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Travels with my dance

Posted on June 28, 2011

This week: dancefloors – the good, the bad and the ugly

The worst floor I’ve ever danced on was the floating nightclub in Leith, Scotland during a rueda salsa class. The club itself was beautiful: a vintage steam yacht, whose ice white paintwork and polished brass sparkled in the reflected street lights – a picture of elegance, poise and style. The floor was a dancer’s nightmare.

In the middle there was a series of beams that supported the deck, blocking movement and vision. We had to dance around these beams, as you would a Maypole on the village green – and there were two of them. This made it awkward enough, but what was even more awkward was the bowing of the floor, which on the old ship originally allowed water to run off the deck. It was like dancing in a circle on a saucepan lid with handle in the middle.

And this “saucepan lid” had not seen the dishwasher in a very long time. The once gleaming varnished floor was now covered by a half-centimetre of cigarette ash, beer and congealed vomit, a greasy black layer that stuck to your shoes and made any kind of spinning or sliding impossible.
Some people, impressed by the steam yacht’s elegant exterior, had (like me) brought dance shoes. They quickly removed them and changed back into street shoes; it was definitely not the place for your new Freed shoes.

The best dancefloor I came across in Easington Colliery Working Men’s Club in County Durham. Approached at night the village appears a bit rundown and intimidating, with drunken youths clutching cans of beer and huddling on street corners on the look out for girls. In the darkness a large – impossibly large – building looms. It’s the only brightly lit edifice in the area.

It’s fair to say I was expecting the worst when I entered the club, a concrete blockhouse of a building. Yet the floor is polished wood: jumping up and down a few times, you realise it has a lovely soft spring. Quickly you change into your shoes, you try a slide and a spin: just right. Then you realise that you are in the “small hall”. The big hall is the same – but it is BIG – about the same size as the Kilmarnock Grand or the Brighouse Ritz.

Northern England and, to a lesser extent, Scotland are spoiled for large dance halls, in the most unusual places. The Brighouse Ritz, like Easington, is set in a small town. And nothing about the place indicates the size or quality of the floor. It is one of the last of the 1950s dance halls that still operates as a dance hall.

In southern England most of the purpose-built dancefloors have disappeared: first they were converted to cinemas, then into bingo halls, and then bought up by property developers. In the north they are still there, but they are under threat.

Understandably – how many ballet principals drink Newcastle Brown in working men’s clubs? – a lot of dance teachers don’t appreciate what a resource is available among disused or under-used working men’s clubs.

Nor do the clubs appreciate that dancers would weep to see these beautiful floors covered with carpet or linoleum and, because neither the clubs nor the dancers talk to each other, a lot of floors are being lost when they could be developed by dance studios.

I know of one contemporary dancer, who went to great lengths to get Arts Council or Local Authority funding, jumping through financial hoops in order for her dance studio to be built – only to discover that across the street, due for demolition, was a working men’s club with a larger and better floor than that of her studio. So, if you setting up a dance studio or starting a new class, check out the local clubs to see what is available before going to the expense of installing a new sprung dancefloor.

Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Now acting editor of Discover Britain magazine, she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success.

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