Nightclubs – dedicated entertainment spaces where people dance to popular music, either live or recorded – emerged as a vibrant strand in the cities of 1920s New Zealand. The terms ‘cabaret’, ‘disco’ and simply ‘club’ have been variously applied to such venues, as the music heard within them has evolved from jazz to swing to disco to dubstep.
The nightclub remained a fixture of city life in the 21st century. Young people crowd these stylish or seedy haunts with ever-changing names, burly bouncers and exotic cocktails. They party till dawn, parading their latest clothing and hair fashions, and flaunting their abilities on the dance floor.
The pulsating venues known as nightclubs have at times been the focus of controversy and even moral panics, typically over modernity and urbanisation. They have been demonised as incubators of sexual licentiousness and drunken depravity. For much of the first half of the 20th century, some thought dancing itself was sinful.
In 1863, after an evening of being forced to dance with hotel patrons, Miss Williams, a singer at the All Nations Hotel in Queenstown, left her job. The hotelkeeper took her to court, but the case was dismissed when the judge heard that Williams was ‘made to dance with everyone, against her will’ and ‘was warned on no account to go there again, as the house did not bear a good name’.1
Dancing in the 19th century
Public dancing during the colonial era became a popular leisure activity: people took part in waltzing and square dancing in woolsheds, schoolrooms and community halls. Dancing in rough inner-city hotels and mining towns was another matter.
In the mid-1860s music and dancing were banned from hotels in some New Zealand provinces. The ban became nationwide in 1881, when Parliament outlawed dancing, concerts and theatrical performances in pubs (although private societies could get a certificate from the local licensing committee and then hire a room in a hotel for these purposes). For the next three-quarters of a century, liquor laws would work to keep dancing and alcohol as far apart as possible, overshadowing most aspects of nightlife.