Tuesday 7 January 2014

My Bob-a-Dance Dad: Ballroom Dancing for Hire in the Picture Post, 30 June, 1951

Here's something I nabbed on eBay over the festive period:

The 30 June 1951 edition of Picture Post. Not the sort of thing I normally buy on eBay, I must admit – after all, as the subtitle, not to mention the substance, of Existential Ennui attests, I tend to collect old books, not old photojournal magazines – but I had a particular reason for picking this issue up, to do with the article on pages 20–23:

"Bob-a-Dance Men Wait to Be Asked". The feature spotlights an intriguing innovation in Britain's dance halls at the time, the male hired dance partner. Hired dance partners – taxi dancers in American parlance – had been around since the early twentieth century, but by and large they tended to be female; the male variety was much more uncommon. So when the newly opened Lyceum Ballroom in London introduced them in the early 1950s, they exerted a certain fascination, as evidenced by this Picture Post piece. These "bob-a-dance men" – so named because they charged a shilling, or a bob, a turn round the dancefloor – were obliged to remain in "the Pen" at the Lyceum – a closed off area guarded by a lady with a cash box – until their services were required. They weren't allowed to leave the Pen, or ask anyone to dance themselves – they could only be asked – but they could read if they wished, or drink coffee, or just sit and wait.

Unfortunately, sitting and waiting was precisely what they did most of the time. The bob-a-dance men had been attracted to this new career by the prospect of a commission of half a shilling per dance on top of a £7-a-week wage. But as they quickly learned, the commission only kicked in once they'd "sold £7 worth of dances in a week" – and none of them managed to get anywhere near that. Instead, as the page above demonstrates (click on the image to enlarge), they spent the majority of their time cooped up in the Pen. The bottom left photo shows a packed Lyceum, but in the top left photo, there the bob-a-dance men sit, clearly bored out of their skulls, chatting amongst themselves or to their female counterparts, or sneakily fraternising through the railings with a prospective partner.

Indeed, it's the fellow doing the illicit fraternising who was my reason for purchasing this copy of the Picture Post. Here he is again on the next page:

On the far left of the top photo, gazing gloomily into the distance. He's named in the caption as Fred, a former "warehouseman", although his surname is never given. In point of fact it's the same as mine: Jones. And I know this because he's my dad.

You see, over Christmas, while Rachel and Edie and I were staying at my parents' house, Dad showed us his treasured copy of this edition of the Picture Post. It was in a dreadful state: worn, torn – literally falling apart in his hands. At one time he'd owned a second copy in much better condition, but it had been lent to someone and, to Dad's lasting regret, never returned. Accordingly he'd figured he'd just have to make do with his battered copy... Except of course in this day and age, for someone like me, tracking down old magazines (or, more ordinarily, books) is often as simple a matter as picking up a smartphone and hitting a few keys. Within minutes I'd found a nice-looking copy of the Picture Post in question on eBay, and snapped it up for a tenner. A couple of days later it arrived at my folks' house, and now my dad has a splendid new copy (kindly scanned for me by Mum... who, now I come to think of it, herself has a notable background in magazines...) of one of his most prized possessions.

Dad wasn't a bob-a-dance man for very long, but he did go on to become a ballroom dance instructor. Though my sister, Alison, made good use of these skills (for a while, anyway), I, in typically contrary and obstinate fashion – traits, ironically enough, I think I've inherited from Dad – elected not to. Which, given the renewed rise to prominence of ballroom dance in the wake of Strictly Come Dancing, was decidedly shortsighted of me. Later, Dad changed his career and became a driving instructor. Once again, while my sister took full advantage of this, learning to drive as soon as she possibly could, I declined any and all offers of assistance and only passed my driving test last year, at the age of forty-three, having paid a small fortune for the privilege.

Basically, I've always been an ungrateful bastard, and while buying my father an old magazine hardly makes up for decades of taking him for granted, I suppose it's something.

Or at least it would have been, if, unbeknownst to me until later, he hadn't slipped Rachel twenty quid to cover the cost.


  1. Well done, of course your dad also taught me to dance up to gold medal standard

  2. Great post! I was wondering where you were going with that. At first, it reminded me of a great old radio play about a murderer whose victims were taxi dancers (I think it was called "Dime a Dance" and was quite horrific with the sound of the victim's feet being dragged around the rug floor while the psycho danced with them). Fortunately, your father got out of that dangerous racket in time!

  3. Haha, yes – otherwise I wouldn't be here replying to your comment, Olman... or have written the post at all, for that matter... or have established Existential Ennui... or... never mind.

  4. I love the evocative graphics of the front cover of Picture Post. It says it all, doesn't it? Terrific Stuff.

  5. It does indeed, Luke. Although I should point out the headline is for a different story; I don't think my dad was ever part of a harem. Well, not as far as I know anyway.