Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Tempted London : Young men, [Anon.], [c1889] - Chapter 12 - Dancing-Rooms

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DANCING-ROOMS have sprung into renewed life latterly. A short time ago their value as paying properties were largely interfered with by the growth of gambling-c1ubs, the great majority of which possessed dancing-halls as the only means of inducing young women to attend. But now so many of the clubs have died and are dying that the ordinary dancing-room proprietor finds that once more there is room for him. Since these articles appeared in serial form a number of gambling-clubs have disappeared, several of them have ceased to be clubs and have passed into dancing-halls. The change may be said to be for the better, since the evils of gambling and billiard-playing are checked, and the hours kept are not so late. Clubs can, of course, do as they like, and for this very reason will not be entirely suppressed until legislation is brought to bear on them. If the members choose to dance all day and all night no one can prevent them. But with public halls it is different. The licence only allows them to keep open to a fixed hour, and if on any special occasion, such as Boxing-night or Valentine Day, a "long-night"  is wanted special permission has to be obtained from the authorities. Here, then, we [-221-] have a cheek upon the dancing-rooms, and the increase of such institutions, so far as it is due to the failure of the gambling-clubs, must be considered a distinct advance. There is, however, one consideration ere we congratulate ourselves too hastily; shop-girls and others in a similar posifion will not, as a rule, enter a club dancing-room, but do not hesitate to go to an ordinary dancing-hall. And as the latter is fraught with almost the same amount of mischief as the former, it would seem as if young men were relieved of some of their dangers at the expense of young women. As it is now our investigations prove that youths frequent the licensed dance-rooms until 11 or 12 o'clock, and then adjourn to the club dance-rooms, where they perhaps find a more venturesome set of partners. Here they can continue as long as they like ; and if they happen to have made the acquaintance of an attractive young woman at the first place they may induce her to accompany them to the second.
    Dancing-rooms, to be properly considered, must be divided into several classes. Those belonging to clubs are without doubt the most dangerous, since every woman who ventures into them goes to certain destruction and every young man runs the greatest risk of ruining himself for life. Elementary "dancing-academies" are the least apparently harmful, but inasmuch as they constitute the portal to all others, they should perhaps be as sternly reprehended. Ordinary  low-class dancing-rooms, where no surveillance is exercised, teem in all the suburbs of London, and must be carefully considered. Dancing-halls where the admission is cheap, [-222-] but which are conducted in an orderly manner, and where swift ejectment follows upon any freedom of behaviour, are sufficiently mischievous, but cannot be so strongly decried as some others. And last of all, the low dancing-places of Greenwich, Woolwich, and the East End generally must come in for their share of attention. These latter are not much frequented by young middle-class men, and we shall therefore only have to deal with them very lightly. And it is as well, for the particulars are highly unsavoury.
    We think it will be best to commence with the least harmful, and show how an indulgence in them must necessarily lead the youth on to participating in the pleasures of the worst. The elementary dancing-room seems, as we have said, innocent enough. Its pleasures are certainly sufficiently dull to make it a matter of wonder that they can ever be endured, and show strongly how few the pleasures of the needy youth must be, and how easily their evils might be defeated by the discovery of lighter and healthier ways of spending the evenings. The reports of our commissioners upon these places tell a uniform tale of dreary desolation, enforced decorum, and escape from the hands of the teacher to the more fascinating public dancing-room at the earliest  possible moment. To reproduce them in detail would be as wearying to the reader as the collection of the facts was to those engaged thereon, and we think that a selection of a few of the more salient points from the reports will be all that is necessary to establish our contention that they should be avoided. Opinions may be divided as to the advisability of [-223-] teaching young people to dance, and it is perhaps difficult to find any serious fault with private dancing-classes, which merely teach an amusement to be pursued at home or in the houses of friends ; but the fact that the houses of the lower middle-classes rarely contain a room large enough to dance in, and that the passion for dancing amongst the young becomes uncontrollably strong when once they have been instructed, would seem to show that grave consideration should be given to the subject by parents before they decide to have their children taught the fascination of the waltz and the quadrille.
