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Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom: Do you remember ‘the place where boy met girl’?

This fantastic image sums up the magic of the glory days of dancing in Aberdeen.
This fantastic image sums up the magic of the glory days of dancing in Aberdeen.

It’s a picture that sums up another time, another place: a couple gyrating athletically, their faces etched in concentration, as they perform to Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again.

The photograph was taken at Aberdeen’s fabled Beach Ballroom during a competition 60 years ago and, long before Strictly was attracting massive audiences and wooing celebrity participants, this venue was one of the jewels in the crown of the north-east cultural scene.

Generations of Aberdonians have flocked through the doors of the Art Deco building, which opened in 1929, and it’s not difficult to understand its appeal.

After all, it boasts one of Scotland’s finest floors – famous for its bounce – which floats on fixed steel springs and provides an ideal setting for everything from ballroom to disco moves and graceful gowns to glitterballs.

Over the years, it has staged a plethora of music and dance events, conferences, weddings, charity gigs such as Courage on the Catwalk and Brave, and has also been used for British Masters Boxing bouts.

A fountain once cascaded in the middle of the dance floor while its resident 12-piece band played the classic songs associated with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Then, eventually, as the ballroom’s reputation grew, bands such as The Beatles, The Who and Pink Floyd signed up for concerts.

But, as its name suggests, it is most renowned for those with dancing feet.

the outside of Aberdeen's famous Beach Ballroom
Aberdeen’s famous Beach Ballroom opened its doors in 1929.

The Press & Journal was among those who were impressed by the stylish structure, which was built as part of the Beach Improvement Scheme, at a cost of £50,000, after its design was judged to be the winning entry in a competition organised by Aberdeen Town Council.

The official opening on May 3 1929 took the form of a grand masked ball and carnival with the eclectic (and often politically incorrect) costumes ranging from Louis XIV’s court to Sioux Indians, harlequins and shepherdesses.

The paper reported on the “brilliant launch of city’s new dance hall”, hailed the “crowds of gay masqueraders” and saluted the vision of the architects.

Quite simply, the Beach used to be the place where boy met girl.”

Sam Gill

It continued: “The Beach Ballroom opened in a blaze of glory and masqueraders in innumerable guises came to the ball that was held to mark the occasion and made a spectacle such as has rarely been seen in Aberdeen.

“Hundreds of people had gathered in front of the classic façade of the hall to watch the arrival of the dancers and the motor cars had to be driven along an avenue cut through the midst of the crowd by police officers.

George and Jessie Fraser take part in the National Championships at the Beach Ballroom in 1955.
George and Jessie Fraser take part in the National Championships at the Beach Ballroom in 1955.

“The Lady Provost was loudly applauded as she rose to declare the hall open. The people of Aberdeen, she said, kept the eyes of the civic fathers fixed on the happiness and prosperity of the city and its advancement.

“They recognised Aberdeen had, in its magnificent beach and promenade, an asset of the highest value and something which should be treasured. And the already popular area would only be boosted by the splendid new ballroom.”

Within weeks, word had spread of this new facility, which was easily reached by car or bus.

And, despite the Great Depression afflicting the world in the 1930s, the crowd still thronged to the venue for special dances, both of a traditional variety and encompassing the dances of the new jazz era.

Laura Courtney was among the star dancers at the Beach Ballroom.
Laura Courtney was among the star dancers at the Beach Ballroom.

During the Second World War, the building was commandeered by the military, but there were heady scenes when it reopened just before Christmas on December 23 1946.

The ballroom floor, which floats on 1,400 steel springs, was originally made of maple, but it was was re-laid after the conflict and young men and women flocked back to the ballroom.

One of them, Susan Rennie, a 27-year-old nurse from Aberdeen, told the Evening Express she fell in love with her boyfriend, Albert, while they were dancing to the big-band standards of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.

She said: “We didn’t have much time to enjoy ourselves during the war, and we missed one another when Bert was away fighting.

“But it’s wonderful that we are back together again and dancing without a care in the world.”

They weren’t the only ones to be smitten as they sashayed.

Sam and Sheila Gill were another couple whose steps led to heaven and romance. And, as the Evening Express reported in 1995, the Beach Ballroom was as long and enduring a part of his life as his happy marriage.

Indeed, he was the man who helped steer the venue through many stages of its history and took everything in his stride with the nimbleness you might expect from such an accomplished dancer.

The iconic venue pictured in 1948.
The iconic venue pictured in 1948.

As the paper reported: “Sam, 74, retired in 1984 after more than three decades with the ballroom, during which he catered for Royal visits and top stars including The Beatles (who played a gig there in 1963).

“Mr Gill started at the ballroom as a maintenance joiner in 1949 and, aided by a keen interest in the entertainment and catering side of the business, he rose through the ranks to become assistant manager in 1962 and manager in 1977.

“Big bands formed the backbone of the ballroom’s bookings with Joe Loss and Victor Sylvester appearing on the bill. The Beatles performed for £45 before embarking on a meteoric rise to fame in the months afterwards.

“Mr Gill said: ‘Quite simply, the Beach used to be the place where boy met girl.

“In the days when pubs were closing at 9.30pm, it was worthwhile coming down to the Beach for that extra hour.”

Couples dance to the sound of the Syd Lawrence Band at the Beach Ballroom.

He added, as he and Sheila celebrated their golden anniversary: “It was at the old Palais de Dance (in Diamond Street) where we first met in 1941.

“We danced for most of the evening and, well, you just know, don’t you? Once we got together and started dating, we realised we were pretty well settled. And here we are, 50 years later, and we’re still dancing at the Beach.”

Tastes and fashions have changed dramatically in the last 90 years, but the Beach Ballroom has reacted positively to new trends and music styles, as a glance through the archives illustrates.

There’s the time when Monday Night Fever was staged in September 1979 as local youngsters danced for a place in the final of the UK disco championship; and where Tartan Travoltas and north-east Newton-Johns joined the party.

And the Peterhead Community Centre team took part in the Scottish Senior Disco-dance competition at the venue in October 1985 when Debra Watson, Fiona Anderson, Angela Grieve, Nicola Fraser, Julie Cruickshank and Diane Cowie attracted rave reviews from the judges and the crowd.

The former Scotland and Manchester United footballer, Denis Law, was given the Freedom of the City there in 2017 and spoke afterwards about how places such as the Beach Ballroom had remained in his heart from his childhood in the Granite City, even though he had lived for many years in Manchester.

As you might expect, the building is now “tired” and “showing signs of wear and tear”, according to Aberdeen City Council officers.

More than 15,000 people lined Union Street in 2017 to see Denis Law be awarded the Freedom Of Aberdeen.
Denis Law was given the Freedom of Aberdeen at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom in 2017.

But the local authority recently unveiled plans for dramatic upgrades, which they are confident will help transform the ballroom to its former glory.

They want the main ballroom to be “reimagined” as a multi-purpose events space, which would be linked to improved leisure facilities and the construction of a possible new stadium for Aberdeen FC.

And why not? As Mr Hill said, all those years ago: “The Beach IS Aberdeen”.

  • If you have any memories about Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom (did you and your partner meet and fall in love there?) or any other dance venues in the city, please let us know at nostalgia@ajl.co.uk

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