Dancing down the decades

With miniature pencil in hand, a girl hoped to fill her dance card before the band first sounded. A card bereft of names did not bode well for one’s evening—or prospects for marriage. But by 1957, for the patrons of Wellington Town Hall’s rock ‘n’ roll dance, cards were ancient history and the music and moves were light years removed from the decorum that had prevailed just 80 years earlier. Although every generation seems compelled to devise its own ways of moving to its music, the popularity of dancing never falters.

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It was my first dance and I was 14. Mum had pieced me together a shiny green dress (shot silk), with shoulder pads. It fanned out from the hips according to the felt-tip design I had drawn for Mum with specifications for pleats. Once complete, I asked Mum to hack five more inches off the hemline. She held her tongue and snipped away. The result was a high-shouldered, long-sleeved, triangular top with fanned belt disguised as a skirt. I stood on the stairs and had my photograph taken.

Dad dropped me at the door of the school hall smack on eight. At the door of the hall, my arranged partner stood waiting (a friend of a friend). Tall and handsome, he was any girl’s dream. I gave him his ticket with his name on it, and watched him disappear. I walked along the line-up of teachers, keeping my eyes lowered. There were rumours that in previous years, classroom rulers had distanced the close-dancers.

When I entered the hall I found pockets of girls in shift dresses. Fanned minis may have been in last year but by the winter of ’91 they were noticeably out. Someone looked me up and down, and pointedly remarked, “I like the colour of your dress”.


I danced mostly with circles of girls. Confident boys entered the circles and performed backspins and dolphins. The girls whooped them on while simultaneously maintaining the flap of their chicken wing arms, knees pumping.

At some point, I found myself dancing next to two boys roughly the same height as me. Another short girl joined us. Unusually, both the boys wore suits—one also had a top hat. They were holding their noses with one hand and making a snorkel with the other, bending their knees and wiggling their hips from side to side like a vertical swim-wiggle. The boys danced by me and I danced by them for the rest of the evening. I can’t remember talking. But still I was quietly pleased.

When my Granny went to balls 70 years ago, her dance-partners asked to marry her. For Leila, in Katherine Mansfield’s Her First Ball, chaperones, dance-programmes, and powder room cries for invisible hairpins signified a momentous coming-of-age. Although dances and their associated mores have changed profoundly, social dancing has remained a central panel in the social fabric of society, part of the coming of age ritual especially for women, an arena in which affections are stirred and relationships forged.

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Social dance accounts figure frequently in the letters and diaries of 19th century British immi­grants who travelled first-class to New Zealand. Their exclusive dances were held on the poop deck or in the first-class saloon. Attendance by invitation coupled with formal dress codes rein­forced class divisions. On board Kaikoura in 1887, young Bethia Cromb marvelled from the stairs as “Mr Dymond…dressed in a white suit like a cricketer’s…and Miss Thomson, dressed as the Queen of Night all in black net with gold moons shining out of the draperies”, ventured down through the rain to show off their costumes to the girls in steerage. (Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-5481).

While the upper class transplanted their private balls from “home” to the colony, they weren’t the only ones to dance on board. Ships’ doctors encouraged all passengers to dance for exercise. But accounts of dances written by steerage and second-class passengers are rare.

“I am some tired,” wrote single steerage passenger Helen Alexander in 1863, “and this a dancing night. Well I think I will not need it for exercise at any rate. One of the girls down with us was complaining one night and the Dr was told. He came and prescribed dancing. He said it was want of exercise that ailed her. That will not be a disease of mine so long as there is dancing in the way, for you all know how fond I am of it.” (Diary of Helen Alexander, Otago Settlers’ Museum).

Despite the austerity of the war years, women did their best to look good, whether for local men at a 1945 RSA dance in Westport or for exotic American servicemen (top) at Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret. The Americans brought glamourous sheer stockings, in the absence of which tan dye with a seam of eyeliner up the calf usually had to suffice.


