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by Megan Cook

Since European settlers first arrived in New Zealand, dancing has been a popular way of socialising, exercising and meeting potential partners. In the 2000s people continued to enjoy dance clubs, classes, school discos and balls, nightclubs, parties and raves.

Dancing in 19th-century New Zealand

Colonial dancing

Among European colonists dance was a favourite recreation and entertainment, and a way of keeping warm on cold nights, socialising and meeting potential partners. Encouraged to dance while on board ship (as healthy exercise), the new arrivals continued to do so once they landed. Opportunities to dance ranged from formal balls among the elite to dancing in a woolshed at the end of shearing. In 1850s Wellington (population 5,000), for example, there were balls during the ‘season’ (June to September). Less formal dances, held wherever there was enough room for dancing, were probably more frequent but went unrecorded.

The worst thing

A Māori observer described Europeans dancing in the 1840s. ‘[T]hey were continually bobbing to each other, and rushing to and fro in the greatest confusion, and yet we could see no collision and no blood. Then they cease, and begin eating; then more rings would sound and away they would rush as if they were mad, and go on with the same jumpings’. It was, he said, ‘katahi he hanga kino’ (the worst thing we have seen).1

In the first few decades of European settlement, women were scarce and much sought-after as dancing partners. It was usual for younger women and teenage girls to be on the floor for every dance. Behaviour at balls followed set rules, but in colonial New Zealand some of these were relaxed – men were allowed to dance together if no women were available. Suppers, which ranged from sumptuous to simple, were an important part of a ball or dance. The chance to meet a future husband or wife attracted many people to dances, and asking a partner to supper was a declaration of interest.

In the mid-19th century Māori attended balls (and no doubt also dances). The New Zealander reported on the attendance of chiefly Māori at a ball at Government House in Auckland, probably in the 1850s. The women, who wore the latest European fashions, were enthusiastic dancers, quickly mastering the steps of quadrilles and polkas, but the men were more reserved, preferring to watch. By the later 19th century the attendance of well-to-do Māori at balls was commonplace.


Dances included:

  • folk dances (jigs, reels and the like)
  • ballroom dances (polkas and waltzes)
  • sequence dances (quadrilles and lancers).

How sedate or vigorous a dance was depended to some extent on those doing it, as well as the steps and movements of the dance itself. The galop, for example, was just what its name suggests, and when done by young people could easily become a romping, rollicking race across the floor. The polka, when done by the unskilled, could become immodest.

Learning to dance

With the colonists came teachers of dance, and by the 1850s they were advertising their classes. Mr Reid’s Select Dance Class was held on Tuesday nights in St George’s Hall in Dunedin. Men paid 10 shillings per month, women and juveniles 6 shillings. Classes were expensive, and many people were taught to dance by older relatives, or by joining in when family and friends danced. Dances like the quadrille (which was the basis of square dancing) were a series of set movements performed sequentially by groups of couples, and the simple forms were relatively easy to learn.

Suppressing fun

When Auckland justices of the peace gathered for an annual licensing meeting in 1868, the city’s commissioner of police had stern words for them. Police attempts to suppress music and dancing in Auckland’s pubs were failing. With the permission of a justice of the peace, a ‘special occasion’ could be celebrated. Enterprising Queen Street publicans had found up to six nights a week’s worth of special occasions, and justices of the peace willing to sign the permits in daily and even weekly batches.

Where and when

At first, people danced in homes or any available space large enough. Hotels held regular dances until the 1860s, when many provinces limited or suppressed this. In 1881 Parliament made dancing in licensed premises illegal, unless run by a private society (rather than the publican) with the permission of the local licensing committee. There was growing concern over alcohol consumption and a belief that dancing and music were being used to draw people into hotels.

There were plenty of alternatives. Dances and balls were put on by local groups, businesses, military regiments and individuals. They were held to celebrate New Year’s Eve; to accompany sporting events, meetings of friendly societies and the opening of woolsheds; or just for the fun of it.

Until the later 19th century many areas had poor roads and no street lighting, and dances were often timed to take advantage of a full moon. There are also accounts of dancing till dawn (or close to it). The Taradale Mikado Quadrille club fancy dress ball, held in April 1887, began at 9 p.m. after a cooling shower of rain, and ended at 4 a.m., when another shower soaked those on their way home. Dancing from one day to the next, eating a post-ball breakfast with the host, and setting off home in daylight when travel was easier was a common country practice.

