Jimmy James, the man who taught thousands of Wellingtonians the art of ballroom dancing, was born Dimitrios Skafidas in Athens, Greece, on 15 February 1915. He was one of six children of Nickolai Skafidas, a shoemaker, and his wife, Styliani Karagiani. The end of his formal schooling at 13 coincided with the visit to Athens of a family friend, Stratis Galanis (Stanley Garland), who had earlier emigrated to Australia, then New Zealand. Galanis offered to assist one of the Skafidas children to emigrate, and Dimitrios, the second eldest son, was chosen. On arrival in Wellington in 1928 the smiling, brown-eyed Greek boy lived with the Garland family and worked in their Cuba Street café for two years, peeling potatoes to pay back his boat fare.
Dimitrios loved to dance, and joined the Phyllis Bates School of Dancing in Willis Street. Lessons followed with Ted Priestley, an amateur boxing champion turned professional dancing teacher, and a year later Skafidas won the Wellington junior ballroom-dancing championship. This early success gave him the idea to become a dance teacher, but being not yet 17 he was without the means to set up a studio. Doris Phillips, the proprietor of the Brown Jug cabaret, allowed him to use the dance floor outside cabaret hours. About this time he changed his name by deed poll to Jimmy James, and commenced teaching, charging sixpence a person for group lessons, half a crown for a private lesson. He found it hard to earn his rent but his clientele increased as he gave exhibitions throughout the greater Wellington region. By 1941, in his mid 20s, he had established his own studio in Willis Street, where he remained for the next 20 years.
In 1936 he had organised the first Jimmy James ball, with Rodney Pankhurst’s nine-piece band, at the Adelphi Cabaret in Cuba Street. On the morning of the ball he and his friends were ‘making sausage rolls by the yard’. Decades later the Jimmy James ball was still an annual event, held at either the New Majestic Lounge or the Roseland Cabaret, and attended by many couples who had met at his studio and later married. Although shackled by the licensing laws, dancers defiantly enjoyed mixing music, dancing and alcohol well into the 1960s. James met his future wife, Veronica Anne Blewman, at his first ball.
By the mid 1940s Jimmy James had become the proprietor of the large Roseland Cabaret in Victoria Street. During the war years more than a dozen clubs were established in Wellington to cater for servicemen. Dance orchestras were flourishing and American servicemen demanded evening entertainment, especially live, modern music for jiving and jitterbugging. Full days of teaching at the studio were followed by evening floor shows at the cabaret. Suave, good-looking and elegantly dressed, James was a great showman. While his dancing style was dramatic and forceful he could also ‘dance like a butterfly’. He loved Latin American, but considered ballroom dancing the supreme form.
Anne Blewman and Jimmy James were married at St Anne’s Church in Newtown on 4 December 1954. A reception for nearly 300 was held at the Roseland Cabaret, where Stan Garland was master of ceremonies. Their childless marriage gave them the freedom to pursue their flamboyant lifestyle. James was a warm, gregarious man of great energy who loved company. After dancing till dawn the couple would often breakfast with friends, have a few hours’ sleep, and later in the day gather again for a picnic. He was a heavy smoker but never drank alcohol. He found gambling irresistible, always attending the Trentham races and entertaining jockeys in his Adelaide Road home. He could play cards at the Greek club for days at a time. He was also a compassionate man, easily moved to tears. Every year on Anzac Day he threw a ‘ripper’ of a party to celebrate his birthday. He chose this day so that friends from all over the country could attend.
Both James and his wife worked on the committee that ran the first New Zealand dance championships in Wellington in 1952. He co-founded the New Zealand Federation of Dance Teachers four years later and was its president for 10 years. He was a fellow examiner of the federation and also of the National Association of Teachers of Dancing, London. In 1964 he was appointed a judge for the world amateur dancing championships in Sydney, the first time they had been held outside Europe and the first time a judge from New Zealand had been invited to adjudicate. In 1976 Jimmy James was Personality of the Year in New Zealand dancing, awarded at the South Pacific championships in Auckland. Earlier that year he had won the annual Peter Pellow Trophy for the greatest contribution to dance.
During the 1950s and 1960s Jimmy and Anne James made regular visits to several Wellington high schools to instruct pupils in ballroom and Latin American dancing. For many teenage girls the arrival of their tall dancing teacher, his thick hair gleaming with Brylcreem, became the highlight of the week. His deep voice, slightly accented, added to his charm. In the 1960s he remained in demand nationally for demonstrations, and at the 34th Jimmy James ball in 1970 he gave Latin American exhibitions, his technique as sound as ever. After 40 years as a teacher he began to phase out his commitments and to spend more time with his wife at their home in Waikanae. She died in 1984. In his 70s he was still active, able to walk for miles and dance for hours. The decline of dance halls saddened him: ‘it’s one of the best exercises in the world’.
Jimmy James died at the Mary Potter Hospice in Newtown on 4 July 1992. A large crowd attended his funeral at the Greek Orthodox church, and he was buried at Waikanae cemetery. His name is remembered in the James Cabaret in Hania Street.