By Sue Bryant,
In a time before nightclubs and discotheques, community dances were a way for locals to gather and socialize after a hard week’s labour.
Hoedowns, barn dances, carnivals and balls were advertised in newspapers every week. Along with the events themselves were the variety of live musical accompaniments such as the Carmenian Dance Band, the Alberta Ranch Boys, the Mell-O-Tones, the Cariboo Buckeroos and Walt’s Old Timers, to name a few.
As Surrey became more populated, more opportunities to socialize and support each other were created. Entire families would attend these gatherings — it was custom that children had the dance floor until 8 p.m. and the adults would take the floor after that.
In Elgin, the community hall was built in 1923. The floor was built using maple and finished with a special type of wax to provide an extremely smooth surface. Many who grew up in the area remember taking off their shoes and sliding across the silkily polished floor. The crowds were often large, especially in the summer when Crescent Beach vacationers attended. This allowed for funds to be raised for the Community Association and the upkeep of the hall, which still stands today.
In the early days, electricity was not a given. Often farmers would loan gas lamps from their chicken houses for use at the dances until enough funds could be raised to wire the halls with electricity.
However, “moonlight dances” were very popular. Organizers would string lengths of stove pipe from the ceiling and suspend the gas lamps at the mouth of each pipe. As only a spot of light from these gas lamps would fall to the floor, it would create a moonlight effect much to the delight of the dancers.
| A couple dances at the annual Hazelmere Pioneers Dance, held at the Hazelmere Community Hall in June 1966.
Courtesy of the City of Surrey Archives / SA1992.036.5052
Barn dances were also common and much looked forward to by the community. These were less formal dances, often accompanied by local fiddlers. Dancers would dance the Virginia Reel, the Schottische and other variations of square dancing.
Ranny Livingston’s family property was located on 176th Street near 68th Avenue. He recalled a large gathering after their barn was raised where the music was played by The Rangers and they broke in the barn with a party that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
During the Second World War, young ladies often felt there weren’t enough eligible young men to dance with as so many were overseas. They would often carpool with any woman lucky enough to have access to a car. Farm vehicles — which didn’t fall under the gas ration — were particularly sought after.
Cloverdale’s Olive Burrows, the daughter of a farmer, often found herself as chauffeur to four or five of her friends, driving to dances from Ladner to Langley as they scouted out the best dances. East Delta Hall had the best reputation, as the music began at 9 p.m. and didn’t end until 1 a.m.
At the dances, single men would stand at the back of the hall, forming a “stag line” while they worked up the courage to ask girls to dance.
A few of the community associations decided to turn the tide with Sadie Hawkins dances. These were typically held on a leap year on the Saturday nearest to February 29, but during the war, these were held more often. In a Sadie Hawkins dance, the girls could and were expected to ask the boys to dance rather than wait to be asked. They were very popular and often sold out soon after being announced.
Another type of dance that proved popular was the “jitney dance.” Made popular in the Eastern USA and Canada in the 1920s, the idea caught on locally in the 1940s. In a jitney dance, the organizers would rope off the dance floor and the men would pay a dime for a ticket for an individual dance. It proved a great way to fundraise and ever-popular was the young man who had a roll of tickets poking out of his front pocket.
Cloverdale Opera House and Athletic Hall was the location for the largest dances held each weekend. The venue could hold up to 1,000 people and the dance floor was built from the centre outwards with a layer of horsehair underneath to allow for a springy feel to the floor. Events usually included a vaudeville or carnival night followed by a dance with live music from a local band, such as Walt’s Old Timers.
Walter Monkman was a Cloverdale businessman who also had a mobile meat shop. He would deliver meat to his customers by day, but by evening he was well-known for his musical talents. The Opera House also had the latest hours, with each night finishing around 2:30 a.m.
Towards the end of the 1940s, open air dance pavilions were the rage. One was set up on the Bothwell property in Tynehead and another in Green Timbers. Another was to be set up in Crescent Beach and building was well under construction in 1947 when local property owners went to council to have it stopped. At that point, the cement had already been laid at the foot of Sullivan Street and more concrete was ready to be poured when the stop work order was given. Unfortunately, it never was approved.
By 1948, a group of Surrey residents went to council again to request a bylaw be enacted to force dance halls to close at midnight on Saturdays. Police Commissioner W.J. Barge spoke in favour of the bylaw advising of certain rowdy elements which represented a public nuisance for the community. Council studied the concerns of the community and decided that such a bylaw was not in the public’s interest and voted unanimously against such a recommendation.
Community dances continued to be a cornerstone of the neighbourhood for many years after, finally declining in the mid-1960s when adults-only nightclubs came into favour.
While the times may have changed, the enjoyment of connecting with one’s local community did not and, to this day, memories of the dance halls have not been diminished.