Dancing changed dramatically in the 1920s, with new music, new moves and new places in which to do them. Jazz dancing was a radical shift in style, matching the syncopated energy of the music it was done to. Along with new dances and new music came new ways of dressing and new venues – the cabaret and nightclub. The combination was regarded by some as debauched and dangerous.
New couple dances like the foxtrot and quickstep involved a close hold. The careful 5–10-centimetre distance between a dancing pair, standard in the 19th century, was gone. The dance that came to represent jazz, the charleston, hit New Zealand in 1925, and was followed by the black bottom in 1926 and the slower, easier-to-master Yale blues in 1927. The speed and vigour of the charleston and black bottom were only possible in the looser, less restrictive clothing that had become fashionable for women.
A drink between dances
Men attending dances sometimes shared a drink or two, slipping outside if they couldn’t smuggle it into the hall. Joseph Barnett remembered that ‘old Jim’, the local policeman, ‘didn’t like that so he used to chase us … it was only harmless, harmless fun’.1
Combining new and old
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s what came to be called old-time dancing kept right on going in halls and at balls throughout New Zealand. In rural areas in particular, old-time dancing remained the norm. In the 1930s the fashion for the more extreme jazz dances ended, and a combination of old and new dances became standard.
Public dances, run in church, friendly-society, school and town halls, shearing sheds and the like, could be found several nights a week. By the 1920s some of them were commercially run and nationally known. The Dunedin town hall dance, known as ‘Joe Brown’s matrimonial agency’ because of the number of couples who met there, was broadcast nationally on the radio from 1937 to 1967.
Annual debutante balls and other formal events continued to be held by businesses, government departments and university faculties. Local papers filled columns with reports on how well a ball had gone and details of what the women wore.
Rock ’n’ roll
Rock ’n’ roll dancing arrived in the mid-1950s, and was greeted with the usual concerns about debauchery and degeneracy. Like jazz dancing before it, rock ’n’ roll jiving was often vigorous, associated with youth, and the focus of fascinated media attention. At Auckland’s first rock ’n’ roll dance, held in 1956 at the Hobson Street Yugoslav Hall, so many turned up that the dance floor sagged and plate-glass windows on the floor below flexed in time to the rhythm. This enthusiasm was felt throughout the country, and at some dances vigorous jivers clashed with sedate ballroom dancers. At its peak, jiving was banned at some events.
New Zealand’s first endurance dance contest took place at the Roseland Cabaret, Wellington, in April 1957. After 23 hours the last two couples travelled, still dancing, on the back of a truck to the town hall. The winners were declared three hours later, when one pair collapsed after 26 hours of continuous movement.
Many dancers organised or joined clubs to ensure they had opportunities to perform with like-minded others. Some clubs focused on national dance forms. Scottish country dancers, for example, set up a New Zealand-wide network of clubs in the 1950s, holding summer schools and annual balls. The title of their history – Sociable, carefree, delightful – reflected the feeling of members about their recreation.
Dancing at school
School was the place where many New Zealanders first learnt to dance. Introduced as a very minor part of the curriculum in the early 20th century, dance was a supplement to drill (movements done en masse in response to precise commands). Morris and other folk dancing was seen as the most appropriate form of dance for children. In the 1940s Māori action songs (along with stick games) were included.
Efforts to introduce modern or creative dance to schools were not particularly successful – like the Greek dance inspired by Isadora Duncan in the 1920s and 1930s, it was most popular in some girls’ secondary schools. Folk dance remained the dance experience of most school children.