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ROH Collections Item of the Month: Dance Card from World War II

During the war the Royal Opera House was the superclub of its day - converted into a dance hall it played host to 1,500 jitterbugging dancers each night.

By Michèle Losse (Former ROH Collections Archivist)

1 April 2015 at 11.30am | 7 Comments

1939: The outbreak of World War II has brought an end to stage performances at the Royal Opera House. Within a few months of the closure, the popular ballroom chain Mecca buys a five-year lease on the building. They raise the stalls floor to the level of the stage, install parquet flooring and create a band-stand behind the proscenium arch. On 23 December 1939 the Royal Opera House reopens its doors as a dance hall – and for the duration of the war becomes one of London’s most enduring entertainment hotspots.

A recent donation to ROH Collections provides a tangible link to this very different time. This dance card, dating from 1940, belonged to Irene Lilian Brunton, who lived all her life in South London and Mitcham. Her son was surprised to find it in his mother’s effects, as money was tight during the war – but we can guess that entertainment was an important distraction and money was put aside specially.

Dancing was an essential diversion for servicemen and women on leave, as well as Londoners. The Royal Opera House Dances ran virtually every afternoon and evening during the war, with evening-only openings on Saturdays. It quickly became a favourite and queues would form around the building. A historic issue of Dancing Times magazine records that the entrance was limited to 1,500 dancers – but it wasn’t unusual for numbers to exceed this by several hundred.

Dancers at the Royal Opera House were entertained by five bands, including one led by William Franklyn and his ten performers ‘specially selected as leading men on their instruments’, as featured on Irene’s dance card. The music could be varied – one band of 15 female musicians directed by Ivy Benson was described by London Ballroom News as having ‘solidity and vigour’.

The Royal Opera House Dances had strict rules of behaviour, as listed on the dance card: No spinning or grotesque steps permitted; Ladies must remove their hats except at tea dances; Please dance right around the floor and leave the floor at the end of each number. The ‘pass-out checks’ referred to in the rules were coupons given to military personnel at the end of their training.

During the war the Royal Opera House also hosted dance demonstrations, free dance classes and competitions for amateurs and professionals. These included ‘The Star’ Services championships (later the ‘All Services’ competition) in which amateurs were eligible to compete provided at least one partner was in service uniform. With the arrival of American Servicemen came the highly popular Jitterbug dance, and several subsequent Jitterbug championships.

After the war ended the Royal Opera House quickly reverted back to its original function. The companies that would later become The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera made their new home at the Royal Opera House in 1946, with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty on 20 February 1946 beginning this new era – rehearsals for the reopening performance, filmed by British Pathé, are available to watch on YouTube. But the Royal Opera House’s wartime function lives on, in our regular Tea Dances in the Paul Hamlyn Hall.

This is the first in a new series exploring items from the huge ROH Collections. Find out more about ROH Collections.

By Michèle Losse (Former ROH Collections Archivist)

1 April 2015 at 11.30am

This article has been categorised Dance and tagged archive, ballroom dancing, Collections in Focus, dance card, history, Item of the Month, Ivy Benson, jitterbug, Mecca, ROH Collections, tea dance, World War II

This article has 7 comments

  1. Megan Pilgrim responded on 8 April 2015 at 10:27am Reply

    Thank you for this item from the archives.
    My parents met at one of these wartime
    dances when my father was on naval leave.
    I often think of this when I am sitting in the
    stalls. I do remember that they were both
    excellent ballroom dancers.

    • Catriona Cannon (Former Archivist, ROH Collections) responded on 3 August 2015 at 12:38pm

      Dear Megan,

      Thank you for sharing your story, it is great to hear of people's personal connection to these wartime dances and I'm delighted that you enjoyed the article.

      Thanks again,
      Archivist, ROH Collections

  2. Richard Cousins responded on 29 July 2015 at 8:08am Reply

    My mother and aunt danced at the ROH during 1943/44. Recently my mother gave me a photograph album which contains membership cards for the ROH dance club for 1943/44. I've also got a Regal Zonophone 78 rpm record of Teddy Foster and his band playing 'Sentimental Journey', the biggest hit of 1944/45, which was recorded at ROH. If you are interested I will bring them in and you could display them if you wish.

    • Catriona Cannon (Former Archivist, ROH Collections) responded on 3 August 2015 at 12:44pm

      Dear Richard,

      Thank you for sharing your aunt and mother's story and for your very generous offer of displaying your mother's photograph album and the Teddy Foster record. It would be wonderful to hear that recording, particularly having seen all the magical photographs of that time! Could you please get in touch with me via so that we can continue this conversation via email.

      Thanks again,
      Assistant Archivist, ROH Collections

  3. Victoria Cable responded on 12 November 2015 at 9:35pm Reply

    Sat watching live stream of # ROHcarmenmixer at Hastings Odeon with my 93 year old aunt who vividly
    Recalls attending the wartime dances at the ROH dancing to ivy benson's band. She received concessionart tickets for being in the services and her and her friends would roll their skirts up and undo their top buttons on their way in so they didn't feel so starchy and unfeminim in their army uniforms and hoped they'd get asked out to dinner afterwards!

  4. I am looking the detail. During the war in London, thousand bombs destroyer many builder. But near Royal Opera House in 1940.

  5. Metta Joanna responded on 28 January 2019 at 6:57am Reply

    Learning a bit more about the past of the Royal Opera House, by hosted dance demonstrations and free dance classes etc for amateurs and professionals during the war, lively bring some social entertainment, also comforting and healing the cruelty of war during war time.

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