Category Archives: Dance

The Chestnut Tree: A Very British Entertainment

The Chestnut Tree’ by Jimmy Kennedy, Tommie Connor & Hamilton Kennedy, published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1938) and illustrated by G. Peres.

In these posts we already turned our attention to a few British dance crazes. Think of the springy Sir Roger de Coverly, or the Northern Soul dance style of the 70’s. Perhaps you do remember the catching, working-class Lambeth Walk. Well, here is another one of these singing dance sensations: The Chestnut Tree. Hip hip hurray!

The Chestnut Tree was the second in a series of five novelty dances, of which the Lambeth Walk was the first. The dances were launched in quick succession by the outbreak of WWII, and were produced by the Mecca Dance Halls —at the time the largest dance hall chain in England. At the head of Mecca Dance was clever Carl Heimann, advertising himself in the medallion on the cover.

The Chestnut Tree’ by Jimmy Kennedy, Tommie Connor & Hamilton Kennedy, published by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co (New York, 1938). source: John Hopkins, Sheridan Libraries – Lester S. Levy sheet music collection

The American version of The Chestnut Tree cover shows us that even King George VI was tapping his breast and his head while singing along. Or wasn’t he?
In a newsreel of 1936 we see King George VI, then still the Duke of York, joining in a singalong while visiting a camp for teenage boys. Together they sing Under the spreading chestnut tree, an action song of only one verse, that is repeated again and again while certain movements replace some of the words.

Under the spreading chestnut tree,
Where I held you on my knee,
Oh how happy I should be,
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

The action song was a great hit for the royals as witnessed by this other newsreel from 1939 — even the Queen and the princesses are joining in.

It was the success of these images of the King tapping his knee, breast and head, that inspired the creators at Mecca Dance to package the children action song as a new novelty dance. Indeed, hadn’t the publicity already been done by the King himself? Thus, The Chestnut Tree was born…

‘How to dance The Chestnut Tree, by Adele England’, dance instructions on the 1938 sheet music’s back cover.

Adele England was the leading teacher in the Locarno, Mecca’s flagship ballroom in Streatham, south London. She devised the dance hall routines for Heimann’s five novelty dances. For The Chestnut Tree she was not only inspired by the action song, but also inserted elements of the polka in order to appeal to the older patrons: the dancers were invited to circle the dance floor mimicking a tree, and to conclude by boisterously shouting ‘Chestnuts!’

Mecca tried to replicate its success by creating a third dance: The Park Parade about a couple taking a romantic stroll in the park on a summer’s day and by distributing free straw hats for the dance’s launch. In the newsreel below we can see and hear Miss Adele England explaining the ball room routine.

‘The Park Parade’ by Arthur Young, Anthony Page & Tommy Duggan, published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1939)

Heimann’s novelty dances all had the same mix of ingredients. They were quintessential English with English composers, producers and developed by an English dancer. They were meant to be performed by (mostly white) Britons of all ages, with or without dancing experience, rich or poor alike. The dances were a simple arrangement of steps performed in repetition while the patrons circled the dance floor in couples. All routines included shouting together and were meant to be a good laugh.

Heimann didn’t leave to chance the success of his novelty dances. Instead he devised huge promotional campaigns to launch them all over England. First the sheet music including dance instructions was sent to the press and to both the Mecca and non-Mecca dance halls, free of charge. It came with a warning that the dance was not to be performed in public before the date of the national launch.

The Handsome Territorial‘ by Jimmy Kennedy & Michael Carr. Published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1939). source: Sheetmusicwarehouse

The dances then all had a simultaneous debut at the Mecca dancing halls throughout the country. Professionals demonstrated the dance first and then invited patrons to join in. The words of the song were displayed on large banners along the dance halls so that everybody could sing along. And the very same day the sheet music and gramophone records would go up for sale.

The fourth (Handsome Territorial) and fifth (Knees Up, Mother Brown) novelty dances were less successful. During the war the dance business, owing to the presence of the large number of American servicemen and the jitterbug craze, would become explicitly less ‘British‘ and more Americanised.

