Glitter and Glamour: Race and Dance in 1940s London
On November 20th 1939 the Paramount Dance Hall on London‚Äôs Tottenham Court Road hosted Britain‚Äôs first jitterbug competition, marking the first high-profile event for a dance craze that would soon sweep the nation.  Famed not only for being the country‚Äôs top destination to jitter bug, 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 thevenue 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 ‚Äď 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 about race, sexuality and dance in London during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. The dance hall is a fascinating example of a geographical space in which boundaries of race, gender, sex and sexuality could be tested through the interactions of black men and white women.
The dance hall was not the only venue where interactions of this kind occurred nor can the Paramount even be considered London‚Äôs most accommodating venue. Soho clubs Frisco‚Äôs (off Piccadilly) and Bouillabaisse (New Compton Street) were seen as successors to the popular black clubs of the 1930s, including the Nest, Smokey Joe‚Äôs, the Shim Sham and Jig‚Äôs Club, frequented by mixed race couples and reflective of the community‚Äôs cosmopolitan spirit. Yet it was the Paramount that was subject to much notoriety throughout the 1940s and eventually closed its doors to the public in July 1950. The reasons behind the dance hall‚Äôs infamy are unclear. It could be suggested that the Paramount‚Äôs location, beyond the borders of Soho; its label as a ‚Äėdancehall‚Äô rather than a ‚Äėclub‚Äô; and its inclusion as part of the established Mecca chain were understood as a greater risk for racial mixing that went beyond it‚Äôs permitted confines.
Jamaican-born Enrico Stennett, a regular at the Paramount during the 1940s, noted that the dance hall was very different from other halls in that management permitted, albeit reluctantly, black men to mix with white women. In his recollection of the dance hall he jokingly recalls that being black could in fact be of benefit, noting the time that he brought a white friend to the venue who was ‚Äúwell received by all the black men, but rejected by the white women, each time he asked them to dance with him he was refused."  Yet, the hall was not immune to racism with the police quick to target many black dancers who, in their opinion, stepped out of line. Also at risk were the white women who associated with black men and it was commonplace for these women to be the target of whispering campaigns, verbal and physical attacks.
The early 1940s marked an unprecedented boom in the visibility of non-white men in London. It is estimated that between 1942 and 1945 one million American servicemen were stationed in the UK, of this total around 13% (130,000) were black.  These statistics follow a 1949 report in the Picture Post magazine, which claimed that during the war 95 per cent of those living in England, had ‚Äúno first-hand knowledge of coloured people."  However, the feature is also keen to highlight that this absence of experience was fast changing during the 1940s, with substantial communities of Africans and West Indians now present in certain areas of Britain, particularly around Cardiff‚Äôs Tiger Bay and South End, Liverpool.
Race was a key topic of several Picture Post features throughout the 1940s. In ‚ÄėIs There a British Colour Bar?‚Äô the writer notes that ‚Äúthe British colour bar, one mightsay, is invisible, but like Wells‚Äô invisible man it is hard and real to touch."  The article then goes on to highlight many ofthe problems affecting the lives of black people living in Britain, including access to housing, discrimination in employment and widespread racism.
The Paramount was no stranger to this ‚Äúinvisible‚ÄĚ colour bar. In his memories of going dancing, Stennett noted the venue‚Äôs ever-changing entrance policies, designed in such away as to limit the number of unaccompanied black men attending. These could include the need to wear a tie or the requirement of a female partner before gaining entrance. Stennett proudly recalls how these rules were playfully evaded with some black men choosing to wear the loudest tie imaginable and the support of white female friends who would congregate in the dance hall foyer each weekend and be happy to help any man in need of a partner.
The Paramount was understood as a space in which rules could be subverted and challenged. Unlike many other London dance halls where questions of race remained invisible and went undiscussed by the purely white clientele, the Paramount was a space where these debates actively took place. This subversion of the expected rules and regulations did not reduce the dangers of racism for the men and women who associated at the dance hall, yet their actions ensured that questions of identity were brought to the fore and remained central to ongoing debates.
Further impacting questions of race in Britain during the1940s was the presence of American armed forces. Many servicemen, both black and white, arrived in London in the early 1940s from a background of formalised Jim Crow segregation; for them, the everyday experience of race relations in Britain was remarkably different. Dance halls again emerged as sites of conflict, with many white American servicemen uncomfortable about mixing socially with their black counterparts. Sonya Rose notes that the open hostility of many white Americans stoked a renewed sense of national identity among many white Britons, understanding Americans‚Äô heightened level of racial intolerance as a signifier of national difference. British officials were keen to appease their American visitors yet reluctant to officially support practices of segregation. The supposed tolerance of the host nation, however, was not all encompassing and certainly did not extend to matters of romantic or sexual relations between the races.
The Paramount Dance Hall presents a window to wider debates circulating during the 1940s around notions of race and sexuality. The space offered both black men and white women the opportunity to experiment with ideas of identity and test the limits of social acceptability; issues that went undiscussed in most other urban leisure sites of London. The added dimension of American servicemen also challenged Londoners to cast themselvesas not only different from those of another race but also as culturally removed from the attitudes towards race exhibited by white members of the American armed forces. Beyond the glitter and glamour, the Paramount Dance Hall represents an important postwar space in which issues of race and sexuality were never far from discussion.
Kevin Guyan is a PhD candidate with UCL‚Äôs Department of History, researching the impact of postwar urban spaces upon changing ideas of masculinity. He currently works as a Research Assistant for Caroline Bressey, assessing impacts of the London, Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.
 Allison Jean Abra. 'On With the Dance: Nation, Culture, and Popular Dancing in Britain, 1918-1945'. University of Michigan, 2009, 310‚Äď311.
 William Samson. ‚ÄėA Public for Jive‚Äô. The Public‚Äôs Progress. Contact Publications, 1946.
 Enrico Stennett. ‚ÄėThe English Women Thought we had Tails‚Äô , accessed 18 February 2013.
 Judith Walkowitz. Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London. Yale University Press, 2012), 266.
 Robert Kee. ‚ÄėIs There a British Colour Bar?‚Äô Picture Post. (2 July 1949), 27.
 Robert Kee. ‚ÄėIs There a British Colour Bar?‚Äô Picture Post. (2 July 1949), 27.
 Enrico Stennett. ‚ÄėThe English Women Thought we had Tails‚Äô.
 Sonya Rose. 'Girls and GIs: Race, Sex, and Diplomacy in Second World War Britain.' The International History Review. 19, 1, 1997, 154.