Book of the month: “Ballroom: A People’s History” by Hilary French

As autumn’s TV highlight Strictly Come Dancing begins, the perfect book to accompany us through the dancing show is Hilary French’s “Ballroom: A People’s History”: A captivating journey through the heartbeats of Britain’s social spaces, where dreams twirled and feet tapped in harmony. As the pages unfurl, readers are transported to the grandeur of places like Dreamland, Palais de Danse, and The Empress Ballroom, where ordinary people shed the confines of their day-to-day lives to become graceful gliders in a world of aristocratic luxury.

Hilary French Book ballroom

A couple at a British dance hall try out the new ‘jive’ steps, while the rest of the hall continue with ‘old-style’ ballroom dancing – Photo: Public Domain

French masterfully intertwines the history of dance with the evolution of social norms, showcasing how these opulent ballrooms mirrored the societal shifts over the course of a century. From the formalities of the Royal Academy syllabuses in Miss Eveline Burchill’s Dance Academy to the explosion of styles and rhythms influenced by cultures worldwide, “Ballroom” captures the pulse of a changing Britain.

The clash between English self-control and the exuberance of global influences is palpable in every step described. Committees fought to preserve standards, yet the dances flooded in, each with its own enticing name: the grizzly bear, the camel walk, el chucho, the shimmy, the bunny hug, the Boston dip, and the shiver, to name just a few. Cuban rhythms, samba figures, Harlem syncopated moves, tango, mambo, and cha-cha-cha became the heartbeat of the masses.

French’s meticulous research not only offers a vivid portrayal of the ballroom scene but also sheds light on the cultural and social significance of these spaces. It’s not just a history of dance; it’s a history of the people who filled these halls with life and laughter.

The narrative effortlessly glides from the splendour of yesteryears to the glitzy world of “Strictly Come Dancing,” showcasing how dance has remained an integral part of British culture. The statistics from a 1964 government survey, revealing that millions gathered to dance and learn, serve as a testament to the enduring allure of this art form.

“Ballroom: A People’s History” is a triumph, seamlessly blending nostalgia with an academic exploration of an era when ballrooms were more than just venues; they were sanctuaries of expression and liberation. French’s prose, peppered with vivid imagery, takes the reader on a tour of a bygone era, leaving them with a newfound appreciation for the dance halls that shaped Britain’s social fabric.

This book is not just for dance enthusiasts, but for anyone captivated by the magic that unfolded within those hallowed walls. At £18, it’s a priceless ticket to a world of glamour, rhythm, and timeless elegance. And the perfect Christmas gift for a dance lover.

Two fun anecdotes about this book:

1) there’s a photo of my wonderful dance teachers Brian and Georgiana (world’s champions of Latin Dance) who teach at The Dance Lab in Putney (South West London);

2) I have personally met author’s Hilary on the dance floor. She is a brilliant amateur dancer!


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