Remembering the Days of the June Germans

june german dance event in rocky mount nc history

Ask someone about the days of “way back when” and you’re bound to encounter a Rocky Mount resident who has fond memories of the June Germans.  These all-night dance parties featured some of the greatest musicians of the time and involved both local neighbors and friends from other counties—in fact, an article from the Raleigh News and Observer said it wasn’t unusual to see young people from as far away as Miami. It was a time to swing to the music, dress to the nines and put your best foot forward.

The June German was the social event of the year, and it was a huge part of the social tapestry of Eastern North Carolina. The party started in the evening and was “officially” over at 5 a.m. the next morning. June Germans were extravagant and elegant. After these events, it wasn’t unusual for activities such as swimming and barbecues to round out the weekend.

These were galas like no other...and no one could throw a June German like Rocky Mount. In fact, Rocky Mount was the centerpiece of an article in Our State magazine that focused on the history of the dance. 

Forget the heat, dance to the beat

A tobacco warehouse served as the dance hall. During the day, the warehouse was a busy workhouse and the backbone of the local economy. But one night a year, it was cleared, decorated and transformed into a marvelous---although very humid—dance floor. 

One writer for the Saturday Evening Post noted that the tobacco warehouse used had been given such an extreme makeover that it created a perfectly satisfactory version of a Southern wonderland.

Where did the June Germans begin?

The dances were originally known as Grand Celebration Balls, and they started sometime in the 1870s, according to information from Our State magazine. The success of these celebrations prompted the organizers to make them annual traditions, which eventually became the June Germans of which so many Rocky Mount residents have fond memories.

June Germans were sponsored by the Carolina Cotillion Club, and if you were a young man and thought you could get in without proper black tie attire---think again.

There was so much red-carpet glamour at these June Germans that they also became spectator sports. One year, the event was attended by 11,000 people---and 3,000 of these were spectators, who bought tickets not to the dance, but to simply soak up the atmosphere. Our State even makes the claim that movie legend Ava Gardner went to one of the Rocky Mount June Germans.

There were also separate African-American June Germans each year, and they attracted some of the biggest names in music, including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

The popularity of the June Germans began to wane in the 1960s, and despite an attempt to revive the events in the 1970s, they eventually stopped due to the changes in traditions that occurred over the decades.

Why is it called a June German?

Of course, this article wouldn’t be complete without answering that question.

It all begins with the Queen City German Club. Only, this wasn’t a club for travelers or those wanting to learn how to speak German. The German was a type of popular dance. Typically these events were held in June, hence the name. 

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

The next time you pass a tobacco warehouse, use your imagination. Think of a steamy summer afternoon and young men and women dressed like classic Hollywood celebrities lining up at the door. Listen carefully to hear the strains of music from the best musicians drifting on the sweet summer air.

And if you listen really, really, closely, you’ll realize that while the June Germans may be a thing of the past, their spirit of celebration lives on in Rocky Mount.

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