Over the summer the Orpheus Ballroom will be demolished as part of the Art College rebuild. Back in the day the Orpheus was one of the few dance halls in Belfast considered to be above repute and many of our Ulster Hall tea dancers have shared great stories and memories with us about dancing on its sprung floor and falling in love over one of the ‘non-alcoholic’ beverages on offer at the Orpheus. I was delighted to be asked to write a piece based on this fantastic old ballroom. Tonight, it was wonderful to stand on the spot where the Orpheus stage had once been located and read the piece as part of a special tour organised by the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Several people in the audience were former Orpheus attendees, back for a last look before the wrecking balls move in. I’m not sure what i’ll do with this piece now so if anyone has an interesting idea please let me know. Hope you enjoy.
The Orpheus Movements
- This was not just an accident of name or geography. In the eighteenth century the Orpheus Inn stood here and then, later on the same site, the Orpheus Bar. Both of which served strong drink, for money. The Belfast Co-Operative Society, never one to miss a trick, passed over other perfectly good spots for the chance to sell liquor, fully licensed. They built up and out on the old site; three separate buildings, pieced together like a misfit jigsaw; hoped the customers wouldn’t catch on the seams. They included lifts, awnings, a department store and bank, tea rooms, toilets and on the top floor, crouching beneath the space where a roof top garden might have been, a ballroom which did not sell strong drink. Because of everything that had gone before they called this the Orpheus.
- Orpheus a word uncommonly used in Belfast parlance. In a city full of John’s and solid, third generation Liam’s it is rare, even in these heady internet days, to stumble across a young Orpheus. Orpheus, a word derived from the Greek, taken from the hypothetical verb “orphao” meaning, “to be deprived, to long for,” as in, longing for a decent night out, as in, dying to kick your work week heels up and Jive. Also Orpheus, a word semantically close to “goao” meaning, “to lament, sing wildly, cast a spell,” as in, letting your hair down on the dance floor, as in, giving yon wee lassie in the corner a bit of the old eye. Orpheus, a word which transports you to another place, which is not Belfast, every time you say it.
- From Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ “A refuge fashioned out of darkest longing/Entered, tremulo, the doorpost aquiver,/There you have fashioned them a temple for their hearing.” And such a temple it was, also a refuge from the factories and the Shipyards and the Civil Service typing pool. A temple with vaulted ceiling and a view over Sailor Town, doors like windows, which for six shillings or less, might open into romance or a night out with the girls. Art deco flourishes on every corner and the silvered sounds of the bands and the young ones laughing which was a kind of worship in a kind of fashioned temple.
- The congregation came in by the second entrance where the elevators were for it was miles to the top floor in heels. The Co-Op, canny as they were co-operative, employed young lads as Bell Hops to preach the virtue of the wood-panelled staircase and the stained glass windows at each landing. “Good for the figure,” they might have said, or, “gets the blood going,” while the bosses wished to funnel their customers like shoals of unspent fish through the various floors of fashion and other purchasable products.
- The Co-Op kept safes on the third floor; enormous, iron-barred things like props from a John Wayne movie. The money from the purchasable products was stored here, on shelves, also the dance takings and the individual savings of thousands of Belfast residents, deposited weekly or fortnightly like tiny thank offerings to the gods of good sense. Later, when the art students arrived, with their white wash and their art house haircuts, these same safes stored supplies for the Jewellery Department. Raw gold and raw silver replaced hard-come-by pounds and well-stretched shillings and, despite their shine, were no more remarkable nor precious.
- The dance floor was made from Canadian Maple and sprung so it breathed in time with the dancers; up and down as the beat demanded. In the Thirties it was more than willing to accommodate waltz and stiff-backed ballroom, barely breaking a sweat ‘til the GIs descended upon its boards with their big boots and their clattering lust for Jive and Lindy Hop. For almost forty years the dance floor did not discriminate between one foot and the other. It rose and fell with well-polished enthusiasm and in a city better known for walls than floors, was a remarkable kind of thing to stand on.
- There was a balcony at the South end of the Orpheus, hanging over the grand entrance. Occasionally just-married couples climbed the staircase to the top floor and peered over the balustrade to smile at the photographers below. Sometimes the public swapped places and it would be the photographer hanging over the balcony’s edge whilst dancing couples paused mid-Twist or diners, looked up from their prawn cocktail to raise a glass for the camera’s benefit. From such a height, the future could be seen, lumbering around the base of Cave Hill. Both photographer and subject understood that they were capturing history each time the flash went off.
- When the Orpheus falls, its arched roof bending to meet its graceful sprung floor; the white wash lifting from its boards and moldings to reveal gold leaf glorying beneath; the windows singing out of their frames, in shrill high-pitched shards like a last dance hurrah to the good old days, looking back will be encouraged. For, this is not the underworld, this is Belfast and things are not lost which can be remembered.
(Special thanks to Stephen Sexton and Padraig Regan for supplementing my Ladybird version of Greek mythology with something a little more accurate).