Going to the Palais
A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960
Oxford University Press 2016
In his new book Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960 (Oxford University Press, 2016), cultural historian James Nott charts the untold history of dancing and dance halls in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. This exploration reveals the transformations of working-class communities, and of the changing notions of femininity, masculinity and leisure that occur in this period. To do so, Nott navigates us skillfully between the perspectives of the dance hall owners, dance teachers and innovators. He them leads us to consider the point of view of enthusiastic jiving individuals. Finally, we take our place on the sidelines with the onlookers and killjoys alarmed by this ‘craze.’
This kaleidoscope of voices and images illuminates the role of the dance hall as a social space. It is argued that the dance hall brought together men and women in search of fun, but also provided them with a safe space to try out identities and behaviors. Nott claims that the spread and success of the dance hall reached the whole country. He situates it within the democratization process of British culture that was led by commercialism in the 1920s and 1930s, and even more so after the Second World war.
Nott points to the American origins of the music and dances that dominated the dance hall. But also suggest that a national style was forged on the dance-floor and via the business models and publicity methods of the institution. Consequently, he maintains, a uniquely British space was born.
The story of the rise and fall of the dance hall is constructed through its economic history. Its financial success and decline are analyzed with sources from the day’s trade press, the archives of individual companies and the regulation and licensing records of towns and cities. The cultural role of the dance hall is revealed through its representation in local and national press. Oral interviews, contemporaneous social surveys and Mass Observation reports are woven together to construct the experience of going to the palais. The result is a superb analysis of gender and race relations, as well as a fascinating look at an industry that had once rivaled cinema as an ultimate pastime.
Dr James Nott is a social and cultural historian at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of Music for the People: Popular Music and dance in Interwar Britain (OUP, 2002) and co-editor of Classes, Politics and Cultures: Essays in British History in Honour of Ross McKibbin (OUP, 2011).