    From one report we extract the following: "A dingy, dirty, promiscuous gambling, dancing and betting-club, near Islington Green, having been deserted by the majority of its members in consequence of recent exposures, has been taken by an impoverished dancing-master at an exceedingly low rental, for the purpose of imparting instruction to the neighbourhood in what he prefers to call 'calisthenics.' Like the penny shows, the exterior of this place is made as attractive as possible, in order to induce the unwary to enter. No expense, within a reasonable limit, is spared to make the entrance appear showy and suggestive of internal comfort and splendour. An enormous lamp over the door displays around its four sides the legend 'Dancing,' the step is scrupulously whitened, green baize swing-doors are flung open, showing a wide hall, the centre of which is occupied by a red carpet, whilst the sides are decorated by plaster figures supporting lamps. Large, well-printed bills set forth the terms [-224-] for a course of instruction in dancing, the cost coming to about sixpence for a lesson of two hours' duration, with the option of stopping to 'advanced practice' afterwards. Various other advantages are set forth on the bills.
    "It was a Thursday night when I visited the place, and passed up a staircase that was really narrow, but was so cleverly adorned with lamps and coverings as to look almost wide. On the first landing a startled-looking man appeared at a door with a most surprised expression of countenance. 'Any dancing here to-night?' I inquired. 'Oh, yes, sir! plenty,' was the reply. I wanted to go in and have a look round before I paid the sixpenny charge for admission, but this, he informed me, was quite against their rules. As I conjectured afterwards, they had possibly found this an unsatisfactory way of inducing people to remain. 'It's all right, sir, I assure you,' said the man ; 'we've got plenty of ladies, and all we want is a few more gentlemen.' In the cloakroom I saw three hats and coats, and I was charged threepence for leaving mine. The charge in such case is apportioned to the look of the person. 'Can you smoke inside?' I inquired, with the intention of learning all about it. 'Oh, yes ; and there's a bar there as well.' I completed my ascent of the stairs, and passed into the dancing-room, guided thereto by the strains of a band whose inefficiency seemed only equalled by its insufficiency. It was a large, bare room, with a few cane chairs round the sides, and the windows furnished only with blinds, and without a vestige of curtain or adornment. The band was on a raised platform at one extreme end, [-225-] and a bar, a barmaid, and a waiter (by far the most respectable-looking person there) were at the other. On one of the cane chairs sat a disconsolate-looking young woman. In the middle of the room were eight dancers in a dreadful muddle in the fourth figure of the 'Lancers' whilst near them was an incomplete set of six persons, one of whom was the instructor in a suit of dress clothes whose determination to hold together was apparently only equalled by its inability to do so. The complete set, each factor of which was in utter ignorance as to the movements of the figure, seemed to get along better than the others who had the assistance of the master, since the former could gloss over their own little mistakes and make believe they had not committed them, whilst the latter were continually baulked in their similar endeavours by the stamping and gesticulating of the teacher. My advent was hailed with delight by the incomplete set. 'Now we'll go through the figure again,' said the man in dress clothes. We did it without the music first, and the young men and women wandered about in various directions, and then, at the stamp of his foot, ran back in confusion to their original positions. Having thus rehearsed it, he signalled the 'band,' and they struck up. Away we all vent into an inextricable jumble, and it was by the ceasing of the band that we ever got through that figure at all. Thus it went wearisomely on. At the finish I inspected the dancers, the men among whom seemed to be mostly tradesmen's assistants, while the women were possibly under-housemaids, and then, although the waiter and the barmaid looked expectantly at me, I slipped [-226-] out of the room. The man in charge of the cloakroom evidently anticipated my prompt return, for he had disappeared, and the waiter came out to give me my things, an in the course of doing so remarked that he had not had an order all the evening. It was about ten minutes to 10 then."
    This report sets forth that the writer of it visited the rooms on a Thursday night, whilst it is well known that Mondays and Saturdays are the dancing nights - the latter for preference. We sent a representative to the place mentioned on a Saturday evening and he found it fairly crowded and dancing going merrily on. The elementary character was dropped altogether, and those who did not know their steps were in the minority. The waiter seemed busy, and the band scraped discordantly along, intent only on getting through the programme.
