During the Second Wold War, dancing was central to the social culture of Britain. Everyone loved to dance, from courting couples to groups of friends, dance halls were the focal points for people to meet, socialise and have fun. Through the tough war conditions, dancing, particularly amongst women, gave people a chance to let their hair down and forget the hardships of the war.
During WWII more than 500,000 Americans descended upon British soil. The arrival of the ‘Yanks’ as they were commonly known, caused heads to turn for the people of Britain, many of whom had never heard an American accent. The new arrivals were different; they had a casual and laid back approach to things compared to the British, and had an air of confidence and swagger about them. They were on higher wages than the British service men, and often brought luxury goods over from the states including sweets, nylon stockings and fruit, all of which had been in short supply throughout the war. Understandably, the ladies loved them.
The Americans brought a new style of music to the scene. A faster, more frantic style of dancing called the Jitterbug involving dances such as the Boogie-woogie, the Lindy Hop and the East Coast Swing became the latest craze, and before long everyone was learning the moves. Dances were held in village halls, sports clubs, church halls, bars and air force bases. Anywhere that had enough space to freely dance around was deemed ideal for a dance hall.
Beryl Foster, 73 years old, remembers the dance halls in York. She mentions The Grand on Gillygate, which was also one of York’s best Picture Houses in the 1940s, Albany, with its sprung floor on Goodramgate, where Bon Marche now stands, The Assembly Rooms, where ASK restaurant now resides on Blake Street, and The Drill Hall in Colliergate, which is now home to Barnitts. There was also De Grey Rooms, with its chandeliers and sweeping staircase leading up to the dance floor, and Terry’s, now Lloyds TSB on St Helen’s Square. Across the road from Terry’s stands Betty’s Tearooms, which was the local ‘Yank’ hangout and dance hall favourite underneath the tearoom.
The most popular genre of dance was the Jitterbug, which included the Lindy Hop and the East Coast Swing. It was a wild and eccentric jive which made the previously popular Waltz and Foxtrot appear rather conservative. The dance scene was changing, and whilst the ‘Yanks’ were becoming increasingly popular with some of the Brits, others weren’t convinced. Beryl remembers the dance halls as being marvellous and enchanting, and said “they were the perfect place to visit your friends, learn new dances and have fun”. Beryl and her husband Dave were regular visitors of the dance halls, but avoided the ‘Yanks’ as they felt they were unruly. “Some found them loud and showy, and many of the proprietors wanted them out”. Some owners of the dance halls in York were horrified by the Jitterbug craze and before long, ‘No Jitterbug’ signs began to appear in some dancehalls, however these signs were often ignored. It cost half a crown entry to get into the dance halls, which is 12.5 new pence, and a live band would play throughout the evening to which you would dance. There was no alcohol served in any of the dance halls; refreshments were limited to tea or water.
In 1945, Germany was defeated and the war was over. However, that was the only thing that ended. Roughly 76,000 British women became War Brides, or commonly known as GI Brides named after the nickname used to describe members of the United States armed forces. The women left Britain with the service men and set up a life back in America. The Jitterbug however stayed behind and continued to be danced all over Britain. As time passed, it slowly changed and became a little less wild and acrobatic, and eventually became what we all now know as rock’n’roll.
The dance scene in York today has changed in accordance with the times, with many nightclubs and bars now offering different genres of music through to the early hours of the morning, and some establishments offering classes for locals to learn different styles of dance. The people of York are keen to learn, and there are numerous Latin and Salsa dance classes around the city, along with scattered Ballroom, Breakdance and Ceroc classes.
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