How do social classes come about? From a Marxist point of view, class is defined by people's relationship to the means of production - there are those who own (or who own substantial share holdings in) banks, factories, land and various large companies, the 'independently' wealthy who don't rely on a wage to survive. Then there are the mass of the population without reserves, who can only make a living by selling their labour. In this perspective, the middle class doesn't really exist - as most middle class people are also only a couple of pay cheques away from the same destitution as the rest of the proletariat.
But I digress. The point I want to make is that the objective economic conditions for classes are only part of the story - as the radical historian E.P. Thompson argued for The Making of the English Working Class, for classes to become social actors with a particular world view, acting in their perceived interests, a cultural process has to happen in which people develop common ways of socialising, thinking and acting. For Thompson, class is not just about "so many men who stand in a certain relation to the means of production" and class formation "is a fact of political and cultural, as much as of economic, history".
So where does dancing fit in with this? With a nod to Jurgen Habermas, Geoff Eley extended Thompson's idea to talk of "a working class public sphere", a self-conscious independent culture with its own publications and diverse organisational forms. He argued that in addition to formal political meetings, there emerged in the nineteenth century "new forms of collective sociability" that created "a distinct public space of independent working-class activity". Dancing was part of this, with Eley identifying the tea parties and balls of the Chartist movement as examples of this collective sociability.
But dance aspects of the public sphere are not specific to the working class. Anyone who has read Jane Austen knows how important balls were in the early industrial period as a means for the wealthier members of society to meet, interact and ultimately marry and reproduce. Over time they were one mechanism by which landed aristocrats and new money bourgeoisie came to form a new dominant class (or rather for an existing dominant class to accommodate newcomers).
Something similar happened in the 196os, as the doors of the ruling class opened to admit new moneyed stars from the media and entertainment industries. Once again dancing - this time in 'Swinging London' nightclubs - facilitated this. Terence Stamp (left) a working class boy turned actor who benefited from this recalled: 'In the sixties, amongst ourselves, our age group, there was an absolute coming together. And what made the coming together was basically music and dancing. In a way it was a new aristocracy. But the main thing was that there was suddenly access between the classes. Had the sixties not happened, I would never have been able to spend the night with a young countess because I would never have met her. And as the great Mike Caine once said to me, 'You can't shag anyone you don't meet.'"
Of course social mobility between classes is not to be confused with classlessness - the former implies the continued existence of classes, just with the potential for a few to move up and down the ladder. As Shawn Levy has written of that era: ''As the sixties emerged, proponents of the theory of classlessness could point to the likes of Quant and Stamp and the Beatles and a dozen other exceptions- people who'd broken into a new class where talent and the wealth that followed success mattered more than who your parents were. But it was inarguably the case that this meritocracy- with its members-only restaurants and nightclubs -was just as exclusive as the old upper class of money and birthright; you may no longer have needed to be born to position but earning it was, arguably, a harder and rarer feat. And, too, entrance to the new world only lasted as long as the traditional elite chose to allow it. "The rich people let us play in their back garden for a few years," said tailor Doug Haywed, "and then they said, 'Right, lads, very nice, you've all had a good time, now let's get back to it".'
Sources: E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963; Geoff Eley, ;Edward Thompson, Social History and Political Culture: the. Making of a Working-Class Public, 1780-1850', in H. J. Kaye and K. McClelland (eds.), E.P. Thompson: critical perspectives, Cambridge, Polity, 1990; Shawn Levy, Ready Steady Go! The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London, 2002.