    We have received a description of an elementary dancing-room which is attached to one of the low clubs in Pentonville, and seems to be full of danger to young people of both sexes. The aim of the dancing-class room of the low stamp we are dealing with is to get its pupils on far enough to tempt them to bring their particular friends to the Saturday -night "advanced dances." If this can be managed of course the connection is widened and more profit is obtained. 
    The writer says, "The dancing-room, which rejoices in a high-sounding title, is actually the dance-room to one of the lowest clubs in the neighbourhood, a place in which the worst forms of gambling and betting are indulged in, and the chief room of which is actually underground. So low, [-227-] indeed, is the club, the proprietor of which has had to give up another in the neighbourhood, owing to the character it acquired, that the members seem of too besotted a nature to be capable of joining a dance, and the owner of the place has seen the necessity of getting accessions from both sexes into his 'institute,' as he chooses to style it. But there is only one entrance to the club and the dance-room, the former being downstairs, the latter upstairs, and the cloak-rooms, etc., on the ground floor. Bills setting forth the usual terms for teaching are displayed in the neighbourbood, and the consequence is that a certain proportion of young people go there. The dancing-room is nicely fitted up, with a good floor and plenty of the surrounding nooks and corners upon which the attractiveness of this class of place seems to largely depend. An M.C., in approved costume, instructs on off-nights and conducts on dance-nights, but the proprietor wishes the hall to be known as a place chiefly devoted to teaching. His dub is an 'institute,' his dance-room is an 'academy for beginners.' The proprietor's wife - a big, fat woman, with some faded remains of coarse good looks still about her - takes an especial interest in the dance-room, and has an easy manner of ingratiating herself with any girls that happen to take her fancy, and then inviting them down to her room to have a cup of tea. Girls are very sharp on some points, and as it has been discovered that it is only good-looking ones who can hope for this honour, the competition is keen for the distinction. This woman indulges in a loose, chaffy style of conversation, that may at first somewhat startle [-228-] certain girls, but which they not only soon accustom themselves to, but endeavour to imitate. But the most dangerous point about the place, and one which shows the proprietor's hand beyond doubt, is the fact that 'all refreshments are served downstairs,' and no one is allowed to go down and bring anything up for a girl. The refreshment-bar is in the clubroom, and it is therefore necessary for all those who want even a glass of water or a bottle of lemonade to go into the club-room to obtain it. Dancing is hot work, and each person is almost bound to need some refreshment, however light, in the course of an evening. Between each dance the M.C. goes downstairs, and as the place is a club, and no one but members can lawfully order anything, loudly proclaims his willingness to order for any one, much as though he were giving out the figures of a dance. The members of the club are of course in this room, and the ingress of the dancers is watched with interest. The majority of the girls are known to be respectable, and many of them run into the dance-room for an hour having made some excuse at their homes to account for their absence. The pretty ones come in for a share of attention which is more pleasing to than good for them, and the dangers of it will readily be seen. On the one side we have youths and young girls, flushed and excited from a dancing-room, on the other the wary proprietor, a low club, and the gambling, drinking, betting of members of the same. I have seen all this myself, and can vouch for it.
    The ordinary shilling dancing-room, which is to be found in every leading thoroughfare of London, [-229-] if we except the city proper, and which, if it does not aim at being ultra-respectable at any rate poses as fairly respectable, teems with suggestions which it is certainly unwise to put before the young. Let us take a well-known building in Clerkenwell, owned by an Italian, and widely celebrated throughout this large district for its comfortable dances. It is fitted up with all the gorgeous gaudiness that one meets with in the Strand cafés - gilt and blue ornaments, statues holding gas-lamps, and tawdry glitter of all kinds. The effect upon entering the saloon, which is approached by a well-guarded staircase, the windings of which are constantly checked by baize-covered doors, and the foot of which is presided over by the proprietor's wife, who bestows a smile of welcome upon each arrival, dazzling to the eye. There are all the paraphernalia of "ladies' cloakrooms" and "gentlemen's cloak-rooms," a bar, at which only non-alcoholic beverages are dispensed, owing to the difficulties of getting a licence, and a cosy little sitting-room, which may be invaded by a chosen few who have been regularly to the rooms for some considerable time. The staircase is set with mirrors, after the style of a steam roundabout. The dancing-floor is a good one, and the room fairly large; all round it are little retreats, set with curtains, and in which there is only room for two, who, whilst in there, would be completely hidden from view. There is a little room at one end, fitted with easy chairs and a piano. It is called the smoking-room, and it is not unusual to see girls of the mechanic class in here smoking as well as the men. It is understood that no women of doubtful [-230-] character are admitted, and part of the functions of the woman on the staircase is to obstruct them but it requires a very charitable mind upon the part of the visitor to believe that this is rigorously carried out. To all appearance the dancing is conducted with due decorum, the retreats to the curtained alcoves being understood to be made for the purposes of cooling; but an evening passed in the pleasures of this room will prove to any one that they are objectionable and to be discouraged at much as possible.
