Dance Hall Days

The word “Ballroom” is derived from the word ball, which in turn originates from the Latin word ballare, meaning ‘to dance’.

In times past, ballroom dancing was social dancing for the privileged, leaving folk dancing for the lower classes at dance halls.

Court Ball in Vienna by Wilhelm Gause, 1900
Court Ball in Vienna by Wilhelm Gause, 1900
Dance Hall by F. Famos, 1900
Dance Hall by F. Famos, 1900

From the late 19th century until the early 1960s, the dance hall was the popular forerunner of the discothèque or nightclub.

dance pavilion on Cedar Point, Ohio, built in 1882
dance pavilion on Cedar Point, Ohio, built in 1882
Sometimes you had to start small … 

Klondyke Dance Hall and saloon, Pay Streak, Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, Seattle, Washington, 1909.
Klondyke Dance Hall and saloon, Pay Streak, Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, Seattle, Washington, 1909.
Balroom dancing hall of 'Bal Bullier', Paris
Balroom dancing hall of ‘Bal Bullier’, Paris
Miami University Junior Prom, 1912
Miami University Junior Prom, 1912

Financed by Henry Ford, the dance hall at Boblo Island Amusement Park in Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada was the largest in North America at the time of its completion in 1913.

Designed by Detroit architect Albert Khan, and constructed of steel and stone, the east side of the building featured a tall cathedral-like glass wall.

Holding 5,000 dancers at full capacity, it featured one of the world’s largest “orchestrions” from the Welte company—a self-playing orchestra 16 ft tall and 14 ft wide, with 419 pipes and percussion section.

Dancing pavilion at Bo-Lo, Bois Blanc Island, Detroit River, 1913
Dancing pavilion at Bo-Lo, Bois Blanc Island, Detroit River, 1913

By the 1940’s, most towns and cities in the United States had at least one dance hall, with live musicians playing a range of music from strict ballroom to big band, swing and jazz. Glenn Miller was one of the most famous dance hall musicians of the period.

Olympic Gardens Dance Hall, Hunter Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, ca. 1948
Olympic Gardens Dance Hall, Hunter Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, ca. 1948
In Britain during the late Victorian period, dance halls for the general populace were still referred to as ballrooms.

Tower Ballroom at Blackpool, in the north-west county of Lancashire, was one of the most famous ballrooms of the late 19th century and is still in use today.

Its 120 ft by 120 ft dance floor is made up of 30,602 blocks of mahogany, oak and walnut. Above the stage is an inscription from the poem Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare,

Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear.
View of the whole of the dance floor in the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, England
View of the whole of the dance floor in the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, England
Spanish Hall inside the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire, England
Spanish Hall inside the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire, England

After World War 2, it was time to start having fun again. British couples cautiously transitioned from traditional ballroom to more adventurous forms of dancing like Jive.

A couple at a British dance hall try out the new 'jive' steps, whilst the rest of the hall continue with 'old-style' ballroom dancing, 1945.
A couple at a British dance hall try out the new ‘jive’ steps, whilst the rest of the hall continue with ‘old-style’ ballroom dancing, 1945.

In North America, Square Dancing became ever more popular. Brought over with European settlers, it traditionally involved four couples (eight dancers) arranged in a square, with one couple on each side, facing the middle of the square.

Square Dancing at North Branch Y.M.C.A., Montreal, Canada
Square Dancing at North Branch Y.M.C.A., Montreal, Canada

From the grandest of the grand ballrooms to the humble town dance hall, we all love to dance, don’t we?

Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta in the entrance hall at the White House
Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta in the entrance hall at the White House

We’re going to journey back to the Victorian era again, and imagine that we’re working-class folk living in Paris who can’t go to a really posh ball. We make do with Sunday afternoons at Moulin de la Galette in the Montmartre district, where we dress up and enjoy dancing, drinking, and eating galettes into the evening.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876

When we get home though, we can dance into the night inside our imagination … with a little help from our new toy from England—the phenakistoscope.

This was an early animation device that uses a spinning disc attached to a handle. Arrayed around the disc’s center is a series of drawings, and cut through it are equally spaced radial slits.

When we spin the disc and look through the moving slits into a mirror, we’re magically transported back to the dancehall …

Press play and dance the night away …

Images on a disc which when spun gives the illusion of a couple dancing.
Images on a disc which when spun gives the illusion of a couple dancing.
This is what we see reflected in the mirror.




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20 Exquisite Paintings of 18th-Century Ladies by Joshua Reynolds

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