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popular dancing and the Sydney dance venue, Trocadero

Hale, Patricia, ‘The Dancing Years’, Public History Review, Vol 5/6, Professional Historians Association, Sydney, 1996-97

excerpt one

By 3 April 1936, when the Trocadero opened, the associations of professional ballroom dancing teachers could claim control over the dance floors of Australia. It was a respectability that Matthews argues was hard won, in the face of nearly twenty years of moral and ideological debate. Social dancing had undergone enormous changes in Australia in the previous 25 years. By 1913, ragtime, introduced from America by touring professional dancers and musicians 'was the rage of public dances... teas dansantes were held every afternoon in the big city hotels, restaurants and department stores'. Huge public dance halls–the Palais de Danse–with room for over 2000 dancers were established in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1917 'a new jazz emerged from New Orleans and arrived in Australia by the end of that year: a hot jazz, eccentric, violent'.

In discussing feminine subjectivity, Matthews argues that jazz is one of the most significant tools of modernity and that it is in 'the fusing of them all into the "dance craze" that... women identify as the meaning of the '20s and the heart of their desire to be modern.' Richard Waterhouse argues for a notion of heterosexual modernity 'which Australian men and women put into practice in the large and elaborately decorated dance halls that flourished in the capitals and their suburbs'.

In 1926 the Charleston arrived in Australia and 'in all the capital cities, dances were held every afternoon and evening of the week except Sunday. These were the heady days of dance. During 1925, the Daily Mirror made the robust pronouncement that

Sex is at the back of the dance-mad mania, and so I doubt its passing until some vehicle of sex as alluring is found. Women go to dance halls to meet men and to be embraced by men.

Matthews describes the triangle of protagonists: "Hot rhythm and joyful sensuality were what the fans wanted; barbaric rhythm and illicit sexuality were what the critics abhorred; a regular beat and dignified and graceful movement were what the professional dance teachers tried to impose".

By the mid 1930s the dance teachers had triumphed. The sobering effects of the Depression enhanced their cause. Matthews argues that the compromise effected by the moralists and dance hall entrepreneurs resulted in the rise of self-regulation in the form of professional dance teachers' associations. As she notes, they "gained control of dance competitions and exhibitions; they established the rules of acceptable behaviour and defined and policed the meaning of dancing".

When the economy began to revive in 1935, a new era had dawned in the dance halls. These were respectable, well-run establishments. Modern ballroom dancing (jazz ballroom) had also achieved a respectability which was reflected in the rise of dance studios throughout the city. These 'gave the profession a visibility it had not had before–in particular, a visibility to cross-gender and cross-class audiences'. Now 'they were part of a modern educational program involving health, movement, fitness, and musical appreciation'.

In 1935, Darrell McAleer, aged seventeen, and four or five male friends began attending Rob Brilliant's dance studio in North Sydney once or twice a week. They were going to dances about four times a year at Mosman Town Hall and at the local football and sailing clubs, of which Darrell was a member. He expressed the need to learn the current jazz ballroom style of dancing as a non-gendered social requirement. Other male friends were dancing at other studios. None of the young men in his group had been pressured by parents. It was a decision each had made independently 'to be adequate socially'. He looked at dancing 'more as a sport than anything else', stressing the importance of physical condition, training and practise. He seems to have carried the analogy on to the selection of dance partners when, two years later, he and a friend decided they were now proficient enough to try out at the Trocadero. They would stand watching for the first two or three dances, singling out the best dancers, whom they would then approach for the next bracket of dances. If he had enjoyed dancing with a partner, he might request the next bracket of the same dance. If one had been an especially good dancer he would ask if she was coming back next week and would she dance that bracket with him then. In this way he selected a team of partners for the night and perhaps future sessions. He was at pains to point out that this was strictly a social, recreational partnering. He never knew ninety per cent of his partners names and it was not a romantic exercise.

Darrell's experience of the social ritual of dancing as a learned art, and the associated role of his partners, illustrates the shift in attitude from the 1920s to the 1930s. The heady days of the 1920s dance craze with its overt sexuality implicit in the hot jazz rhythm and dances had been replaced with a pleasure that was sensual but professional and essentially respectable. This was the era of the big bands and swing music, personified at the Trocadero in Frank Coughlan and the Trocadero Orchestra. The jazz waltz, quick-step and slow foxtrot would be played in brackets of three. Vocalists, soloists or trios, would perform with some numbers. Tangos and rhumbas also featured. Hot arrangements often interspersed the dance numbers, but strict dance tempo was what the dancers looked for now in practising their ballroom skills.

excerpt two

The Trocadero held an unimpeachable record on crowd control. While it never had to deal with the Twenties dance craze, it seems to have been ever watchful of its dancers through the Red Coats (as the bouncers were often referred to). T.R. Doepel recalls being frisked for hidden alcohol when he danced regularly on Saturday nights between 1946 and 1949. (In common with other dance halls, the Trocadero only served soft drink). Alice Mason recalls seeing a scuffle at the Palais Royale (where her father had forbidden her to dance). Like Edna Johnstone she was another nineteen-year-old going to the Saturday and week night dances at the Trocadero on her own from 1936 to 1938. But neither saw nor encountered any trouble. Brian O'Brien recalls fights at other dance venues, but never the Trocadero, where he danced for all its thirty-one years. Only Helen Anderson recalls a wartime scuffle between American sailors which was immediately stopped by the American Military Police Shore Patrol. Marjorie Whiffen spoke for most when she enthused that it was 'so vast and so well controlled'.

In its pre-war years, the Trocadero's aura of respectability was enhanced by its promotion of itself as an entertainment venue through its packed weekly program of events. The emphasis on entertainment, competitions and novelty prizes with music and dancing at all the popular sessions was one half of a marketing drive to attract custom. The other was the creation of an affordable glamour and opulence within reach of ordinary wage earners, coupled with the best value for money.

Jack Musgrave, who took over as General Manager of the Trocadero towards the end of 1936 ushered in many changes that moved the Trocadero from a meals-based dance venue (with luncheons, teas and dinners) to a more populist venue with competitions, novelties, prizes and entertainment interspersed with the music and dancing. Meal provision was limited to Friday Dress Night suppers and the Friday and Saturday tea dansants. In the ball season, however, from April to September, Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for balls which served a two course dinner (main and dessert with coffee) at 10pm that described itself as 'supper'.

Outside the ball season the weekly programme of events followed a regular pattern in the pre-war years. Popular dancing nights were Monday (when admission was cheapest at 1/6d), Wednesday (1/6d for women, 2/6d for men) and Saturday (2/- for women, 2/6d for men). Tuesday and Thursday nights were designated old-time new-vogue, featuring set dances, progressive and barn dances and the Pride of Erin. Novelty prizes, sponsored competitions with cups, cash and other prizes and exhibition dancing were spread over different nights. Some exhibition dancers were hired by Musgrave for a season and paraded on most popular nights. Helen Greacen remembers these at the Saturday tea dansants in 1939. Les Hennely recalls the marketing lure employed by dance studios which organised demonstration dances by well-known couples. Dancers would rush to the particular studio and within three weeks everyone would be proficient in the latest steps. The Trocadero offered a full programme of music, dancing and entertainment throughout the year and closed only on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. As the advertorial of the time said of the Trocadero, there was seemingly 'never a dull moment'.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Patricia Hale.

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