Memories of Calderdale

Dancing at the Alex – Alexandra Hall


Wallace Brown

During my first years in Halifax [1949-1951] as a sixth-former at Heath Grammar School, I had a small circle of friends known inevitably as the lads. Our leisure time was devoted to sports, hobbies, the pictures and, of course, tentative relationships with the opposite sex, which often involved going to the pictures. The cinema was quite a ritual. The most expensive seats were a must so that we could sit on the back row where we might smoke a cigarette or canoodle or perhaps both. At the interval two uniformed girls were spotlighted with trays laden with tubs of ice cream and a selection of sweets and chocolate. Dates expected you to provide. We never used the American words date or dating. We talked of taking somebody out.

At the Regal, at least, they still had a grand electric organ which rose majestically, lights flashing, chords pounding, from the bowels of the earth. The actual film was rather an afterthought.

But the social highlight of the week, THE place to go, was the Saturday night dance at the Alex (Alexandra Hall), located above the head office of the Halifax Building Society on Commercial Street. The hall was very grand, very elegant with tall classic walls. A live band played on a small stage, each musician resplendent in a fancy tuxedo. It all seemed quite posh.

At that time dancing (which was always ballroom) required holding your partner in your arms, and therefore at least minimal knowledge of the steps for the quick-step and waltz, that were suited to the majority of tunes played. For a decent social life many of us took lessons, in my case at Pearl Palin's place on Horton Street. Ms Palin was impossibly glamorous. For the occasional country dances, like the Dashing White Sergeant, the word was follow the couple in front, which usually worked. Novelty dances, especially the hokey cokey (US hokey pokey) and Paul Jones, were a welcome respite. For the latter, two concentric rings of dancers, one male, one female, revolved in opposite directions and when the music stopped you danced with the person opposite. The procedure was repeated several times during a Paul Jones. A great mixer.

So was the excuse me dance (Ladies or Gentleman) where the convention was the gracious surrender of one's partner to the excuser.

Mostly we took nobody to the dance, but sought to meet as many girls as possible until finding one we hoped to escort home after the cheek-to-cheek last waltz. Few folk owned private cars so transportation meant bus (lucky if you made the last bus) or shanks pony or a combination of both.

Ideally the girl should live not too far from you but frequently I was faced with a very long walk home. I was never apprehensive whether in the town center or in some wild, foreign part like [Beacon Hill] – a far cry from today. The object of taking a girl home was, of course, the opportunity for a snog in somewhat private place like a ginnel or a bench in People's Park, and especially at journey's end when some reward of intimacy was expected. Usually, all I got was a perfunctory quick kiss before the young lady darted in to her house.

On Sundays, the lads always held a post mortem to compare their experiences. What did you get? The answers, expressed in a strange coy code, would rarely shock the vicar.

At the same time as we were discovering girls we were discovering alcohol. Saturday at the Alex combined the two. The drinking age, as now, was 18, but at 17 I had no problems. The idea was to get a glow on, which at that innocent age meant drinking perhaps three half pints of Ramsden's best (mild) - for some strange reason bitter was unavailable in Halifax. Money was short for the lads, we only drank on Saturday, so my accommodating, dear mother sometimes allowed us to force down some of her potent, often repellent, home-brewed beer before we caught the bus in to town. Then we might proceed to a pub (the Alex had no bar), perhaps the Royal Oak, perhaps the Old Cock. During the dance, if the girl-search was fruitless, we would escape for a quick half. Sometimes, an older (employed) pal might stand us a round. Sometimes, we got back to the Alex so late that the girls were queuing for their coats. Sometimes, we might make a pick up from the queue, and away we went on safari to wherever she lived.

After two years' national service in the army dancing at the Alex resumed with the big difference that most of us were soon going steady and went as couples. I also remember many formal dances organized by groups and societies, where we all wore suits – many owned or borrowed tuxedos. Two chain stores Burton's and the cheaper Fifty Shilling Tailors did a roaring made-to-measure suit trade.

The girls wore stylish dresses, even long gowns. Slacks were rare. It was a much more formal time than now. Daily, most lads wore a sport coat (often Harris Tweed from Dunn's), flannel trousers, collar and tie. I even had a shirt with a detachable collar held on by studs. Thus, one changed one's collar daily, not the whole shirt

© Malcolm Bull 2021
Revised 10:26 / 30th May 2021 / 7240

Page Ref: M_34

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