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Dancing, the Chalet and Carnival

Sliema Chalet Old print - ESE Malta Blog

When did you last roll the carpets under the coffee-table in the sitting room and make ample space for a dance? Was it long ago? For dancing is linked to music and music is the soundtrack of history.

Almost all countries have dancing from time immemorial and Man has reacted to it enthusiastically and spontaneously. It was discovered that dancing  gave vent to eruptions of ecstacy, hope, aspirations and well-being.

Also it was found to soothe the toxic outbursts of rage, violence and destruction as well as boost the upswing of rallying forces of untold happiness.

Dances distinguished themselves among different cultures and transcended generations in its wake. Dances made their way into homes, festivities, weddings, restaurants, public squares and social and civic clubs. I recall my dancing in the last post-way period, in the 40s through the 60s and 70s.  It was discovered to be a social communication inspired chiefly by the soundtracks of musicals and films which followed in rapid sequence of success which has gone into the far future.

Before that, dancing to music was practically rather scarce in these islands especially in the countryside where it was mainly available to the band clubs performing in the village squares and also to coincide with religious festivities.

Strada Levante VallettaIn my childhood in Valletta, I recall music coming from an organ grinder in the street below then called “Strada Levante” (now West Street) while the player raised one hand to collect coins from the windows of the street that leads to the Victoria Gate. Children danced merrily around the cart imitating the revolving wooden dancers on the piano. At that time radios were scarce due to their absence until Rediffusion was introduced later in the years.

Along the seafront in Sliema, and more precisely in the rocky stretch of land between the Fortress and Qui-si-Sana, was a strange formation shaped like a gigantic letter E on its back. Those who were born since then probably will not remember two mini sandy beaches on either side of the central tongue of rocks which divided them and which was destined to become later a sure lure to many dance lovers. Period photos are also available to prove that the scenario is not a fiction.

 

Sliema Old Postcard
On 9 November 1923, a Government Gazette was issued to call a tender for the development of the central projecting rock formation in that location with a pledged concession for several years. The winning tender went to the dreamer of the project, Mr Carmelo Axisa, while the design of the pier was entrusted to the drawing board of W.B. Cordwell. The pier, named “The Chalet”, was completed in 1926 and carved a historic milestone in that locality.

Chalet Sliema MaltaThe Chalet immediately took the shape of a two-tier pier with an artistic period kiosk crowned by a pinnacled roof placed at the front gate while a shouldered platform was raised at the far end of the floor to house a band. Electricity was timely provided in 1926, giving the architectural novelty an extraordinary illumination to the surroundings.

It is somewhat difficult to describe the unbelievable reaction and affluence of the local population that thronged the tables on either side of the central part of the pier set for dancing. And this was a nightly feature.

Sharp memories revive names of band leaders such as Oscar Lucas and Vinny, among others, and their respective players who provided evergreen melodies such as “Begin the Beguine”, “Night and Day”, “Brazil”, “Lili Marlene”, “As time goes by”, “Blue Moon” and many other oldies.

I recall that the dance floor attracted clients who included, politicians, magistrates, University professors and students, professional doctors, civil servants, businessmen, dance nostalgists and the general public. They certainly would have danced all night if they could only have done so. In 1960, the Chalet was declared structurally unsafe because of the heavy pounding of the waves and closed down. Rumours have it that the Chalet, like the mythical Phoenix, might come to life once again.

But full-scale dancing was not only restricted to this place for it featured in restaurants and private clubs elsewhere, the dinner-dances at the Union Club in Sliema, at the Phoenicia Hotel, the Casino Maltese, the Civil Service Sports Club, the Overseas Club in Valletta and The Griffen Restaurant in Rabat.

The pleasure of dancing also pours itself into the annual celebration of the outstanding and magnetic event of Carnival which normally is held around the month of February, mainly in Valletta and some outlying districts as well as in Gozo.

Carnival in MaltaI recall that in my time around the late 40s, the 50s and the early 60s, a handful of well known organizers would set upon preparing for the Carnival event as early in October/November of the previous year. This used to commence by the collection each of a score of couples of young men and women, the selection of a theme for each group, the selection of a tailor and dressmaker also for each group, the selection of the music for the group’s competitive dance and the design of the group’s motored papier mache Carnival Float.

You might wonder why the selection used to be made so early in the event’s programme. The answer is simply that the best female dancers will have been already booked by the early male seekers.

When the days of Carnival arrive the Maltese islands erupt into a huge kaleidoscopic scenario of colourful displays of gaiety and fun for one and all and is unmissable throughout. So much would have been put into the preparations that it would be a folly to keep away from it. The organized groups would start their participation in the Carnival with a full immersion to exhaust their programmes by mounting their completed floats joining their rivals in a motorcade of grotesque figures along the bedecked streets of the festive cities.

At a given point of the programme, each of the groups alights from the float and enters the Main Square where it manifests its costumes and then proceeds with its special and competitive dance. The latter is repeated during each evening of the event in the various clubs and places where the dance is entered for competition.

Maltese CarnivalOur grandparents once spoke freely about the long awaited “Veljun” as the period when people felt the need to overflow from the shackles of decorum. Wearing a mask and/or a costume was the optimal feeling of a long-a-waited wish to be someone else, living that life and character even for a brief evening. Carnival is also made up of this.

Quite out of the blue recently a news item in the local press dated 21 August 2016 announced a local revival of Carnival – a summer Carnival – was born around the ancient islets of St. Paul’s Bay in the hands of the local council. This event is said to enjoy the collaboration with the Arts Council Malta to boost tourism and Maltese culture and history. This spells hope and trust in the future to another aspect of the deep feeling of the Maltese people.
            

 

Adrian Mercieca _ teacher Author: Adrian Mercieca
About the Author:  Adrian Mercieca is a full-time teacher at the European School of English and was a former Law student at the University of Malta, then turned Journalist in Malta, winning a 3-year scholarship in Journalism in the US, and later in Italy broadcast at RAI and the Vatican Radio. He came first in a Maltese Public Service Examination (Diplomacy) in Malta and obtained a year’s scholarship in British Diplomatic Studies at Oxford University. Served as career-diplomat until appointed ambassador.