The Last Dance

By Meg Hill

Melbourne nightlife has been put on hold indefinitely in order to prioritise health and safety. But Murray Walding’s recently published book The Last Dance has uncovered some of its forgotten past.

Murray grew up in Melbourne as the city’s swing and discotheque scene was booming. He would spend his weekends dancing in dance halls – many of them hidden around the CBD.

A few years ago, Murray noticed that many of the dance halls around the inner city had either become derelict or disappeared. He set out to document the buildings and their social history.

“The really choice ones, the really stylish and interesting ones, were in the CBD,” Murray told CBD News.

“I’d say 25 per cent of them are still there.”

While in the suburbs, dance spots were often in large dance hall style settings – the CBD had its own style.

“Some of them were in old warehouses and many of the ones that still exist were in underground store rooms, under buildings in the city,” Murray said.

“Underneath the Capitol Theatre in Swanston St, for example, there’s a basement area which has a nightclub in it as early as World War Two – it was called the Dug Out.”

“In the ‘60s it became a swing and discotheque spot called The Bowl. If you walk around the back of Howie Place there’s all these little corners and blind alleys that lead under these buildings and that’s where it was.”

A non-exhaustive list of dancing spots in the CBD included:

In the underground subways between Flinders Street Station and Degraves St;

In a basement now underneath the Centre of Adult Education (CAE);

The basement that is now home to Max Watts;

Above shops in Bourke Street Mall; and

Buildings in Little Bourke St that have now been repurposed as part of China Town or demolished.

Murray said one of the best was the Thumpin’ Tum on Little La Trobe St, which was “equivalent to anywhere in the world at the time, it was as good as the great night spots in London”.

But although the scene dominated Melbourne’s night life for a period, its peak was ultimately short lived.

“The growth of this genre of dances and discotheques was quite phenomenal and so it was a rapid decline,” Murray said.

“Part of it was there were changes in the licensing laws. These venues were unlicensed, the buildings were leased and you’d have to put a whole lot of infrastructure in to put a bar in,” he said.

“They couldn’t compete with the pubs, and the scene was kind of replaced by what’s called pub rock.”

“Other contributors were local council by-laws about noise, venues were increasingly using larger PAs and they were also attracting gangs like the ‘sharpies’.”•

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