Two people dancing exuberantly in a hall

Elaine Constantine’s heady photos of Northern Soul dancers

The gravity-defying images in Constantine’s new book reveal the hedonistic dancefloors of Northern Soul nights all around England

In the early 80s, when she was around the age of 16, British photographer Elaine Constantine found her way onto the dancefloors of local clubs that were hosting Northern Soul nights – a movement that revolved around a particular type of fast-paced Black American soul music.

From the late 60s, the movement took off, and for the next 20 years, it drew in youngsters from around the country who were eager to dance to the frantic beats. This genre was particularly loved by clubs and clubbers in the north of England, earning its now iconic name.

A person wearing large flared trousers in a hall surrounded by people
Top and above: 100 Club, London, 1990s; All images: © Elaine Constantine
A topless person wearing salmon coloured trousers dancing with a leg kicked up in the air
Ormonds, London, 1990s

When Constantine was in her late 20s, she was commissioned by The Face magazine to photograph these clubs where Northern Soul was a constant feature. Though she had withdrawn from the scene in the few years leading up to the project, the prospect of documenting her old stomping grounds proved intriguing, and she soon found herself in the sweaty confines of the renowned 100 Club in London, where rare American 60s and 70s soul records were played all through the night.

She recalls the experience: “I remember going down those stairs into that dark basement and seeing those shadowy figures moving energetically in sync with each other; it all came back to me in an instant and made me slightly hesitant…. It was obvious the scene had gone further underground, the crowd older, little new blood, the records more obscure and the attitude on the dancefloor as fierce as ever. Could I really take pictures in this place?”

A group of people dancing exuberantly
100 Club, London, 1990s
A person wearing all black dancing in a hall
100 Club, London, 1990s

It turns out she could, though she only found the courage to take a few at this first venue, having witnessed how the flash of her camera “altered the atmosphere”. She quickly put her equipment away and joined in on the dancefloor, looking to blend into the now disturbed crowd.

However, following this first, apprehensive night on the job, it wasn’t long before her nerves began to disappear, and what ensued was a three-year period in which Constantine was a regular at Northern Soul nights all around the country, documenting a unique subculture that appeared to be slowly fading away.

People dancing in a hall, including one person leaning backwards with hands in their air
Bretby, Derbyshire, 1990s
People dancing exuberantly on a stage in a busy club
The Ritz, Manchester, 1990s

The photographs she took during this time are the basis of a new book published by RRB Photobooks called I’m Com’un Home In The Morn’un, which is accompanied by an exhibition at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. In the book, Constantine’s dynamic imagery reveals a club culture dominated by frenzied, acrobatic dance moves, and a demographic predominantly made up of 30- and 40-year-olds.

Writing in the back of the book, Richard Benson, former editor of The Face, says: “The dancers are older than original Northern Soul crowds would have been, and a novice could be forgiven for asking why these fully-grown adults are throwing themselves around these dark dancefloors in such spectacular fashion?”

He continues: “Northern Soul dancers mouth the lyrics as they dance more than people on other scenes do; their hand gestures relate to the lyrics as much as the rhythm; and many of the songs have a strange, melancholy-yet-euphoric yearning that seems captured in the spins and leaps and glissades out on the floor. Lots of the people in these photographs look as if the music has made them feel as if they could fly, and that’s as good a way as any to start thinking about it.”

A person jumping up in a bright red and green kitchen
Steve’s Kitchen, Manchester, 1990s
Two people dancing in a bar, with several people sat around watching. One person is jumping in the air, the other person dancing on the floor
100 Club, London, 1990s

Indeed, Constantine’s photographs are testament to the raw energy conjured by these records, with the dancers in each frame caught in mid-motion as they jump across the floor. Occasionally, the flash of the camera renders them weightless, as they strike seemingly impossible poses. Flying bodies lie horizontally to the ground, feet stick up in the air, and legs tilt almost all the way back. The atmosphere is one of pure hedonism, with the subjects swirling and sweating away their worries, surrounded by like-minded music lovers.

Speaking of the images, Constantine says: “[They] were forgotten about and it wasn’t until I showed them to Martin Parr recently that I realised they did have atmosphere and that the ritualised aerobic pleasure they depicted, kept alive by a dwindling hardcore, was a worthy subject matter in its own right.”

“The images in the exhibition and book really show the unadulterated energy and joy of dancing to Northern Soul,” says Parr. “How they maintain the stamina to go all night is beyond me. Elaine unwittingly produced a valuable document of a uniquely British subculture, where music, dance and style collide.”

I’m Com’un Home In The Morn’un is published by RRB Photobooks. The exhibition is on show at the Martin Parr Foundation from July 11 – September 22;