Like gymnastics, dramatics and games, dancing offered light relief during the long voyage. The fa­miliar figures and rhythms of a rousing reel could produce a kind of classless nostalgia, a shared sense of what it meant to be leaving home. Indeed, writers made special note if, on a whim, first-class and steerage passengers polkaed together. It seems such egalitarianism was more likely to occur during spontaneous dances on smaller ships.

On larger ships, the presence of an intermediate class accentuated social division. Not permitted to attend first-class dances and unlikely to partner those in steerage, second-class passengers such as a Mr P. Davy, in 1895, found themselves on uncomfortable middle ground, critical of the breach between first and second class: “We had another small concert and dance and several first-class passengers condescended to honour us with their presence. It must be very slow in the first saloon.” (Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-4391).

In the 1840s two social dance traditions reached New Zealand’s shores: the invitation-only ball and the ticketed public dance. Wellington’s first anniversary was a strange amalgam of the two.

In May 1840 the New Zealand Company set up a committee to organise the occasion. For nine months the New Zealand Gazette and Britannia Spectator dutifully reported progress. Despite their initial good intentions, committee members bickered ceaselessly: “a man or a measure proposed by one of the employing class was sneered at or joked down by the carpenters and tailors; a proposition from a mechan­ic or labourer was objected to or cavilled at by a rangatira; and no union could be formed,” reported company founder Edward Gibbon Wakefield (Adventure in New Zealand, Viking, 1987, p 171).

Dances with US servicemen could be notoriously loose, and after WWII, the propriety of pre-war balls and debutante ceremonies was restored. Here 103 debutantes stand poised with posies ready to make their curtsies to Dr J.P. Kavanagh, Roman Catholic Bishop of Dunedin.

The result? Two celebrations—one for the “select”, another for the “popular”, both with sports’ days and balls—held in late January 1841. Other colonial settlements were less divided. In February 1849, for example, the Otago News advertised a single fete and ball to promote communal “hilarity and concord” in Dunedin.

Wellington lumbered on, and for the second year running two separate anniversary balls were organised. Eschewing the previous year’s labels, the Gazette, on page 1, instructed readers how to purchase tickets for the Exchange Ball and, on page 2, advised readers keen to attend a ball at Barrett’s Hotel to make an early application to the committee of M. Murphy Esq. The same paper sweetly announced that on celebration day Richard Brown, of Te Aro, would release two variegated balloons at 9 p.m., weather permitting.

Many of the letters and diaries of New Zealand’s wealthiest settlers provide full and decorative descriptions of balls held at private homes and at Government House. In The Oxford History of New Zealand Music (1991), Dr John Mansfield Thomson elo­quently summarises preparation for the most elaborate colonial balls:

The elements of the ball are beyond rational analysis: the clothes, the perfumes, the hairstyle, the lace, the flounces, the visits to the milliners, and the perusal of the latest fashions from overseas; the programme card…originally of silver or tortoise­shell, velvet or satin, and finally paper, and the gold pencil which became a mere wooden artefact with a tassel finish; the prepara­tion of the supper, the ordering of wine, port, champagne, and the best Madeira, the putting up of decorations…

Crimped hair and side-parts: this dance at the Wellington Town Hall took place in the 1930s. “Go-where-you-will” foxtrots and quicksteps were always neat-footed numbers for a crowd in a crush.

For the remainder of the population, saloons and hotels ad­vertised weekly dancing in the local newspapers. In 1868, Jules Guerin of the Victoria Hotel and Dancing Saloon in Grey-mouth promised dance patrons a Parisian experience. In fact, the West Coast Times reported that Mr Guerin could “scarcely find words to express his pleasure at being once more with his Greymouth friends. He has been at home, seen the Great Paris Exposition, and learned a few wrinkles, not only in the adorn­ment of his Saloons but in the style in which they should be conducted, which will be a pleasant surprise to his visitors” (June 1, 1868). The saloon offered the best band on the West Coast, and not just weekly dancing, but nightly dancing.

