Dances and Balls in NZ - a look at the experiences

In Part 1, we looked at the genealogical sources when researching dances and balls in New Zealand. Now it’s time to look at what went on at these events with some first-person accounts!

The local dances, 1900s – 1940s

Local dances in dancehalls have been popular throughout the first half of the twentieth- century. Even during the wars charity dances were still held (though to a somewhat lesser extent). The types of dances ranged from the quadrilles, barn dance and waltz in the early 1900s to foxtrot, tango and quickstep in the 1930s. The rules were strict; no close dancing was allowed, and dances were often supervised by the older folk, as remembered by Tui Preston who went to dances in the 1930s:

‘We had socials in church. they were controlled: you were supervised…I can remember the first time a boy walked me home. He wasn’t supposed to. Mum made sure that I didn’t come home with anybody.
Going to a dance in those days, you didn’t have to go with a partner. You went alone and sat on forms and the men congregated up in the corner, and picked out their girl that they were going to ask to dance.’[1]

Communities normally organised their own dances. Dance committees would bring home-made food and decorations. Joan Miller remembers going to community dances in the 1940s:

‘My friends and I used to go to the Caledonian, St John’s and the Latimer dancehalls in Christchurch. There weren’t many cars around so we hopped on our bikes. One of my friends used to go to Miller’s store every Friday and buy material at 1/11 per yard to make her dress for the dance. After basketball on Saturday, we would rush home to paint our dancing shoes silver or gold to match what we were wearing that night.’[2]

The Debutante Balls, 1900s – 1970s

In the late nineteenth century, debutante balls have become popular across Europe, where young women of noble heritage, ready for marriage, would be presented to the monarch. The balls would give a chance for young men and women to meet potential spouses. Outside of monarchies, in places like Australia and New Zealand, debutante balls have been organised by the schools, churches or other community groups. Attendance at there was less exclusive, but nevertheless quite an occasion. There is an array of debutante photographs across NZ repositories (see example here). The dress, which could not be purchased ready-made, was top priority. Here is an account by Priscilla Mary van Reesema, nee Coleman of a ball she attended in 1956:

‘Mrs Roswitha Robertson’s [seamstress] name was give to my mother by the proprietor of the premier fabric shop in Heretaunga Street, Hastings. My mother and I went round for an interview. Roswitha was the first Central European I had ever seen. Viennese, we were told. Her very shiny black hair was pulled back and tied with a fetching velvet ribbon. She had a workroom in her house, and employed young women.
My mother was set against me having a strapless dress. I insisted in strapless. And I wanted a pink dress, not a white one. In the end, it was made of pink tulle with a pink taffeta underskirt and a bodice fitted with whalebone. the bodice was beaded; a band of pink satin ran across the bust. It was most beautifully made… During 1957 and 1958 I wore my coming-out dress to many balls.’[3]

Presentations were very ceremonial and uniform throughout the country. the Dunedin Charity Debutante Ball was described thus by the Otago Daily Times:

‘Silvered stars and blue and white streamers interspersed with groups of bright balloons made a pleasing setting in the Town Hall last night for the charity ball. Ballroom and galleries were thronged with dancers and spectators eager to watch the presentation of 42 debutantes to Bishop O’Neill. the bishop and the matrons of honour, Mrs C. E. de Lautour, in a black sheer gown and furs, and Mrs C. B. Lynch, wearing a gown of rose ottoman silk, were escorted to the platform by the guard of honour and the matrons of honours were presented with bouquets of cyclamen and roses.
Escorted by their partners, the debutantes made stately progress along a diagonal path across the ballroom floor. They mounted the platform and made a deep curtsy to the bishop. After her presentation each debutante took her place on the platform behind the official party until the ceremony had ended. The debutantes danced a Destiny waltz, with their partners – a swirl of lovely white frocks and animated youthful faces.’[4]

Some aspects of the ball were less formal:

‘Tea and coffee was served but not alcohol for it was after 6pm. Many though had enjoyed pre ball drinks at business premises around town. Others nipped out for a quick snifter in cars parked outside.’[5]

In 1958 Queen Elizabeth II abolished the royal debutante ball practice. Since then, the practice of introducing debutante’s to society has steadily declined and after the 1970, few have been hosted in New Zealand.

The rock’n’roll era, 1950s – 1960s

Local church and school dances were still popular through the 1950s and 60s, but the cabarets in larger towns were gaining in prominence too. Some even offered lunch-time dances! Majestic Cabaret was one of the most popular dance spots in Wellington. Rosaleen Conway described her experience:

‘The year was 1956. The ball was at the Majestic Cabaret, in Wellington. Maureen and I wore white rabbit-fur capes over our long dresses, and felt like royalty. As soon as we got to Majestic our dance partners disappeared into the Gents. We waited and waited. We thought we’d been stood up. They came out eventually, still picking white fur off their new suits. Our bunny capes had molted. They didn’t dare object though because we were hiding their grog beneath them. Drinking wasn’t allowed in public places but probably every woman at that ball has smuggled in alcohol.’[6]

The jitterbug, rock’n’roll and twist became the new staples of the dance floor. Closeness between partners no longer mattered, except during dances held in schools or convents. Dancing was increasingly less formal, as Glenda Reti describes:

‘The floor was packed. I tried to follow my partner as he spun me around. The floor was covered in white powder to help feet twist and slide. I slipped and crashed into other couples who gave me dirty looks. My partner wandered off to find someone else to dance with. As the evening went on I mastered how to move across the white powdered floor. It didn’t actually matter if you made a mistake; the floor was s crowded, no one really noticed. you just had to keep dancing to the beat.’[7]

Social dances are a fascinating subject, though there are surprisingly few sources on the dances held in New Zealand prior to the 1970s. This has been an unusual post for Historic NZ, as we normally focus on ancestry research. Let us know via Facebook if you would like to see more posts like these!

Photo credits: most photos are from the Alexander Turnbull Library, credits are linked to photos and can be opened once clicked. The newspaper advertising image credit is as follows: ‘Advertisement’. Te Puke Times, 5 May 1950.

References: [1] Georgina White, Light Fantastic: Dance Floor Courtship in New Zealand (HarperCollins, 2007), 84. [2] White, 68. [3] White, 125. [4] ‘Debutantes Presented at Charity Ball’, Otago Daily Times, 27 July 1949. [5] Leonie Howells, ‘The Debutante Ball’, New Zealand Memories, September 2019. [6] White, Light Fantastic, 156. [7] White, 174.

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