    There is a sixpenny dancing-room in the vicinity of Gower Street Station, which has a wide reputation of an unenviable character. Here the patronage of loose women is openly encouraged, and attractive ones can always count on being admitted free. The consequence is that the youth of the neighbourhood devote their evenings to the pleasures of the dances and the female society, with what results to their own welfare can easily be imagined. It is a wonder that the place has been allowed to continue so long, but a judicious system of secret-service money is supposed to be at the bottom of it. Inquiries amongst the neighbours seem to discover the fact that although they would like it to be elsewhere, they are very chary about making complaints. And our commissioners have found this same reticence obtaining all over London. There appears to be a conspiracy of silence amongst those who live near this sort of places, the reason for it being partly the fear of stirring up a hornets' nest, and on the part of the shopkeepers an unwillingness to make enemies among their customers. 
    [-231-] On the other side of the Thames many dancing-saloons of large dimensions are to be found. They are often owned by men whose characters will not bear investigation, and who are concerned in betting-depots, theatrical agencies, and other such institutions for preying upon the folly of young men. To describe one is to describe the others, for the same young men of apparently weak intellect and the same young women in tawdry finery are to be seen at them all. They all help to bring young men and women into easy contact with each other, and the acquaintanceship of the sixpenny dancing-saloon is regarded as sufficient introduction. The girls will never object to "walking out" with young men they have thus met, and the freedom of these unceremonious dances is as destructive of bashfulness in youths as it is of modesty in girls. We are informed that the proprietors, as a rule, have plenty of means.
    Club dancing-rooms are certainly the most obnoxious, since there is no restriction placed upon the hours to which the revels may be prolonged, and only women of bad characters are to be met in them as partners. In the ordinary dancing-room, where the admission is sixpence or a shilling, a certain leaven of medium respectability is to be met with -  young women of the milliner's-assistant stamp and similar callings, who do not object to what they call a "lark," but who do not allow themselves to go any farther, make up a large proportion of the female attendance, and young men can dance with them and see them to their homes, and be safe in their own beds long before midnight. Nothing worse need happen than a coarse kind of flirtation, which [-232-] is not harmful in its immediate results, however much it may be fraught with  future evil. But in the club dancing-room all is different. No woman with the least remnant of respectability about her would dream of allowing herself to enter it. The dancing here does not commence until after 12  o'clock at night, and is then continued until such time as the members weary of it, frequently 5 and 6 o'clock in the morning. We hear of one club from which dancers were seen emerging as late as 9 o'clock in the morning. A commissioner sends us a report of a place styling itself a theatrical club, in which Sunday-evening dances are a great feature. It is in a turning out of the Tottenham Court Road, and is resorted to by many ballet-girls and others, who are allowed free ingress and may be sure of getting plenty of gratuitous "drinks." All clubs that have dancing-rooms (it must be understood that the clubs we are alluding to are the half-crown betting and gambling-clubs, specially designed for the ruin of young men, and not any of the legitimate clubs, to which no exception can be taken) admit women without any of the formalities of membership being observed. If a girl will promise the proprietor to attend regularly he will give her a ticket, but no woman of likely appearance is refused admission if she presents herself at the door. Young men employed in shops or warehouses, and whose principles have become rusty through disuse, find these Sunday-evening dances very attractive, and the particular club that we are alluding to, through the energy and tact of the proprietor, has always a crowd of showy girls on these occasions. They can [-233-] naturally dance exceedingly well; they make themselves very fascinating, and they have a turn for practical joking and create plenty of fun. They dance in the men's hats ; when the tunes are popular they sing the choruses to them ; they encourage familiarities in the progress of the figures; they call their partners by any nickname that comes uppermost. This room is densely crowded every Sunday night.