A world away from Paris was the “harvest home”—a celebration at a farmer’s homestead of the local harvest, particularly popular in Otago and Nelson. Throughout the country there were also committee-organised public dances, to which gentlemen could buy single or double tickets. Committees came from organisations such as the Mechanics’ Institute or the Freemasons, or were made up of local single men or women, the dances then being called bachelors’ balls or spinsters’ balls accordingly. To keep costs down, hosts could opt to serve just tea with bread and butter at suppertime—hence “bread-and-butter balls”.

A feature common to all these events was a lack of ladies. In Wellington in 1847 there were 528 bachelors and only 248 spinsters. As a result, wallflowers were invariably male. Men arrived early to secure names on their dance cards, and oc­casionally requested women to split dances between partners. At the Godleys’ ball in Lyttelton in 1851, 26-year-old bachelor Edward Ward counted 60 gentlemen and 30 women, with 20 couples the most that danced at one time. This did not bode well for Mr Ward’s chances of finding a wife, especially as there were “no pretty young ladies unmarried” (The Journal of Edward Ward, Pegasus Press, 1951, p 122).

For women, being in the minority was exhausting. While men hoped for a partner, women most probably hoped for a rest. After the Lyttelton Bachelors’ Ball in 1851, Charlotte Godley reported to her mother that: “Mrs Russell, who always gets into uproarious spirits on any festive occasion, assured me next morning that she danced forty times and wore out the only tidy pair of thin boots she had (you cannot realise what a misfortune that means here) and did not get home till after eleven [a.m.]. Mrs Fitzgerald, who left soon after five [a.m.], left her there with a dilapidated dress, and her hair all danced down.” (Letters from Early New Zealand 1850-1853, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1951, p 187)

Who will dance with me? At New Zealand’s colonial balls, few women meant men became the wallflowers, but during WWII, an absence of men sometimes forced women to dance together, as here at Denniston.

It wasn’t simply that women danced all night: colonial dances ran all night. A dance was one of the most important opportunities for single men and women to meet and for a community to get together. That it be an all-night occasion, for which preparations were elaborate and time-consuming, was there­fore only fitting. Drawing out proceedings was the dance programme itself, typically packed with lengthy numbers. A single quadrille—a group dance for four couples with steps and figures of movement that had to be mastered in advance—could take 15 to 20 minutes. Then there was the purely practical matter of street lighting—or, rather, its absence, which meant that it was logical to return home no earlier than dawn, especially when on horseback.

The upside for women was increased self-confidence and, perhaps, the chance to ascend the social rungs. In 1850, self-dependent and socially observant Mary Taylor wrote to a friend, writer Charlotte Brontë, that for young cousin Ellen “it is quite new to be of such importance by the mere fact of her femi­ninity. She thought she was coming woefully down in the world when she came out and finds herself bet­ter received than ever she was in life before.” (Joan Stevens (ed.), Mary Taylor: Friend of Charlotte Brontë, Letters from New Zealand and Elsewhere, Auckland University Press, 1972, p 91).

The social columns of newspapers all over the country reported on both public and “private” balls, scrupulously analysing ladies’ dress. For Emily Cumming Harris and her two sisters—art, dance and music teachers in Nelson—ball attendance enabled them to keep up with the latest dance steps and to find potential students. But their financial insecurity demanded resourceful dress creation. One couldn’t appear in the same frock too many times, so alteration, using dye or tacking on additional flounces and frills, was the solution. However, as Emily wrote in 1889:

We want things for the winter—a dozen little things and comforts, more than dresses and jackets, for care and skill and taste can make them do for ages. But one cannot make gloves, shoes and ribbons. All these small adjuncts to the toilet make one feel at ease with well-dressed people. I have kept from going to several places lately because all my gloves are more or less shabby…these petty worries make one very cross at times. (Puke Ariki, New Plymouth)

During the early 60’s, sedate city coffee lounges became meeting places where young people could practice the latest wild dance crazes.

