Thursday, February 4, 2010

Then and Now - Something for your weekend reading!

Recently, just after my knee surgery, two of my students came to pick me up to take me to my physical therapy appointment. They both chuckled when they saw how I was dressed! Shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt! Well, how else does one dress for a physical therapy session? They and the rest of my students are used to seeing me wearing a dress shirt, tie, dress slacks and shoes and for me that is the way I think I should dress as a professional teacher of dancing. So that is now.
Let me take you back to when I was an amateur competitor taking lessons way back in the fifties and sixties. We always attended our lessons, classes and practice sessions wearing a white dress shirt (I never owned a colored shirt back then) with a starched collar that was attached with two studs, front and back, a very conservative tie, dress slacks, a jacket or blazer or suit and black dance shoes. The jacket, blazer, or suit was tailored specially the same as a tail jacket so that the shoulder did not ride up when taking dance position. All of the male students dressed this way especially if you were a member of the Championship Formation Team. The ladies always wore a dress with a full skirt and would never think of slacks, pant suits or jeans. Dressing like this always felt comfortable and we would feel the same way when we donned our tails suit with its starched shirt, collar and bow tie. The dance shoes we wore were often patent leather – we used to use Vaseline to stop them from sticking together when we closed our feet! Our teacher/coach Mr. Jimmy Stevenson would never allow us to wear non-skid soles on our shoes –just a plain leather sole and heel. He insisted that we needed to get our weight over our feet and we would not slip. However, we used to cheat a little. We would carry a small bottle of linseed oil (flax-seed) to rub on the soles or we would use soap from the bathroom. One thing we never did was brush the soles of our shoes and I still don’t do that. As amateurs we were never allowed in the studio while another lesson was being taught, we never were allowed to look at a technique book, we were never allowed to touch the record player in the studio, and our coach told us what to dance, were to dance and when to dance. We respected our professional teachers and we listened to them – we were amateurs. If we wanted to take coaching from another coach we would always ask permission of our main coach and the new coach would always make sure that permission had been given. And so that was as it was then.
While I was home during my recovery I managed to sort through some dance material that had accumulated over the years! Lots of interesting reading from way back when. One article caught my eye which I think is relative to the subject I have just written about.
The article was by the late Eric Hancox (or “The Major” as he was often known). Major Hancox was a former dance champion, an excellent coach who helped Bill and Bobbie Irvine and many other champions in their competitive career. He also coached Albert Franz. As a technician he was great and I personally learned so much from him. I am printing his article on “Then and Now” for your reading pleasure. Remember that this was written in 1983 and he is talking of the era when the UK reigned supreme in the International Style. I think it will give an insight on how the dance profession came about in the twenties and thirties. Happy reading: -
"Then and Now" by Eric Hancox
I think this is going to be more about ‘then’ than ‘now’. It is very difficult to explain to the young the scene in the twenties and thirties. Modern ‘non sequence’ dancing had started as a rather esoteric activity and was originally a plaything of smart people. But it ‘caught on’, as they say, and became a craze with people of all classes. The Palais de Dance became the heart of the matter – the cathedral of a people’s cult. Every town of any size had one – larger cities had several – at one time there were four major dance halls in Birmingham itself, and many more in the environs. They were popular in the sense that the Discotheque is popular today, but their patrons covered every age and class. They were always crowded in those days, at night anyway. The tea dances were not so crowded, and that was where one went to practice! Excellent bands were the order of the day – twelve or fourteen musicians were the norm, and they played music which would astonish and delight today’s dancers. One remembers vividly many of those bands and where one heard them. I danced to Joe Loss at the Astoria, London, and later Jack White – Oscar Rabin at Hammersmith Palais – Teddy Foster at Tony’s Birmingham, playing immaculate music for dancing until later at night, when he would ‘get off’’ a la Louis Armstrong – Wilf Hamer at the Grafton, Liverpool, a magic place in those days – Peter Fielding, who for years created standards of his own at the Oxford Galleries, Newcastle – to name but a few.
Every Palais had a tea dance every day, usually from three until six, and an evening session from eight until twelve, with usually a late night on Friday – sometimes called ‘Residents Night’ or some such title; it was the ‘posh’ night and people dressed up for it. There was always a professional staff in attendance – never less than six men and six girls – more in larger establishments. It is usual today to deprecate the boys and girls who worked in the ‘Pen’, but such prejudice is completely undeserved. They were always good and dedicated dancers, very well groomed and behaved, very hard working, and very many champions came from their ranks.
The program was always ten dances to the hour – thirty in the afternoon, forty at night. The indicator always showed what dance was being played, and the number in the program: one could tell the time by those numbers – when dance Number 16 came up at the Tea Dance, it was half past four! You can see that professional partners in demand led a fairly strenuous life, dancing anything up to 70 dances a day. Yet they practiced and gave private lessons in the morning and between sessions!
The dancing itself? Well, there were a good percentage of ‘taught’ dancers always, but of course a lot a people were not, but they copied, and they all loved to dance. Many young people went to the Palais every night, and there were always a lot of ‘singles’ – the old ‘boy meets girl’ motif – and romance was part of the scene. (if you asked one of these unattached girls to dance with you, she would follow you perfectly – God knows what her feet would be doing, but she danced. I once complemented a young lady on her ease of movement, and she replied, “you have to be light, or you don’t get any partners!” The keen dancers were splendid – there were not so many flashy figures, of course, and the concentration was always on style, rhythm, and accuracy. We considered the use of any exaggerated figure or trick as rather bad form. P. J. S. Richardson once wrote that "the best dancer may be the one you notice last" – very different from today! I think the whole thing was more, much more, sophisticated – the people, the manners, and the dancing itself.
We had many variations, of course, but they were usually subtle things of timing, use of the body, and control of rhythm to engender expression. Frank Ford once said that the Champion was the one who could accelerate and decelerate – and with that I agree. I still employ figures of Frank’s as examples, when I give my lectures on ‘Music and the Ballroom Dancer’. Incidentally, just before he died in the fifties, he said to me, “The twenties were the Golden Age, the thirties were the Silver Age, the forties were the Bronze Age, and now we are back in the Stone Age!” I think if Frank could see some of today’s efforts, he would think we were back with the Pterodactyls and Dinosaurs!
I have vivid (and reverent) recollections of the ‘greats’ of those days – Josephine Bradley, Victor Sylvester, Phyllis Haylor, Frank Ford, Timmy Palmer, Wellesley Smith, Maxwell Stewart, Henry Jacques, and many more. (How lucky I was to be taught by many of them!). All perfectionists in everything they did – not only in their work; elegance and style were their hallmarks –the ladies well modulated in speech, groomed, gowned, and shod in impeccable taste, the men also superbly turned out, but always with the understatement that shows good form. Perhaps the best dressed man was Henry Jacques, of whom I could paraphrase Michael Arlen – “The suit by Kilgour & French, the hat by Locke, the shoes by Lobb, the linen by Asser & Turnbull and the glory to God!”
Yes, it was another world, and I for one regret the passing of many of the standards of those days.
Major Eric Hancox.
June 1983

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