    Another club not far from this one, owned by a man who has suffered several terms of imprisonment, has a musical entertainment - "sing-song"  it is called - every Sunday night, followed by a dance, the latter commencing at about 10.30. These are rival establishments, and it is reported that the proprietors actually pay the prettier girls a shilling or two to induce them to attend. The dancing here is of the same unrestrained description, the constant practice which the girls experience rendering them very good partners to those young men who have a love for dancing. It is currently reported that these two club-rooms provide more enjoyable dances on Sunday evenings than can be obtained anywhere else in the whole of London. Much ruin is wrought among youths thereby. The ballet-girls, who are pretty and dance well, use their advantages to their personal aggrandisement, and the male dancers are apt to find that this practising is rather expensive.  The ordinary club dance, which takes place every night, has also its attractions, since the floor is not so crowded, and the youth who is fond of the exercise has more scope or it. Due of our commissioners witnessed a disgraceful scene in a club dance- room one Saturday night, or, more correctly, Sunday [-234-] morning. The dance, which had begun somewhat earlier than on other nights, owing to the fact that the public-houses had half an hour's less grace was in full swing, when several tipsy young men, amongst whom were some volunteers of the London Scottish Corps, entered the room. Some chaffing remarks were uttered upon peculiarities of their uniform, which would probably have passed unheeded had they been sober. As it was, before any one could rightly understand how it began, a fight was in course of progress; chairs were broken up and thrown about the room, gas globes were smashed, and the girls ran screaming in all directions. The proprietor speedily appeared, but it was several minutes before order was restored, as he did not dare to call in the assistance of the police. Drunkenness is quite a usual thing in the club dancing-room, and impropriety of all kinds is rampant. The club, however, which was principally celebrated for its female dancers, has been forcibly suppressed.
    The dancing-saloons that one meets with in the East End are of the very lowest description imaginable. They are carried on to suit the tastes of the sailors on the Middlesex side, and of the soldiers on the Kent side of the river. Ratcliff Highway has a reputation for its dancing-rooms which extends to many foreign climes. But they are of a character which but rarely attracts young men of the middle classes, and then as a matter of curiosity more than pleasure. Yet as they are somewhat used by the sons of surrounding shopkeepers, it may be as well to point out their more glaring disadvantages. There is a Captain Marryatish air about them, which [-235-] is attractive to the youth who remembers the adventures of Jack Easy and other similar heroes, and this is especially noticeable so far as the women are concerned. The dancing in these places is of a boisterous character. Indeed, the women oftener than not dance with each other for the want of male partners, the latter sitting round the room the while, drinking atrocious beer, smoking clay pipes, and watching with admiration the well-developed dancers as they swing past. The advent of a stranger is regarded with suspicion and it would undoubtedly be a dangerous thing for a clerky youth, in a high collar., a brown bat, and a tail coat, to make his appearance unattended, for he wou1d certainly be the recipient of more attention than would be good for him. Thieves abound in these dens. The women, whose appearance is quite unique, have always some male friends in the vicinity, whose duty it is to keep themselves in the background unless they are wanted, but who are ready to fill up their spare time in any remunerative way that may offer itself.  Dances of a highly indecent nature can be witnessed in these places on any Saturday night, which is the more to be marvelled at as there is no difficulty in getting into the rooms, which are always attached to public-houses, nor is any charge made for admission. Our commissioners report several performances of this description, the details of which we prefer to leave to the imaginations of our readers.
    Young men should sternly repress any desire to frequent these places. The habit grows upon them, just as betting, or smoking, or drinking, and the [-236-] desire for the company of the low saloon may become a ruling passion. As the three vices mentioned are destructive of average mental calibre, so is the other the high-road to the loss of the moral perceptions; and the youth who enters the dancing- saloon for the first time, be it as spectator or participant, may be sure that he is at the commencement of a path which can lead him to no good, and may conduct him to infinite harm.