    • Quoted in J. M. Thomson, ‘The indefatigable pursuit: glimpses of the colonial ball in New Zealand.’ Stout Centre Review 3, no. 1 (November 1992), p. 13. Back

Jazz to rock ’n’ roll

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 dances

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.

Endurance test

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.

Dance clubs

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.

    • Quoted in Caroline Daley, Girls & women, men & boys: gender in Taradale, 1886–1930. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999, p. 108/ Back

Dancing, 1960s to 2000s

Dancing in the 2000s

In 2007–8 a national survey found dancing was the eighth-most popular physical activity for New Zealanders. Like thousands before them, almost 550,000 adult New Zealanders loved to dance, going to clubs, classes, tea dances, school discos and balls, nightclubs, parties and raves. The dances done included most of those New Zealanders had enjoyed since 1840, but many people were doing something different. Dancing without touching those around you, with no set steps or movements, had become standard in nightclubs and at most parties.

An end to couple dancing?

In 1961 the twist arrived in New Zealand. It was remarkably easy to learn – dancers acted as if they were towelling their bottom and putting out a cigarette with each foot – and done entirely individually. It was the beginning of the end of needing to ask or be asked to dance, and with that formality went much of the dance etiquette that remained.

From this point dancing became increasingly loose and self-directed. It was a shift that did not suit everyone, and teenage boys in particular became notorious for their reluctance to dance. There was help available – dance moves could be learnt from television. New Zealand shows like C’mon (1960s) and Happen Inn (1970s) featured local performers and dancers; in the 1980s music videos became a standard marketing tool for record companies and provided a guide to overseas dance moves. Movies had long served this purpose, and in 1977 Saturday night fever (the disco equivalent of Rock around the clock in 1956) proved a useful guide and left an enduring dance-floor legacy.

Nightclubs and dance halls

In the 1960s nightclubs began to replace dance halls, and by the 1980s the shift was complete. Although many clubs had live bands, recorded music was often used and eventually took over, with the DJ replacing the band as the star of the show. Physical contact between dancers was a feature of some dances – the bump, a disco style, included glancing body contact, usually with the hips, bottom or shoulders, between partners – but it was taken for granted that people would dance together without touching.

Daring to dance

Bopping and breaking arrived in Wellington in 1982, brought by a group of New Zealand Samoan cousins. One of them, Petelo, had just arrived back from Samoa, where he had learnt a few moves. He taught the others, and then they were out on the street, ‘wiggling like a rubber snake, him and his cousins jerking about like puppets’. At first it was hard – Petelo remembers ‘daring each other to go first … you go … no, you go first … looking silly’.1

From the 1970s women-only dances (held by women’s liberation groups) and lesbian and gay dances became a feature of city life. Although women’s dances continued the tradition of using halls, lesbians and gay men opened nightclubs as well as holding dances and large dance parties.

Street dancing

In the early 1980s breaking (acrobatic floor-based moves) and bopping (robotic dance moves), both forms of street dance, arrived in New Zealand from the United States via Samoa. By late 1983 many North Island towns had one or more groups, whose members were almost always Pacific Island or Māori. Breaking and bopping were often performed on the street or in city squares or malls, with teams competing with each other. In the 2000s breaking was embedded in the New Zealand dance scene, with classes offered at dance studios, local competitions and New Zealand teams winning international competitions.

Starry dancing

When All Black Norm Hewitt and partner Carol-Ann Hickmore won the first series of Dancing with the stars in 2005, Hewitt commented, ‘Through dance I was able to break a stereotype … since the show … I have had men say to me, “Thanks for making it okay for us to dance”’.2

Clubs and classes

In the 1990s and 2000s there were clubs for national dances, rock ’n’ roll, ballroom, line, round and square dancing. Classes ran in all these and more. Couple dancing came back into fashion. Classes for ballroom, jive and Latin styles were popular, dances were held in halls around the country, and on television Dancing with the stars partnered non-dancing celebrities with professional dancers in knock-out rounds of modern ballroom dance.

Children learned hip hop, tap and ballet. With the introduction of discos at primary-school level, folk dance lost its place as the dominant school dance experience.

    • Quoted in Mark Scott, Street-action Aotearoa. Auckland: Arohanui Publications, 1985, pp. 54–55. Back
    • Norm Hewitt, ‘Nine to Noon’, National Radio, 23 December 2005. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Dancing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 July 2021)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 Sep 2013