Time to get your knees up!


Further reading: Doing The Lambeth Walk: Novelty Dances and the British Nation, by Allison Abra

Oxford Bags, Pullovers and Northern Soul

‘Le Gandin’ by Auguste Bosc, published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

Bloomers were not the only pants fashion worthy of a song or dance. Proudly this young man struts around, wearing very capacious trousers called Oxford bags. The fashion of these wide-cut trousers started in 1924 in the city of youth, Oxford. They were typically made of flannel, with a circumference of usually 66 cm around the knee and 60 cm around the ankle. These Oxford bags were sometimes also named ‘Charleston trousers’ or ‘collegiate pants’.

In those days young men in Oxford were seen as fashion icons. They were reported in the newspapers and their vestimentary code had a worldwide impact. Our sheet music covers are sure witnesses of that influence on the vogue in Paris.

The instant popularity of the Oxford-style trousers is illustrated by the song C’est chic les longs pantalons or Oxford Bags created at the Moulin Rouge in 1925. The cover for this song is illustrated by Roger de Valerio. He might have drawn a self portrait here: the young man is wearing de Valerio’s typical round horn-rimmed spectacles. Or he could have been joking: allegedly some followers of fashion wore these round spectacles with plain glass just to give “an appearance of owlish sapience”.

French papers were making fun of the ‘elephant leg’ trousers. Surely, if fashion wasn’t French it could not be elegant, could it?

‘C’est chic les longs pantalons’ or ‘Oxford Bags’ by Fred Melé & Craven, published by Francis Salabert (Paris, 1925) and illustrated by Roger De Valerio.

It is said that these large trousers became the style because students were not allowed to wear knickerbockers in lectures, so they hid them under Oxford bags. However, the belief is now that rowers used to slip them over their shorts during cold weather, the equivalent of a tracksuit. One such a pair of rowing-over trousers (already coined Oxford bags in 1896) is kept at the River & Rowing Museum, in Henley-on-Thames.

At first Oxford bags were worn with a double-breasted blazer but soon they were accompanied by pullover sweaters, another Oxonian fashion statement. “Conservative Oxford continues to add bizarre notes to the prevailing mode of men’s fashion. After the flapping Oxford bags of a previous year fanciful coat-sweaters of exotic colours, called pullovers have captured the undergraduate fancy.” (The Chicago Tribune, 26 October 1926). The newspaper continued to state that the pullover’s unusual popularity may be traced to the 1926 lockout of one million coal miners and the ensuing cold lecture rooms.

Il a mis son Pull-over’ by René Sylviano, published by Francis Salabert (Paris, 1928) and Illustrated by Roger De Valerio.

The Oxford trousers as a fashion item were taken to extremes. One pair even had a 122 cm wide hem, and extravagant trousers such as these were getting all the attention. But still, the normal kind of Oxford pants were to stay right up into the 1950s.

‘Charming’ by Romain Macker, published by Harmonia (Brussels, sd) and illustrated by Peter De Greef.

In the 1970s Oxford bags found their second life in the Northern soul scene, a British subculture that emerged out of the mod movement in the North of England. The youths danced all night to rare vintage vinyls of black American soul with a heavy beat and fast tempo. They had a particular dance style, spinning around, kicking in the air, performing splits and backdrops. A typical sweat-soaked all-nighter was fuelled by popping Dexedrine pills to keep dancing for hours. Beer was not served though, because the dance clubs could stay open as long as no alcohol was offered.

For practical reasons the boys chose light and loose-fitting clothes to easily move in: high-waisted Oxford bags, polo shirts, sports or track jackets and leather soled shoes for good gliding across the dance floor. Often patches representing the soul club allegiance were sown on the vest or shirt.

In this 25 minutes ‘Wigan Casino’ documentary from the seventies we can appreciate the dance moves of Northern soul devotees who lose themselves to their favourite music. The Wigan Casino (1973-1981), a night club in Greater Manchester, was the primary venue for Northern soul music.