Not all dances, though, were about keeping up with one’s well-to-do neighbours. In less-populated regions of New Zealand, public dances were fundamentally inclusive. A photograph of a “bush ball” at Piha Mill, west of Auckland, in about 1915 shows the range of dancers in attendance, from children to Granny and both Maori and Pakeha (Alexander Turnbull Library, A. P. Godber collection, G-679-1/2). Billed as a ball, or less formally as a dance or social, and held in a local hall or woolshed or on a marae, the public country dance lasted well into the 20th century. For the most part, punters bought tickets. The title “social” sometimes indicated the inclusion of singing and games—even, as at Puhoi, skating. Local musicians formed the band.

Though devoid of the formal trappings of a ball, a public country dance was just as socially structured. Women were invited to dance by men. Dance cards were provided, or the MC (usually the leader of the band) called out the numbers. (The advantage of the dance card was that it enabled chaperones to pre-approve a young lady’s dance partners.) It was not appropriate to dance with one person too many times, even one’s husband or wife, and, for a young lady, dances with one’s brother or father were mandatory. Children danced with each other or with their parents, and were permitted to sleep on the chairs around the room as the older generations danced on through the night.

In later years, ladies were asked to bring a plate. Supper was a highlight of the evening. Many descrip­tions of rural dances fondly recall cakes with an inch of cream between two slices of sponge. Here was an opportunity for the local ladies to impress. Supper also offered extended time for flirtation: the dance immediately beforehand was of crucial importance, as it determined with whom you would sit and drink a cup of tea. Likewise, the last dance of the evening determined who might walk you home.

Memories can be rose-tinted, of course, but popular recollection is woven of many common threads: memories of gathering ferns as a child with which to decorate the hall; of travelling long distances to get to a dance, often by horseback, sometimes by boat; of dancing to an accordion and fiddle. And the most vivid memory of all: women seated round the room, sometimes with their fami­lies, while young single men huddled at the door. When the MC called, “Please take your partners for the first dance,” the band was temporarily drowned out by the men’s stampede for partners, likened by more than one witness to the thunder of horses’ hooves at the starting gates at Trentham.

Golden Bay resident Nancy Nalder recalled the dances at Bainham and Collingwood in the 1930s. She travelled to them by horse and cart. Frocks were ordered and arrived by post, to be slightly altered for each dance so as to appear new. If you didn’t have make-up, you used a book bound in red: “Just wet the book and put the dye on your lips and you looked lovely” (Alexander Turnbull Library, OH-Int-0417/3)

Dancing could be an inexpensive form of entertainment. Pat McMinn, who later sang for American troops at Auck­land’s Dixieland, recalled going to dances in Taumarunui during the Depression: “People do these sorts of things when they have sadness. They find something good somewhere to enjoy themselves—that was the music and dances in those days. I remember Epi Shalfoon used to come down to Tau­marunui and bring his dance band. The place was packed…” (Alexander Turnbull Library, OH-Int-0485/17)

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Come the 1920s, jazz music, with cheek-to-cheek dancing, and jazz cabarets, modelled on international standards, were taking off in the urban centres. Maga­zines such as the Ladies Mirror would have you believe that all women clad themselves in flapper dress, danced the charles­ton-blues and left a trail of cigarette ash wherever they went.

Bridget Ristori learned the foxtrot while travelling by ship to New Zealand in 1920: it had been invented on Broadway just seven years earlier. The two-step had already arrived. Couples danced it in an embrace but ballroom codes of conduct had, to date, dictated a distance between man and woman. Auckland-based dance tutor E. A. Williams, who ran the Iolanthe Dance Academy on Queen Street in 1911, displayed traditional mores when he made special note in his class booklet that close dancing of any kind would not be tolerated.

Eastbourne-based musician Henry Rudolph recalled hearing the saxophone for the first time when a ship full of Americans, en route to Australia, arrived in Wellington in the early 1920s. He added a clarinet, sax and xylophone to his dance band, making it a 10-piece; it played at the Eastbourne Rugby Club and Wellington’s dance halls—the Adelphi Cabaret on Cuba Street and the Majestic Cabaret on Willis Street. In Auckland, dance-lovers could jazz the night away at the Peter Pan in the central city, the Dixieland, first in Point Chevalier, then on Queen Street, or the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden.

