presumably, if you weren't up to this, you could just stay home being sloppy and miserable.

For decades the Hammersmith Palais was open for business on every day of the week. Throughout the war bands played for civilians and servicemen (who could swop their boots for dancing shoes), sometimes over and above the sound of sirens. There were regular radio broadcasts from the ballroom. Later, in the 50s, Palais Party was televised on Friday nights. All dance tastes were catered for, from Strict Tempo and Swing to Rock 'n Roll and all that followed.

By the 1950s, there was a division of interests on the dance floor, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. There was Dance as Performance and there was Dance as Getting Friendly. Before the interval, when there was room to move, enthusiasts, swanky steppers, aspired to skim the floor in strict tempo high-polish perfection. After the interval, when the floor got more crowded, there was mostly close-together shuffling. (Band leader Lou Preager called this 'crush dancing'.) After the interval was the time when The Lads came down from Above. The lads would have spent the first part of the evening at the bar with their mates, occasionally leaning over the balcony to spy out females on the floor below. Then, after the interval, they would descend to the floor and home in on some 'lucky' girls. In 1953, Ted Heath recorded a tune called 'The Creep' which was supposedly a favourite with Teddy Boys. The Creep was simply crush dancing done with a certain attitude.

Nearly as basic as The Creep, but much more cheerful, was the Palais Glide. Lines of people link arms and then it's just step, step, step and kick, side to side, in and out, tipping back and forward. It's a dance guaranteed to perk you up and you happily disregard the admonitions of Palais Dancing News . If, for some reason, your legs are a bit wobbly, if you can't stand up straight and balance on the fore part of the foot, it doesn't matter; your neighbours hold you up and tip you in the right direction – more or less. It's a folk dance.

My own personal discovery of the Hammersmith Palais was not as a grown-up or even a teenager but as a rather dopey ten-year old. The management had decided to start up a dancing school on Saturday mornings. They did not advertise this event with a camel but my mother found out about it anyway. She took me there, rather early, nudged me inside and went off to do some unimpeded shopping.

The Palais foyer on morning after the night before looked tired and smelt frowsty. There seemed to be nobody around so I crept forward to the inner space – there was minimal lighting on the dance floor but all around was in semi-darkness. I could make out soft carpeting, red plush upholstery, fancy gold plasterwork, many little tables and chairs. Pillars coated in mirror-work glimmered. It was a little bit spooky.

I put a foot on the dance floor. I'd never felt anything like it. A floor that was springy, alive. And I'd never seen anything like all that empty, inviting smooth surface. That floor was asking you to take off your shoes and slide across it in your socks. So that's what I did. A few other kids arrived and the floor had the same effect on them.

(When the girls among us went to explore the Ladies' Powder Room we were also very impressed by the perfume dispenser which gasped out a free puff of scent if you hit it hard enough with your fist.)

Then Rita and Margaret sauntered in. They didn't look like our Mums. This was a Saturday morning and yet these ladies had not a headscarf or saggy shopping bag between them. Rita had very black hair, very red lips, a very tight sweater, an emerald green circle skirt and emerald green satin shoes. With very high heels. Margaret was pretty and floaty. Even the boys in the class (all there unwillingly) behaved themselves for these two. They were the priestesses of the Palais.

Rita taught us samba, rumba, cha-cha, strutting paso-doble and a hip swivelling jive. Great stuff for a dopey ten year-old. Margaret taught us to look snooty and do ballroom-type fancy flicky things with our feet.

I suppose the dancing school idea didn't take off and didn't pay because after a while the two priestesses stopped coming, temporarily replaced by the manager's Mum and her bag of toffees, and then the classes stopped altogether. I was sorry about that.

In 1974 the then manager of the Palais told a journalist, “We still get letters from soldiers all over the world asking if the Hammersmith Palais is still going. What do they think? This place will stand longer than the Tower of London.”

Ah, well.... ownership changes, changes in management policy, changes in taste... A shooting and some stabbings didn't help. Then in 2007 property developers were granted permission to replace the old dance hall with an office building.

What does it matter? Who needs a Palais de Danse, anyway? Well, I feel there is something special about engaging in real dancing in a designated place. Any child who's ever been twirled around by a grown-up at a party, anyone who has stepped in time with a partner, or danced a conga out of the room and into the street knows that real dancing is good for you. And the effect can be enhanced by the place. A place that is bigger than the average sitting room, a place that doesn't look quite everyday and familiar, preferably with a floor that feels alive under your feet – is a place where you can feel a little out of the ordinary yet still yourself and still connected. It doesn't really matter, does it, if there are no chandeliers, or mirror balls. Shiny shoes and celebrity status, sequinned dresses or tight trousers aren't strictly necessary either, are they?

Where do you go dancing?

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