Dancing Back to the Old Days

Mags Byrne on the 'cultural lifeblood' of Northern Ireland's dance halls and social heritage helping to close the generation gap

For decades Northern Ireland's famous dance halls were a euphoric means of escape from the day-to-day tedium of many towns and villages, and the meeting point for many more future life partners.

Generations convened and courted throughout the 1940s, '50s and '60s, making memories of a time that would only grow fonder as the years passed, social trends evolved and one-time venues closed with the advent of the Troubles and further economic decline.

While not strictly a setting for showbands and jive nights, one thing that has endured since this golden era is the Ballymoney Evergreen Club, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary. For its members there could be no better way to mark the milestone than with a night dedicated to those halcyon days.

On Saturday, October 22 DU Dance (NI) will bring those who hucklebucked through the boom times together with young people from its Alternative Energies programme to turn back the clocks and relive it all again. We spoke to the dance company's Artistic Director Mags Byrne about what the community can expect.

How did this idea come about between Du Dance and Ballymoney Evergreen Club?

Mags Byrne: DU Dance (NI) first worked with members of the Ballymoney Evergreen Club in 2014 on an inter-generational dance theatre project to mark the centenary of the First World War. This project also involved the company’s youth engagement dance group Alternative Energies, which continued in Ballymoney with a remit for producing work for audiences of all ages. The Evergreen Club wanted to celebrate their 60th anniversary with a community event and so approached DU Dance (NI) for help with that. After a few meetings together discussing ideas this event was devised.

What will the night involve?

The event will transform St Patrick’s Parish Centre, Queen Street, Ballymoney into a dance hall reminiscent of 1956, the year the Evergreen Club first opened its doors. Live music from the John Trotter Band will begin at 7pm and finish at 10pm. Young and old will have the opportunity to polish up their dancing shoes, get on the dance floor and try out a waltz or dust off their foxtrot.

In the intervals while people catch their breath and grab their next dance partner there will be entertainment by members of the Evergreen Club, Alternative Energies youth dance group will ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and the Causeway Crew rock group will sing songs from the era.  There will even be a light supper to keep everybody going.

The 60th anniversary of the Club is a huge milestone - why do think this type of event is a suitable way to mark it?

When people started to recall 1956 they immediately thought of the golden age of the dance halls. As a local event and to make a big impact, drawing all the community together through dance, music, and the chance to dress up, seemed the most apt way to celebrate.

What was it about the dance hall nights that they're remembered so fondly by so many people?

It was the social occasion, the opportunity for young people to come together, to meet friends, have fun, dance and enjoy themselves. For many it was where they met their lifelong partners. In 1956 times were hard and many families didn’t have much, so the dance halls were an escape from that reality and a chance to dream.

DU Dance (NI) #2.jpg

How do the modern equivalents compare for young people?

Well new media has had a big impact on how young people spend their social time now. With a tap of a thumb young people have access to so much information and so much is streamed to them so they are highly stimulated. The club scene is probably the equivalent, loud music, flashing lights, the chance to meet other young people and prospective partners, but in reality the school Christmas disco has more in common. In 1956 young people were more innocent, less worldly-wise. That could of course be seen as a positive thing or a negative. Certainly the young people taking part in this project are having a ball. There is still something about the anticipation, getting ready and dressing up that makes people feel good whatever the era.

The political and cultural landscape in Northern Ireland has obviously evolved dramatically in last 60 years - how important has it been that people could always still come together the same way in dance halls throughout that time?

For rural communities in Ireland dance halls were an important cultural lifeblood. It could be argued that other than church they were the only place that brought people together – men and women. From the big band orchestras of the 1930s and ‘40s to the showbands of the 1950s and ‘60s – in town halls and village halls, hotels and marquees.

The county of Antrim alone had as many as 82 different venues where weekly dances were held or there would be the once a year 'carnival' – each parish holding its own 'summer festival' where marquees were put up with dancing sometimes up to 14 days alongside entertainment for all the family.

The night will bring together young people from your Alternative Energies programme with people of all ages from the local community. What is it about dance that transcends age divides and allows people to disregard their differences?

There is nothing like being waltzed around a floor or twirled in a jive by somebody who knows how to dance. It’s a fantastic feeling and transcends age or social standing. Age doesn’t matter when you’re waltzing, it’s just about can you do it, letting yourself be led and having a go.

The young people are happy to learn from people who have physically lived it, who have the experience inside their cells. They like listening to stories from that time too and because its not book learning it doesn’t feel like education….but it is. When you’re having fun, critical judgement of yourself or others is first suspended and then challenged.

Do dance halls specifically still have potential to appeal across generations?

Yes, but not without some ‘translation’. Live music is still popular, having a bop is still popular, putting those together in a dance hall setting has the potential to appeal to all…a fun night. But people still need a social outlet to meet others of a similar age. Remember dance halls where were people met prospective partners.

DU Dance (NI) #1

Is it important to preserve a legacy of this period and give those who were there the chance to relive it?

Absolutely, our cultural heritage and sense of time and place is immensely important – not just for nostalgia but because our social heritage is also valuable to those who lived it and for those of future generations to understand better how our family members before us lived. History is not just about politics or the jobs we did but how we came together in our own leisure time, how we enjoyed ourselves – that’s the glue that bonds communities over times and they can look back with fondness.

What do you hope Du Dance's young people take away from the experience?

Enjoyment, trying something new, that they can learn from older people and that they can socialise and even connect with older people. Perhaps a realisation that their own feelings of excitement mingled with nervousness are the same feelings older people would have had when they were their age in the 1950s.

Can you see any areas of contemporary dance culture having similar longevity or being looked back on the same way?

Every era has its day and every era has a generation of people who’s memories are linked to the music, dance, social scene and fashions of that time.  

Will you have further projects like these in future?

DU Dance (NI) has a strand of work 'Closing The Gap' which focuses on inter-generational work, bringing people of different generations together. Historically, dance has been a social gatherer with people of all ages and both genders. Currently however, there are few situations that bring people of different ages together. With advancements in digital technology and the radical change in forms of communication, the gap between the generations has increased. Our work and events seek to address this lack of connection and find ways of bringing people together, so yes wherever possible we hope to continue this.

Dance Hall Extravaganza takes place at St Patrick’s Parish Centre, Queen Street, Ballymoney on Saturday, October 22. Tickets are £3 which must be booked in advance from the Ballymoney Evergreen Club on tel. 028 2766 4134 The event is family friendly, suitable for all ages. DU Dance (NI) encourages everyone to dress up, come along and join in.