Dancing at Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club in the early 1950s, Don and sister-in-law Agnes Manunui, were renowned for their skilful jive and rock 'n' roll. During the 1960s, when Beatlemania swept the world, dancing was even practised during lunch breaks.
Dancing at Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club in the early 1950s, Don and sister-in-law Agnes Manunui, were renowned for their skilful jive and rock ‘n’ roll. During the 1960s, when Beatlemania swept the world, dancing was even practised during lunch breaks.

Cabaret dances, advertised in local papers, were consid­ered fashionable and relatively informal. Cheek-to-cheek dancing brought couples physically closer than ever before. Where jazz music was improvised, dance cards were redun­dant, meaning couples could dance together the whole night without any expectation that they change partners. Musical improvisation also allowed dancers to be spontaneous with their steps.

Club owners were often caught up in disagreement with the town clerk’s office over noise complaints, the presence of liquor, operating without a licence and the hours of opening—or, more to the point, clos­ing.

Advertisements for cabaret dances boasted demonstrations of the latest steps: on April 1, 1932, the Pe­ter Pan showcased the tango. Dance-hall games such as Monte Carlo and Lucky Spot, with their promise of prizes, were another way of drawing in the patrons. At Joe Brown’s weekly Dunedin dance in October 1936, the couple who won the Monte Carlo scored a first-class return rail ticket to Timaru and one week’s lodging at a leading Timaru guest house. Cabaret dancers could be assured, too, that their local haunt would be decked out in the latest decorations. In an early (undated) photograph of the Majestic, a mirror ball hangs from the ceiling.

For some, this bright new world was too much. Close dancing, without the social control of dance cards, challenged accepted views of intimacy. Methodist minister the Reverend Henry Ryan received a folderful of letters supporting his stance that Methodist church halls should never be hired for dances. His letters and overseas newspaper clippings contain strong assertions: the modern dance hall is the devil’s greatest playground for over-ardent youths, the foundation for “sexitis”, and the downfall of 90 per cent of women who become prostitutes. One letter to the Reverend simply stated, “Where dancing is, spirituality is not.” (Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-830-20)

While dance cabarets were fashionable places for the urban chic, they don’t appear however to have been within the experience of most in the 1920s and 30s. Many in the popular record cite their preference for the old-time sequence and set dances, preferring the maxina and valeta to the new go-where-you-will jazz numbers. To satisfy all, dance organisers like Joe Brown offered 50-50 dances with a mix of the two styles. At yet other events, jazz music simply wasn’t played. In the 1930s in Gore, Bert Horrell and friends were still dancing the lancers, a type of quadrille in which the man endeavours to spin the woman so fast that her feet come off the ground.


Whether one danced the foxtrot or waltzed, for single men and women all over the country going to a dance was fundamentally about meeting someone of the opposite sex. Numerous letters identify a dance as the starting point for a life-long relationship. Take Pat Sharp, who played the piano at dances in Paraparaumu in the 1930s. He was playing when he first noticed Eunice, but he could never get any­body to play an extra [a dance to give the musicians a break]. “The MC was pretty tough—he said, ‘You get paid to play here.’ Anyway on this particular night, it was the last dance, and one of the Parata girls walked past and I said, ‘What about playing the piano?’ …And I excused myself and had a waltz around with Eunice. She already had her overcoat on and was on her way home! And then later I wrote to her.” (Alexander Turnbull Library, OH-Int-0673/03).

Pat’s letter invited Eunice to attend a dance in Levin with him the following week. She accepted. The two were married three years later.

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Between 1942 and 1944, 100,000 American troops were stationed in Wellington and Auckland to assist with the war in the Pacific. Culturally, here was a new breed. New Zealand women appear to have found the American men more generous, courteous and socially confident than the local chaps. Certainly many were swept off their feet. Almost 1500 married American soldiers, leaving for the United States at the end of the war on the so-called bride ships, while countless others enjoyed short-term romances.

