The Early Days of the Ballroom Dance Scene
Modern dancing was beginning to take definite shape in this era, and much of its development depended on London's conditions at that time. Before 1914 in London, there was no equivalent of the modern dance hall. At a few English seaside resorts where many people took their holidays, such as Blackpool, Douglas, Isle of Man, and others, popular dance halls existed. In London, people who could only afford a little for their dancing were cared for by the old-time sequence teachers who held dances in their studios called “academies” at that time.
Possibly, once or twice a week, an “assembly" was organized in a Town Hall or similar place. At all these parties, the 'sequence and the 'set' dances flourished. The first modern 'Palais' to be opened was the Hammersmith 'Palais de Danse' in 1919, soon to be followed by the 'Palais de Danse' at Birmingham under the same management. The Palais provided an up-to-date program and modern orchestra instead of the program primarily made up of sequence dances and played by a 'Quadrille Band' given at the old Assemblies.
Subscription Dances, organızed either in aid of charity or by some tennis, cricket, or rowing club, were held in the ballrooms attached to the big hotels. In addition, there were many “dance clubs." These were not regular studios as they owned no premises but made use of some large ballroom. Each one was a series of weekly and sometimes bi-weekly dances with a subscription covering the series. You could meet the best dancers of the day at these dances and found well-known bands playing the most up-to-date music.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Waltz was supreme. Since it was first introduced into London ballrooms, it had passed through many changes, most of a fleeting nature, such as in the late 1840s, when for a time, the valse à deux temps was fashionable. Later on, there were 'Hop Waltzes,' Slow Waltzes, and even a strange melancholy affair known as the 'Kensington Crawl.' On the whole, however, the steps of the valse à Trois temps, as described by Carlo Blasis in 1830, more or less held fair, with slight modifications.
By 1910 the Waltz was the unchallenged Queen of the Ballroom, and in a program of twenty-four dances, eighteen might be Waltzes. The remaining numbers would be Two-Steps and Lancers. Only a year later, the Two-Step had given way to the One-Step.
Waltz music was now supreme, the old-time Rotary Waltz was fighting for its life, and a fierce battle was raging between the 'old- stagers' and the younger generation of those days as to how the dancers should interpret the music. It must be remembered that the Waltz was played slowly only at the popular assemblies and academies. Everywhere else the music was played at a considerable speed.
There was a disagreement between the two parties whether one should do the old-time Rotary Waltz to this fast music or adopt rectilinear Waltzing, generally called the Boston. It was the beginning of the revolt by the younger generation of dancers against the Victorian teacher's somewhat stereotyped technique with its 'turned-out' five positions and 'pretty' movements, which resulted shortly after the First World War in the foundation of modern technique based on natural movement. Temporarily the Boston triumphed. By 1912 the Rotary Waltz was not seen at the Club dances in town; it only flourished at the private dances, the ordinary subscription dances.
The Boston differed significantly from the Waltz: in fact, except that both dances were done to music in 3/4 time signature, they had little in common. In the Boston, partners held each other in "American fashion"- hip to hip. The lady was on the man's right, and both his feet were outside his partner. The rhythm or relative time duration in the Boston was not dactylic (long, short, short) as in the Waltz, but all three steps were of equal time length and occupied two bars of music. Thus, the six steps necessary for the full turn took four bars of music twice the time required in the Rotary Waltz. The actual steps were taken as much on the flat foot as possible.
The Boston's basic movements were known as the Zigzag, the Turn (both Natural and Reverse), and the Crab, and there was something extraordinarily fascinating in doing them to a good swinging Waltz tune.
A lot of variations such as the Double and Tripple Boston, and the Royal Boston were introduced, of which only the first made any significant impact. The danced died shortly after. We are inclined to think that the crowded floors at the then "smart places" such as the Lotus, Ciro's where the Rag was the popular dance of the day, did a great deal to kill it. The "new Waltz" needed just too much space. In the meantime, the pre-1914 Tango, with its countless steps- had swept the country. A combination of the corté action with the Boston gave us the "Tango Waltz" and the birth of the Hesitation step. During this time, people were trying to dance Tango steps to Waltz time.
It is generally accepted that the Tango originated among the lower classes in the neighborhood of Buenos Aires, particularly 'Barrio de las Ranas', the most disreputable quarter of the city when it was in the first instance known as Baile Con Corté- the 'dance with a stop.' The girls wore full skirts and the men the gaucho costume, with high boots and spurs. The attempt to dance in this cumbersome gear brought about several movements associated with the Tango.
The town's gallants saw this dance and introduced it into their favorite cafes, also of doubtful respectability, making two changes. To produce a more dreamy effect, they substituted the habanera rhythm, and to show that their dance was no longer the common Baile Con Corté, they called it the Tango. For many years, it was not danced by anyone in Buenos Aires who had his or her good name at heart.
