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Hitchin' a Ride - Vanity Fare

There's a reason for playing this song which goes right back to the VE Day golden anniversary celebrations long ago in 1995. Certain tunes are a slosh, and this is the only example of one that is in itself a half decent song that I can think of off the cuff.

We at Islington Council Arts and Entertainments were planning a full programme of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of VE Day on Highbury Fields with a fair all day and fireworks and a giant bonfire in the evening. For the afternoon though, we planned a tea dance. The only fly in the ointment was that our new manager booked in a band that he knew from past experience instead of our treasured and, as we now know, highly appropriate Tommy McQuater Band. Colleague Neville and I protested but I think he wanted to show us who was boss so we had no choice but to obey like the good troops that we were.

We installed a wooden dance floor especially for the occasion along with a stage, and we created a lovely "palm court" restaurant area for the punters complete with small trees and lots of attractive shrubbery and flowers bought down from from the Council's nurseries in Finchley. At 2 pm a healthy group of about thirty tea dance regulars showed up, smartly turned out in 1940's period dress with heels, feathers and strong, rich colours and it was clear from the start that they had made a real effort for the occasion, an effort that, sadly, was not reflected by our enforced choice of band. The group, let's call them "Melvin and the Toe Rags" (I spare by not using their real name) were excellent musicians and students of the "golden age" of British dance music from the 1930's which they had learned to reproduce immaculately. The only problem was, they didn't know that this music had evolved in the forties and thereafter into what is widely referred to as "strict tempo" ballroom dance music. And that is what, in 1995, tea dancers danced to. It was an exact science and nothing else would do. Not matter what number they tried, or how many requests they played, they could not produce the correct tempo for the foxtrots, quicksteps and so on as required.This had an unfortunate side effect in that, because the tea dancers were dressed for the occasion and sitting in the showcase "Palm Court" area, on show as it were, but were patently not dancing, they became, not participants but exhibits, like animals in a zoo, with the rest of the public, out for the day in large numbers, pointing at them and laughing as people do. I had a disaster on my hands and couldn't see any way out until one of my regulars approached me and, having complained that the band were totally hopeless, suggested in exasperation "well, can they at least play a slosh?"

A "slosh" is a dance dating - apparently - from the fifties and is the precursor in this country to all the line-dance style sequence dances that proliferated during the disco era of the seventies. At that point I had only seen this at tea dances but I was out of ideas so I gave it a go. I said to Melvin, the band leader, "can you do a slosh?". Although he was as keen as I to save the day (and presumably their reputation) his face was blank. "What's a slosh?" he asked. I told him he just had to get the rhythm right and the dancers would do the rest. I described the rhythm as being the "oompah oompah, oompah oompah, oompah oompah, oompah oompah," sound that you get with Tony Christie's "Is this the Way to Amarillo?". I told him to play that and then, if they danced at last, just to keep going without stopping, fitting other songs to the rhythm until they dropped.

They obeyed, and perhaps sensing that this was their last chance, they made a good job of it. Fifteen or so of the tea dance mafia gamely stood up and faced the band in two lines across the stage and began to dance. And then something magical happened.

The slosh consists of a series of simple steps that I have never been able to master, but which also involve clapping every now and then and gradually turning round full circle in a series of moves. The sequence is varied enough and goes on long enough for idiots like me not to be able to remember it. But I'll never forget that moment. The oldies gamely began and had been dancing alone while literally hundreds of people gawped at them when a large black woman almost forcibly dragged her two daughters onto the grass behind the dance floor, and proceeded to form a third line behind the pensioner dancers and copy their moves. The three newcomers were good at it and their smiles were infectious, and other women began to join them, then a middle-aged guy in a suit took off his jacket and joined in, then a couple of punky looking teenagers, then a troop of women dressed in WAF uniforms, and then a pair of clowns and a juggler, and suddenly line after line after line after line of dancers were stretching away as far as the eye could see, all following the moves of my tea dancers and I was running to Melvin and yelling at him not to stop whatever they did or I wouldn't pay them.

When they did stop some twenty minutes later everyone cheered and cheered, and those dear ladies were so proud. The whole world wanted to have a cup of tea with them or dance with them or just talk to them, the people who'd been around fifty years before and were still dancing.

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