Dances were held to raise funds for the war effort, to boost morale and to entertain the “boys” on leave. Photographs of New Zealand women with American men at the Majestic Cabaret in Wellington in 1942 speak volumes: for many, this was a loose time. With the Americans, too, came swing music: In the Mood; Chattanooga Choo-Choo; The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B. Also the jitterbug, a fast-paced, athletic dance that had the girls spinning and sashaying in and out from their partners. The Americans were renowned for their dancing. Te Arawa and Ngati Raukawa kuia Mihipeka Edwards remembers just sitting and watching them: “they were spectacular to watch and they knew they were good.” (The Silent Migration: Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club 1937-1948: Stories of urban migration told to Patricia Grace, Irihapeti Ramsden and Jonathan Dennis, Huia (NZ), 2001, p 202).

For the local lads, the Americans were serious competition. Letters to newspaper social columns voiced concerns: “I am a young soldier who has always had girlfriends, but they seem dazzled by the Americans and most of them have developed a Yank complex. One girl I thought I might marry later still goes out with me. She is not the sort to be picked up but she had little to talk about but the Yanks that other girls know and how generous they are etc. As for saying it with flowers, what a sissy idea.” (A letter to Lou Lockheart in Eve Ebbett’s When the boys were away: New Zealand women in World War II, Reed, 1984, p 158).

On the night of April 3, 1943, the tension came to a head. In Wellington, the renowned “Battle of Manners Street” saw 1000 American and New Zealand soldiers and civilians fighting with knives and belts for four hours between Manners and Willis Streets. There were run-ins in Auckland, too, while on May 12, 1945, a ruckus began at Wellington’s Mayfair dance hall when a Maori soldier accused an American of stealing his hat. The incident sparked a free-for-all on Cuba Street. Pieces of furniture were thrown from the windows of the Mayfair and used as improvised batons. In consequence, the Maori Bat­talion’s next weekend leave was cancelled, while the Americans were instructed to treat all New Zealand soldiers with respect.

Dance crazes like disco surfed in with new music, fashion and film, to youth craving change. Elvis gyrated his pelvis, Chubby Checker stubbed out cigarettes with a twist , and John Travolta wore that white suit and preened in mirrorball splendour, while local couple Vicki Stroud and Peter Heperi danced "The Bump" in the winter of 1976.
Dance crazes like disco surfed in with new music, fashion and film, to youth craving change. Elvis gyrated his pelvis, Chubby Checker stubbed out cigarettes with a twist , and John Travolta wore that white suit and preened in mirrorball splendour, while local couple Vicki Stroud and Peter Heperi danced “The Bump” in the winter of 1976.

As always, there are many alternative stories to tell. Women who attended dances at Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club and the YMCA recall the rules set in place for maintaining a sense of decorum; Ngati Poneke’s dances, for example, were chaperoned. For others, particularly women living away from Wellington and Auckland, the American presence went largely unnoticed. Even for writer Lauris Edmond, living in the heart of Wellington in 1942 while attending teachers’ college, the Americans were a world away:

Sandy came and found us and insisted we go dancing with them…found myself in, of all places, the Em­press Ballroom! A dimly lit den full of American sailors and marines and weird female creatures dressed in satin and net, all jitter-bugging wildly, a blue smoke haze over everything. There was a real fight too, which drew everyone in the hall except a few blasé ones like us. We just danced grimly on (sounds a bit contradic­tory I know). There’s a sort of rosy glow of light over the entrance to the place—I felt deliciously sinful being there. (Hot October: an autobiographical story, Bridget Williams Books, 1994, p 148)

