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Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dances and balls were a popular way of expressing support for religious, sporting or charitable organisations and for celebrating significant community events, and the role dance has played in the development of Melbourne's cultural and social life has often been overlooked. Victoria's Separation from New South Wales, for instance, was marked by a Grand Separation Fancy Dress Ball at St Patrick's Hall in 1850.

More modest dances were held throughout this period in inner-city venues such as the Masonic Hall in Collins Street or in the numerous town halls springing up in the inner suburbs. Dance programs were informed by British fashion, with the Circular Waltz and set dances such as Lancers, Alberts and Quadrilles finding particular favour. American dances such as the One-Step, Foxtrot, Slow Waltz and later the Tango were introduced to dance programs following the upsurge of interest in American music precipitated by the 1908 visit of the Great White Fleet and the growing stream of American 'ragtimers' who were promoted by the Tivoli Circuit and other vaudeville entrepreneurs.

The rapidity of change which characterised this period in dance history resulted in a proliferation in the number of dance academies opening in the city and inner suburbs. One of the first, and most enduring, was founded in 1904 by Jennie Brenan and her sisters Eileen and Margaret at 163 Collins Street. The Brenans taught both social and theatrical dancing, becoming the chief supplier of dancers to the theatrical giant J.C. Williamson Ltd for over 30 years.

Returning servicemen newly acquainted with jazz and ragtime as a result of time spent overseas proved to be great advocates for the new styles of dancing. The excitement surrounding the introduction of jazz to the Melbourne dance scene was heightened by the concurrent construction of new purpose-built dance palaces.

During the 1920s Melburnians witnessed an unprecedented building program which was to revolutionise the way in which dances were staged and promoted. In the seaside suburb of St Kilda, Carlyon's Ballroom at the Esplanade Hotel (c. 1920) initiated the concept of dividing the week into Popular Nights (evening dress optional) and Party Night (evening dress compulsory). Other dance palais built during this period include the new and lavishly appointed Palais de Danse (the original building had been built in 1913 but was re-erected on an adjoining site in 1920), Leggett's Ballroom, Prahran (1920), the Wattle Path Palais, St Kilda (1923), the Palais Royale at the Royal Exhibition Building (1923) and the Green Mill on the current site of the Arts Centre (1926).

Many of those involved in the local music and dance scene saw the opportunity for turning a passionate pastime into a profitable business. Highly publicised competitions, fancy dress nights and theme nights which featured give-away prizes became ways of enticing dancers to a particular venue. Leggett's in Prahran was one of the most successful in this respect, offering a brand new Buick as the prize for best couple as early as 1924, before initiating the Australasian Dance Championships during the 1930s. Dancers were offered many opportunities to win prizes either through talent or luck at all the major venues. As a result, the marathon dancing craze, which had swept depression-ridden America during the 1930s, failed to take hold in Melbourne.

During the 1930s, dance venues and teaching academies continued to grow in number. The Leggetts extended their ballroom in 1939 to accommodate up to 6000 dancers, while their 100 employees helped teach an estimated 50 000 people a year to dance. Dances were also on a grand scale at town halls in Heidelberg, Collingwood, Moonee Ponds and St Kilda. This well-established network of venues was heavily utilised during World War II for entertaining tens of thousands of American and Australian troops stationed in Melbourne. The jitterbug as practised by the Americans is seen by many as the defining dance of this period. In reality, however, most venues maintained a more sedate dance program featuring a mixture of Modern and Old Time dancing and allowed jitterbugging only in restricted areas of the dance floor.

By the end of World War II, attitudes towards social dancing had changed. For decades, dancers had moved in time to various jazz styles from dixie to swing. By the late 1940s, however, young jazz musicians were following another path and returning to the concert stages and clubs. Dance managements began to look for new ways to entice people back into the ballroom and struck upon square-dancing.

Melburnians were the first to embrace the dancing sensation which dominated the nation's dance-floors throughout the early 1950s. By 1952, over 100 square-dancing clubs were registered with the Square Dancing Society of Victoria. Venues such as Leggett's and Earl's Court on St Kilda's Esplanade became centres for large-scale dances, though by the late 1950s square-dancing had all but been swamped by a profoundly different style of dance music, rock 'n' roll.

In 1956 the first rock 'n' roll dances were held in Melbourne and Sydney following the controversial screening of the film The blackboard jungle, which featured Bill Haley singing 'Rock Around the Clock'. Town halls throughout the suburbs were soon filled with the music played at a regular 4/4 beat at a decibel range only made possible by amplification. Although the Jive, a less frenetic version of the jitterbug, featured heavily on 50/50 dance programs, there was a noticeable drift away from 'couple dancing' towards the more 'on the spot' style of dancing epitomised by the introduction of the Twist in the early 1960s.

This new style of dancing was practised most widely at concerts in large venues such as the Stadium in West Melbourne and in the smaller club and town hall venues which became popular during the late 1960s and early 1970s. City venues such as Bertie's, Sebastian's and the Thumpin' Tum catered for both those who wanted to dance to live music and those who just wanted to listen. By the late 1970s, however, these clubs were beginning to lose their live music acts to the burgeoning pub-rock scene and their dancers to King Street discotheques such as Inflation and the Underground. In the early 21st century these trends continue in nightclubs and at dance parties, although renewed interest in couples dancing has also led to the creation of lively Latin American and Swing Dance scenes across the city.

Carolyn Laffan