The Slow, Slower, Slowest… Boston Waltz

Valse Lente‘ by Clifton Worsley published by Alphonse Leduc (Paris, 1920) and illustrated by Georges Dola.

The valse lente was very fashionable in the early 20th century. It was a slow, sentimental waltz, also called a Boston waltz. I am still confused over the precise technical moves of the valse lente or Boston Waltz. What makes it so ‘lente’ or ‘Boston’, still eludes me, though I’ve read more than a few instruction texts. I even dared a few hesitating steps in my boudoir.
I also tried hard, but found no reliable explanation for its name or origin. Different Western regions or continents claim to be the cradle of this wildly popular dance. Some say the Boston waltz is an American, slower and gliding variant of the traditional Viennese waltz. The oldest reference that I could find is a composition by Marie Félicie Clémence de Reiset, Vicomtesse de Grandval. She composed Prélude et Valse Lente in 1885.
According to the composer Clifton Worsley it was he who coined the term Boston waltz.
Clifton Worsley is the pseudonym of the Catalan musician Pere Astort i Ribas. A trained pianist, Pere Astort started working as a clerk at a popular sheet music shop located on the most emblematic street, La Rambla, in Barcelona. This shop then called Can Guàrdia still exists as Casa Beethoven.
In the sheet music shop Pere Astort worked as a song demonstrator (or song plugger) to help sell the sheet music. Patrons could select a title of a song for him to play on the piano, thus getting a first listen before buying.

Beloved‘ by Pere Astort (aka Clifton Worsley), published by Casa Dotesio (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by M. De Lohn.

The story goes that while Astort was playing one of his own compositions, an American musician walked into the shop. Stunned by Astort’s song the visitor told him that the music reminded him of fashionable waltzes from his home town, Boston. The American also suggested to adopt a pseudonym with a more ‘artistic‘ and international resonance. Pere Astort went for the dignified sounding Clifton Worsley nom de plume.

'Vision' by Clifton Worsley, sheet music cover
Vision‘ by Pere Astort (aka Clifton Worsley). Published by himself in Barcelona (1902) with an art nouveau cover designed by Llorenc Brunet.

Clifton Worsley had a rival in Theodor Pinet who also claimed to be the Bostonkungen or the Boston King. Pinet was a Swedish composer, with a Belgian father, who used to play at the royal court of Sweden. He introduced the Boston waltz in Sweden around 1902. Clifton Worsley had then already composed his first Boston walz in the late 1890’s. Anyway, Theodor Pinet became a big name in Sweden thanks to the Boston Walz. In 1910 he launched his own music hall: the Boston Palace! According to Sweden’s state archives, the rush to Pinet’s Boston Palace was huge: “Ladies in exquisite toilets, gentlemen in coats and tuxedos, students, little shop girls in blouses and skirts, jacket-clad office workers and demi-mondaines in rustling silk with or without cavalier, all bitten by the Boston fly […]

‘Papillons’ by Theodor Pinet, published by Lundquist (Stockholm, sd).

In 1900 the French Roi de la Valse Rodolphe Berger composed a valse très lente (a very slow waltz), the hugely successful Amoureuse.

Amoureuse‘ by Rodolphe Berger. Published by Enoch & Cie (Paris, 1900) with the cover illustrated by Léonce Burret

And after Massenet also having written a Valse très lente, Debussy created La plus que lente or ‘the even slower waltz’ in 1910. It was his tongue-in-cheek riposte to the countless lightweight valses lentes that were so successful in the Parisian salons and dance halls. La plus que lente is a charming sentimental waltz with a lot of rubato written for solo piano and arranged for strings.
Debussy mentioned in an interview that he had written La plus que lente for the Hungarian violinist/leader of a gypsy orchestra. He had discovered the ensemble in the newly opened Parisian Carlton Hotel where he regularly went with his wife and friends for the afternoon tea. Who better then, than the Hungarian Antal Zalai to perform La plus que lente