After the war, from the far north to the deepest south, every newspaper around the country began advertising weekly dances again. Firms and government departments held annual balls, usually hiring a local dance hall, such as Wellington’s Majestic. Ball dresses returned to their former glory and hung to the floor with yards of fabric. Booklets on “how to dance” and “how to host a dance” were purchased. Children and adults attended ballroom-dancing lessons—children were taught at school. Victor Silvester set the standard for dance instruction: “Few are born dancers, but everyone can learn to dance well enough to become an asset instead of a social menace in a ballroom.” (Modern Ballroom Dancing, Herbert Jenkins London, 1964, p 9)

Debutantes were once again presented. A Weekly News photograph of a charity ball at Wellington Town Hall in 1956 features 103 debutantes perfectly spaced, as if standing on points on a grid, all dressed in white and carrying small posies of flowers, waiting to make their curtsey to Dr J.P. Kavanagh, the bishop of Dunedin. Curtseying elegantly, without hesitation or totter, was an objective of most girls. In 1954, the mayoress of New Plymouth, Mrs E.O. Hill, held a “bobbing party” for all girls who were to be presented to the Queen, so there should be “no mishaps at the New Plymouth presentation”. (NZ Truth, 6 January 1954)

In a casual teenage world, the school ball is perhaps students’ single opportunity in the year to dress up to the nines. Preparation is universally time-consuming, carefully considered and costly, as at this Christchurch school ball in the late 1980s. Two decades later and the band is better dressed than the audience. PHonk (bottom) gets Waiheke Islanders off their feet at the Ostend War Memorial Hall.


While the debutante ceremony reigned supreme in matters of propriety, the likes of the Peter Pan and the Majestic could be more risqué. For a start, some patrons smuggled in alcohol. As Rosaleen Conway writes:

The year was 1956. The ball was at the Majestic Cabaret in Wellington. Maureen and I wore white rabbit fur capes over our long dresses and felt like royalty. As soon as we got to the Majestic our dance partners disappeared into the Gents and we waited and waited. We thought we’d been stood up. They came out eventually, still picking white fur off their new suits. Our bunny capes had moulted. They didn’t dare object though because we were hiding their grog beneath them. Drinking wasn’t allowed in public places but probably every woman at that ball had smuggled in alcohol. We danced foxtrots and waltzes; Gay Gordons, Monte Carlo and Lucky Spot, with only short breaks in between—then word went round—the police were on their way. Tony Noorts’ band blasted out Ain’t that a shame while we poured Blackberry Nip and Pims into potted palms. (Personal letter)

At the Peter Pan, Jim Warren, trumpeter with the Ted Croad Dance Band, reported that corner booths were prized locations:

If you got one on the corner overlooking Rutland St sometimes there would be a guy with a strong line or fishing rope. He would throw it out through the window, down to the street, perhaps 20ft below. A mate would be down there and he would have the grog. He would attach it to the line to be hauled up. It would be pulled up through the window, avoiding the bouncers on the door. In the middle of the ball in would come the police. They would go around and the grog would go under the tables or even under the women’s long skirts. That was all part of the thrill of it. (In “Cheek-to-cheek at The Orange”, The Herald, December 1, 1984)

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Then came rock ’n’ roll. New films, fashion, music and dance styles flooded into New Zealand,where they were seized upon by a young generation ready for change. Teenagers—a new demographic concept—looked to the latest in American popular culture for inspiration and example rather than to their parents. In the late 1950s, to occupy the kids in his area on Sunday afternoons, young Christchurch musician Max Merritt started running dances with his parents. He played in the band; Mum and Dad took tickets and sold soft drinks. To keep up with the new music, Max recorded the Lever Hit Parade and took the tapes to the dances to play between the band’s sets.

At the same time, early pop entrepreneur Bruce Warwick helped to run dances at the Hutt Valley Youth Club in the Taita Community Hall, where 300 to 400 kids turned up every Sunday afternoon. In Auckland, there were as many as 16 youth clubs catering for over 5000 teenagers.