It was towards the close of the nineteenth century that the Tango was first heard of in Europe. After 1900 several sporadic attempts were made by amateurs from Argentine to show it in Paris. Among those who picked up the dance and were impressed with its immense possibilities was Monsieur Camille de Rhynal, who was afterward to become well known as a dancer, composer, writer, and countless organizer of dance competitions.
In 1907 he thought that the dance he had seen in Argentina should be introduced on the London stage. Gabrielle Ray, a musical comedy singer and dancer, and Rhynal, with her assistance, gave the impresario an idea of the dance. Both agreed that in its form at that moment, it could not possibly be presented to a London audience.
The same year Camille de Rhynal found himself at the Imperial Country Club at Nice. He gathered around him a few enthusiasts, including the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. They set to work to experiment with the Tango, and very soon - stripped of its objectionable features - it became a dance possible to be presented in the ballroom. It even became possible for him to institute in that same year (1907) a Championship Competition.
The new dance soon found its way to Paris, and for a time, its headquarters were at a café, then known as La Feria, afterward Zelli's, which was in the rue Fontaine up at Montmartre. The Tango made rapid success in 1909 when the paper Excelsior held a big dancing competition, the Tango was included, and this event was won by M. de Rhynal, who had Mado Minty for his partner.
In February of 1911, the description of the dance was given in England. However, it was not until after the summer holidays of the following year that those who had seen it danced at Deauville, Dinard, and other casino towns, began to ask for it in London, and Tango Teas became the rage. George Grossmith gave the first significant flip to the Tango in this country when he danced it with Phyllis Dare in 1912 at the Gaiety Theatre. In a letter to P. J. S. Richardson, he told how he first learned the dance and threw an exciting light on the beginning of 'restaurant dancing'. George Grossmith wrote: 'It was in the winter of 1911. I had my first lesson in the Tango from Jean de Reszke at her house in Paris. She was then an old lady but danced like a girl of eighteen. She started the dance craze, and it became suddenly fashionable in Paris, and later in London, to have "Tango parties" in drawing-rooms with an Argentine boy playing the piano.
At this time, they began to introduce dancing couples into restaurants, and Victor Silvester was one of the first among the ordinary people to dance on the floor between the tables. Other spectators followed suit. The restaurants welcomed this invitation and began to clear a small space in the middle of the room. The Savoy was the first one to do this in London.
The Tango of pre-1914 days was a very different affair from the Tango we know today. Not only was it dance to the Habanera rhythm, but it was a dance of countless steps and figures. No two teachers taught precisely alike, and no serious attempt was ever made to standardize the dance. Sometimes the figures were called by their Spanish names, sometimes by the French, which served to add to the confusion, the state of affairs that was not improved when one journalist announced that there could be found a new tango step for each day the year.
In the summer of 1914, Maurice and Florence Walton danced the Tango before Queen Mary at a ball given by the Grand Duke Michael at Kenwood, Hempstead. The figures they used were El Paseo (The Slow Walk), La Marcha ( The Quick Walk), El Corte, Paseo Con Golpe (the Walk with a Stomp), La Media Luna, Las Tijeras ( the Scissors), La Rueda (the Wheel) and El Ocho (the Eight).
During the early days of the present century, the only dances to be found on programs apart from the Waltz were the Two-step, the Lancers, the Barn dance, and sometimes as a finale the Galop. The Galop and the Barn dance were on their last legs, and the Lancers were beginning to lose popularity at the dances. However, they were found on the programs of all Hunt and Country Balls and many private subscription dances until 1914. The Polka and the Quadrille were still retained on the program of the State balls
In 1910 the two Steps gave way to the One-step, which brought in the Judy walk, the Turkey Trot, and Bunny hug. By 1912 with the gaining popularity of Alexander's Ragtime Band, the Rag became one of the popular dances in the dance clubs. It is interesting to note that before the coming of the Rag, London was influenced by Paris. From this time onward until after the First World War, when London took the lead, our dancing was swayed by New York.
With Tango crazy easing in the early days of 1914, we had for a time the strenuous Maxixe, which readers of today must not confuse with the Maxina- a sequence dance. The Boston, with its hip to hip hold requiring too much space for the dance club – and the predominance of the Rag, send the teaching Professional vainly searching for a new dance. Attempts were made to introduce dances such as the Furlana, the Lulu Fado, the Roulii- Roulli, the Argentine Polka, and the Ta-tao.
In the meantime, and just before the break of war, the Foxtrot crept in from America entirely unknown.
Resources: Victor Silvester, Modern Ballroom Dancing, New Edition