Dances and dancing

'It is not considered desirable for students to go to dances.' This house rule of 1898 continued in spirit for many years. But dancing with each other was permitted, and at socials dramatic turns and music 'formed delightful interludes to dancing and progressive whist'. By 1912 there was fifteen minutes' dancing every evening between Dinner and Chapel. A folk dancing club was popular in 1915, in line with the national revival, and this evidently continued, the students giving displays at fund raising fairs in 1920 and 1921.

The signing of the Armistice in 1918 was celebrated by a dinner and fancy dress dance, and this form of entertainment continued in popularity. In 1923 a student sent an urgent letter requesting 'a pair of Daddy's grey flannel bags & a cricket shirt as we are going to a fancy dress dance at Somerville'. She was 'a most imposing sight with bushy brown eyebrows & moustache'.

It is rather surprising to find the foundation of a dance club for members of the University in 1926, at a time when all undergraduates were forbidden to take instruction in dancing except from teachers licensed by the Proctors. So popular was the club that the JCR voted to alter the late night pass 'from Saturday to Tuesday in the week when the dance club meets', and Miss Carré at The Blue Shop in Market Street advertised 'Dresess [sic] for the Dance Club'. The dons were not so enthusiastic, feeling that 'dancing was peculiar in its disturbing effects upon work'. The Club was dissolved in 1931. When there was a proposal to found another in 1936 the Proctors were unable to sanction it 'owing to the opposition of the Women's Principals, who … refused to give any reason for their action'.

By this time students were permitted to attend dances outside the College, but only three a term, and these requiring permission from Tutor and Vice Principal. During term they had to be back by midnight, except at Commemoration, when no restriction on the time of return was sometimes allowed. So in 1938 a student saw 'the first faint touch of dawn' as it appeared over Balliol Hall. But the music of Britain's first black swing bandleader, Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, was not to her taste: 'his brand of dance music is what's termed "hot". It was so terrible that I had to put my hands over my ears. It was like the tearing of 20,000 sheets … hot jazz with Master Jowett & a dozen other crusty old celebrities gazing down frostily from their picture frames'.

On a smaller scale was the College's own dance, held once or twice a term. 'All afternoon people were busy cleaning … arranging armchairs and cushions for sitting out places, shading the lights with pink crinkly paper and so on. Everyone brought out her most cherished vases, bowls and flower pots, and when everything was finished the effect was very pretty.' 'I slaved hard, making cider cup, arranging biscuits, putting stuff on floors, and generally superintending'. In 1926 the Chronicle boasted that 'the College dances become grander and more professional every term – there were ice-creams at the last two'.

Each student invited a male guest, who had to be introduced to the Principal. In 1937 one guest asked if Miss Mann would shake hands when they left: 'he wanted to get his own back after her colossal grip when she welcomed him'. In 1938 the Dance Committee 'suggested that in future young men should be introduced to the Principal by their partners instead of the parlour maid'. Evening dress was de rigueur for both sexes, and a woman did not stick to the same partner throughout. A dance card for 10th February 1923 shows 11 dances; there would be perhaps five dances with her partner and one each with six others. There was a live band ('terrible' according to one student in 1937). The Oxontrics band is mentioned in 1927 and in 1935 a suggestion that all the women's college dances should be on one of two days only was criticized because there were 'only two recognised University bands'.

In the summer of 1935 a series of practical jokes included the hiding of SCR gowns before Chapel and the placing of a booby trap of firewood or laundry baskets (accounts differ) outside the Principal's door. Finally, after being locked out of her room for several hours the Principal, Miss Mann, announced the cancellation of the College dance unless the culprits owned up; they did not. The JCR condemned the perpetrators and there the matter might have rested, had not the national newspapers got hold of the story. The Proctors banned coverage in the student magazine, the Isis, but two members of College were sent down in the succeeding row. Their stories were also covered by the press, and copied in newspapers from the Daily Express to the Northern Whig and the Times of Malaya.

Postponement of the College dance was never welcome, but the General Strike (1926) and the threat of chicken pox (1929) were accepted as good reasons. In 1925 the dance was postponed when Queen Alexandra died. The students looked forward to their dances, but they also had their principles; a resolution that the J.C.R. should have been consulted first was 'vehemently attacked, and lost by a large majority'.