The Ballroom

Known at one time as “London’s Harlem,” the Paramount Ballroom, also known as the Paramount Dance Hall on London’s Tottenham Court Road hosted Britain’s first jitterbug competition in November 1939, “marking the first high-profile event for a dance craze that would soon sweep the nation. Famed not only for being the country’s top destination to jitterbug, the Paramount is of much interest to historians for its mixed race clientele. Writing in 1946, social observer William Samson offered readers an electric account of the venue and the kinetic activities visible inside:

They throw each other away, then, magnetised, come together. Within this simple mathematical framework the improvisation thrives: legs are kicked in special ways, arms extended, the whole body bent in calculated distortion, the torso shivered in a movement half intendedly lunatic. One of the men throws his girl right over his shoulder – a sublime feat.

Popular dancing has a history of cultural interaction, offering dancers a means to exchange new styles of dress, music and movement, and with the popularisation of the jitterbug in the 1940s, the British dancing public were forced to negotiate new interpretations of how the body could and should behave. Considering the influx of black men from the British colonies and American armed forces during the 1940s, the jitterbug arrived at a time when many people were forced to re-assess the meanings of being both white and British.

The Paramount Dance Hall provides a case study which reveals and highlights wider questions of race in London during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.”

Excerpt from “Glitter and Glamour: Race and Dance in 1940s London”, Kevin Guyan.