Doo doo doo, Do the Christmas Conga!

Christmas is a bit of a hectic time. Shopping, decorations, lights and parties. And at those parties there is more often than not some dancing. A chance to let your hair down and have a good time. This is just what the students of the Dundee College of Art had planned for December 23rd 1948. During their Christmas Party in the Marryat Hall they wanted to parade around City Square in a ‘conga-chain’. A request for permission to the Dundee Magistrates on 17th November fell on befuddled ears. “Just what is a conga-chain?” asked Baillie MacDonald.

Parade in City Square 1
The Council minutes record the application for the “Conga Chain” by the Students Union.

The conga is a dance that originated in Cuba, and thought to have its roots in Africa. Baillie MacDonald thought it might be something akin to a “ring-a-ring-a-rosie” or “an aboriginal dance”. Most of you will know that the conga is a staple at many parties. A line of dancers is formed and snake around the dance floor, usually in a 1-2-3-kick rhythm. In the 1920s and 30s it was banned in its home country as was thought that it would lead to mass excitement and often resulted in street fighting. During this time it made its way over to the US, where it became very popular. It also inspired many movies including ‘La Conga Nights’ (1940), ‘Conga Swing’ (1941) and even ‘They Stooge to Conga’ (1943). During this time it became popular in the UK too – there was a celebratory conga line in Clitheroe as part of the VJ day revelries. In 1939, at a special dance at The Locarno in Dundee, Monsieur Pierre and Miss Doris Lavelle demonstrated and taught the conga to an eager public. However, its unlikely that any of the members of the Council were present that night.

City square
City Square in the 1930s. Two Bobbies in the foreground, no doubt looking for errant conga dancers!

The plan for the students was to leave the hall at 9:45 in a conga chain, led by the band, around City Square. This clearly made no sense to the members of the panel. The Town Clerk asked if some weird animal would accompany them. Baillie MacDonald clearly expected trouble (perhaps after hearing about the events in Cuba!) as he argued for the party to be kept in the hall, lest some windows might get broken. Councillor Whitfield was a little more forgiving, exclaiming, “Let them have their fun!”, although Davidson warned that this would lead to more trouble. MacDonald added that if members of the public joined in it could lead to hooliganism! He finished off by branding the venture too dangerous. The decision on whether to grant permission was deferred until 15th December.

The story appeared in the Evening Telegraph that evening. Two days later a letter from “Merrie England” mocked the ‘fragility’ of the City Square and stated that “Dundee has very little to be ‘toffee-nosed’ about, so why doesn’t it face facts and relax?”. In response to the obvious scandal caused, R Goodall, the Students Union President wrote a letter to the Tele the next day, explaining the event. The students were to have a Fancy Dress Ball in order to raise funds for the Duncarse Childrens Home. They wanted to parade around the square so as to raise more money. All very respectable and worth while.

Parade in City Sqaure 2
The Minutes note that the application for the “Conga Chain” was withdrawn.

Unfortunately the end of this story is not a happy one. The minutes of the Magistrates meeting from 15th December note that the application by the students was withdrawn – so the Students never got to do their conga. With next Christmas being the 70th anniversary of this attempt, perhaps this is an endeavour that the Dundee Art students (or any students for that matter) should revive! Lets hope the councillors know what a conga is this time.

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