Despite Britain’s recent dance revival, following shows such as the hugely popular Strictly Come Dancing, the future of the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley, south-east London, looked very bleak. The Rivoli was put up for sale, and the current owner received lucrative bids from developers eager to replace it with blocks of flats.
However, in January 2008, following a public campaign, the building was rescued by English Heritage, whose Grade II listing, given for its ‘highly unusual interior’ and ‘special historic interest’, will protect it from demolition or substantial alteration in the future. But even with this happy reprieve, the future of the Rivoli as a dance hall will depend entirely on the whims of its next owner.
The Rivoli began life in 1913 not as a ballroom, but as a cinema for silent films. The Crofton Park Picture Palace was designed by Henley Attwater, with a simple barrel-vaulted auditorium. In 1931, it was renamed the Rivoli Cinema. An Art Deco-inspired elevation was added, including pilasters topped with plasterwork urns, accentuating the central section, and a raised parapet with a heavily moulded cornice. When the cinema closed in 1957, the Rivoli was bought by local businessman and dancing devotee Leonard Tomlin. He transformed it into its current weird and wonderful state, with a 1950s interior that embodies the era’s fashion for reviving the Art Deco aesthetic, which had been unwillingly abandoned at the onset of the Second World War. The overall effect is extraordinary.
On first entering the building for the Rivoli’s monthly Saturday dance night, several months after beginning a ballroom class at Kensington Dance Studio (www.kensingtondancestudio.com), I was instantly struck by the eclectic scarlet-and-gilt decor. The velour walls, which give the sensation of stepping into a red velvet cushion, frame a breathtakingly large dance floor; that the design was masterminded by a ballroom fanatic is immediately apparent.
Rows of red lights glow beneath the cubes of plush scarlet, and gilt picture-frame-style panels ornament the walls and pilasters, looking, from a distance, like extremely ornate wallpaper. Mini flower baskets, in scallop-shaped gilt holders, spring up between pilasters, and mock-candelabra lamps flicker in Gothic fashion. The doors to the bar have intricate flowers carved into the wood, with red sparkles in the centre of their petals, continuing a panelling motif that begins in the foyer.
For ballroom dancers, the key element of the Rivoli’s interior is the sensational Canadian maple sprung dance floor. It has a welcoming give when you step onto it, from which you can push off to create bounce in the quickstep and jive, or build the momentum needed for the huge strides in the slow ballroom dances.
However, saving the Rivoli doesn’t mean simply preserving its flamboyant interior elements and high-quality floor. Like all great buildings, it’s so much more than mere bricks and mortar, crevices and cornices. Its warmth and vibrancy inspire and compel, and create a unique emotional response; I believe that what Dorset was to Hardy, or Giverny was to Monet, this unique ballroom could be for dancers.
So many dances suddenly make sense in the Rivoli. I could never entirely understand my teacher’s insistence on pushing off my standing leg to drive into a step, an exercise that generally resulted in my partner and I sailing beautifully into a wall, a chair, a speaker, or another couple.
But, once I was in the Rivoli, all became clear. In such a gloriously huge arena, which invites you to travel far and fast, you want to be able to plunge across the floor, and find the elegance that comes with the perfect balance of speed and control, freedom and continuous connection with your partner. It’s wonderful to have the space to lean back into a spin turn, and the curious ceiling encourages you to perfect your ‘rainbow’ action, lifting your head in a graceful arc during a whisk and chassé in the waltz to catch a glimpse of the treasures hanging above.
In addition, the deeply theatrical decor provides an appropriate setting for the more outrageous Latin dances, such as samba or paso doble. How can you hold back in a fiery tango or expressive rumba when surrounded by vivid scarlet walls and a heady mix of Oriental, neo-Classical and Art-Deco ornament? The Rivoli dares you to be dramatic, in order to match its scene-stealing architectural performance.
As well as being a haven for traditional ballroom and Latin styles, the Rivoli has witnessed the birth of such dance forms as jitterbug and rock ’n’ roll, and has thus been a key part of the evolution of dancing in this country. When you’re jiving on its floor, you’re dancing on the spot where the dance form first became popular in Britain, 50 years ago, and where thousands of others have been celebrating it ever since.
Many other dance halls of its generation are under serious threat or have been lost, yet the Rivoli has somehow survived. It would be a tragedy if it weren’t still in use by dancers under its new ownership, for art truly is designed to be interactive, provoking and demanding a response, and the best way to appreciate the art of the Rivoli is to glide around its supple floor.
Among its achievements, the Rivoli can claim the foundation and continuation of professional, social and romantic partnerships, and that it has made a vital contribution to dancing in this country. It has helped to perpetuate a noble and extraordinary art form, and now, we must return the favour, and ensure that we maintain both its legacy and its future.
The Rivoli Ballroom is located at 350, Brockley Road, London SE4, opposite Crofton Park station. For further information, visit www.therivoli.co.uk