In 1958, rock ’n’ roll truly claimed its place:

When a bodgie in an apricot drape suit with leopard-skin lapels and a pair of blue suede shoes, clutched a microphone and wiggled his hips at an Auckland dancehall. The sound of screams coming up from the pony-tailed girls in the audience made nineteen-year-old Johnny Devlin spin around and check his fly. But no, that wasn’t it. The all-electric soundtrack of moral chaos had finally triumphed; a generation of teenag­ers was hooked on the Devil’s music. (All Shook Up: The flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties, Redmer Yska, Penguin, 1993, p 195)

Rock ’n’ roll saw teenagers jiving in couples, in a style similar to the jitterbug. The Twist changed that. Chubby Checker’s famous song meant one could now dance alone or with friends of the same sex. One needn’t wait to be asked to dance. The wallflowers sighed with relief.

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During July and August 1963, the Dunedin Star Sports’ social columnist, Uncle Ernest (who is now a proof reader for New Zealand Geographic!), received a series of letters from teenagers concerned about the behaviour of the opposite sex at Dunedin dances: Why did the boys look the girls up and down? How can a girl refuse to dance with a boy? Is it appropriate to sing while dancing? What about smoking? “Practi­cal Experience” confided in Uncle Ernest: “When two girls are dancing together (the twist) and refuse to split up on the request of literally hundreds of boys, I, along with many others consider them to be odd. Believe me, Uncle Ernest, there are many girls in this category in Dunedin.”

In 1967, six o’clock closing ended and pubs remained open until 10 p.m. The bands shifted to the pubs, and so did the punters. Dance halls took a dive.

The freedom to dance alone changed social dance culture dramatically. From the twist in the 1960s to solo dancing at outdoor music festivals in the 1970s and then at dance parties over the last two decades, the emphasis on individual expression, on doing one’s own thing—coupled with recreational drugs—has meant partnering-up is no longer paramount.

So is partnered social dancing dead? Certainly not. Take, for example, Monday night’s old-time se­quence-dance-club sessions on The Terrace, in Wellington. Dancers range in age from 40 to 80, and have danced as they do here all their lives. Once when I was there, the entire room hummed The White Cliffs of Dover as a sequence waltz swirled anti-clockwise around the room. As well as old-time dancing, New Zealanders can attend clubs offering lessons in ballroom, rock ’n’ roll, Latin and folk dance.

While patrons of school dances dress up, those at dance parties or events such as Big Day Out get to feel the heat and the clothes come off. Whether you're into the maxina or the macarena, the quickstep or the krump, taking dance lessons or jerking extravagnatly to the beat, there's an occasion for you nearby. "Take your partners please."
While patrons of school dances dress up, those at dance parties or events such as Big Day Out get to feel the heat and the clothes come off. Whether you’re into the maxina or the macarena, the quickstep or the krump, taking dance lessons or jerking extravagnatly to the beat, there’s an occasion for you nearby. “Take your partners please.”

New Zealand schools still hold annual balls for sixth- and seventh-formers. In July 2004 I interviewed several Wellington students preparing for their sixth-form ball. When asked if they expected to meet someone special at the dance, they said they thought it unlikely. When asked why they were having a ball in the first place, they said it was traditional and gave them a chance to dress-up and behave like adults. Perhaps more telling, when asked how long it had taken them to decide what to wear, how to style their hair and who to ask to the ball, they responded that the ball was all anyone in their year had been speaking about for the previous six months. And once it was over—well, they would start talking about next year’s.

I attended the ball with photographer Amelia Handscomb. With my own nerve-wracked attendance at fourth form socials still close to heart, I expected to find groups of gawky teenagers standing at the edge of the room, a handful of couples sidestepping and perhaps a confident pair slow-dancing. But lo and behold—they all knew how to move. Perhaps the plethora of music videos, both international and local, screened on television stations such as C4, showcasing the latest R&B, hip-hop and break-dancing moves, had persuaded them to come prepared with routines of fancy footwork and seriously sexy partnering styles. Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake would have been proud. Social dancing may have come a long way in the last 150 years, but, despite the popularity of rival forms of entertainment and socialising—bars, TV, shopping and the rest—it’s still in good heart.

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