|My family and religion frowned on dancing and I
had never had the opportunity to try it.
After I left home in my mid teens, I worked as a door-to-door photographer for a small company that specialized in child and family portraits in the home. As I moved from town to town and my work carried me further from the city, it was economical to stay over the weekend and not to return to the boarding house where I lived.
Occasionally I was able to stay with a relative, several of whom lived in towns in the south east of the state near the border. I stayed at the home of my father’s eldest sister, my great aunt, in a small regional area for a week while I worked the area. Her niece had remarried after her first husband had died in an accident as a telephone linesman. Her new husband was a local grazier and partner in a meatpacking house. He also owned a group of Butcher shops in towns in the area. They had a house in the town and fattened sheep and cattle on nearby properties.
He had a daughter by a previous marriage. Julie was some years older than me and managed her father’s office in town. I suppose to be technical she was a second step cousin to me.
My aunt arranged for me to stay with them when I moved on to this area. I used their home as a base to work through the town and to arrange photo shoots in homes through the area. I stayed longer than usual in this town, as the family made me welcome. This gave time for the photos that I had taken in the previous town to return from the studio to be sent to me on the train and it was just a day trip to return to the previous town and deliver them.
This meant that I spent several weekends there and was bored to tears by the time that all of the sights had been seen. As it turned out, this was the weekend of the local “Military Ball”. Every one attended from children to the elderly. Julie was best friend to Lena who worked as a family help to my cousin and managed her home while she organised the staff roster for the various shops and answered the phones.
Julie and Lena ganged up on me to escort them to the ball, as it was not “done” to turn up without at least one man in the party.
I was immediately captivated by the familiar rhythms of the “Old Style” music and regretful that I could not dance.
Two separate orchestras took “turn about” playing their style of music. First the “Old Style” orchestra began with the “King's Waltz” which was always the first number at a “Military Ball”.
All of the dignitaries and their partners led off followed by the ordinary people. No sooner had this dance concluded than the “modern” dance band took over with a set, which included fast moving beats and established the vigorous tone for the rest of the evening. The young men were able to choose a partner for a dance and when the group of dances in that set concluded, were just able to squire their partner back to their seat in time to choose another for a dance played by the “Old Style” orchestra while the “Modern” had a rest.
The “Military Two Step” was a popular dance in the area and the orchestra was supplemented with brass of the barrack's band.
So it went on throughout the evening.
I established myself on the balcony overlooking the dance floor in the Town Hall where I could take in the spectacle of the writhing mass of humanity below; from a safe distance. Julie and Lena never missed a dance, being in demand from all of the local boys and most popular. They were both country girls; pretty and smooth dancers.
Not wanting to leave me out, Julie came up and kept trying to coax me out on the floor for a dance. Finally she succeeded. The dance was a slow rhythm step with a 4 beat. Julie drew my attention to this beat and encouraged me to move to it. I was to go “step, step, slide feet together, step, step, slide feet together” in time to the beat, of course, and watch the toes.
Well! I survived this dance and felt that I had got through it quite well! We had managed to finish the dance and I had enjoyed myself.
I was bitten and smitten by the “dance bug”.
When I returned to the city and the boarding house where I lived, I practiced what I had learned about dancing. I wonder if my Polish landlady wondered about the scuffmarks on the floor in my room.
Hungering for more, I booked in to a city Dance Studio for a half hour private lesson.
The male teacher appointed to me was very brisk but proceeded to introduce me briefly to the “Quickstep” “Modern Waltz” (Jazz Waltz) and “Slow Foxtrot”. All for a quite substantial fee.
In the following weeks I made the rounds of the city and suburban ballrooms and dance halls, gradually improving and building on those things that I had learned. My greatest discovery was the Progressive Barn dance. In this light-hearted event it was possible to dance briefly with each girl in the room and compare how they all felt as a dancing partner. My waltz seemed to come naturally and I was quickly quite comfortable with it. I found that girls who were experienced dancers were very light on their feet and placed no weight on me during the few moments that we danced. The awkward ones would lean heavily in fear of falling and were of course to be avoided for further dancing. The glamorous popular girls would not be in a hurry to dance with me so I didn’t bother to ask. However there were always a few “Plain Janes” who were excellent dancers. Having identified these girls during the barn dance, and noting where they sat, I was able to ask for a dance and not be knocked back as they too had noted me as not too clumsy.
With these girls I was able to dance often and improve myself continually. I found that by regular attendance I became accepted by my regular choice of partners as well as the more popular girls. They now conversed with me during the barn dance and made it known to me that I would not be refused certain dances. A girl that had a regular partner for, say, the tango or quickstep would not refuse a request for a jazz waltz from me.
Eventually I was invited to other dances which were not known to the general public, but open only to the more fanatical dancers.
All of these activities I fitted between my regular trips to the country for the photography company.
My next trip came along and I drove back to all the towns where I had been on the last trip. Their photographs had been sent out by post, bus, or train, and the money sent in. I checked with all of the people, looking for repeat business and satisfaction with the work done, and concluded details that had to be attended to.
It was at this time that I ventured into the adjoining state. I was intrigued by the different names and styles of familiar things wrought by a few miles and a mark on the map. As I worked on a retainer and a percentage of sales, it was always a struggle to keep expenses down. I had worked out that the best way of doing this was to make use of boarding houses in most areas. The trick was to ask local employees of banks, post offices, or insurance companies, where the young people from the city stayed during their stint in town. There were boarding houses in each town that specialised in this. They were recommended by the employers who had a “duty of care” to the parents who let their sons and daughters spend a few years in the country while they worked their way up the ladder.
I would go into a bank and explain my situation to a young clerk or teller and would get an address where I could enquire about accommodation. Soon I found that when moving from town to town I could book ahead through the Telex in the bank and have a bed already waiting for me, and a recommendation sent on from a person who had sat at meal tables with me for the preceding week. I could arrive at the next town at the weekend and not have to wait till Monday to get lodgings. I was expected and welcomed as one known to the fraternity.
In those days the highlight of the week was a Friday night ball - dance – or shearing shed dance and barbeque. I was able in some cases to roll up with the other boarding house residents and be a welcome part of a group, having lots of dancing partners, eager to dance.
I improved mightily and had a great time. The bank and post office young people were expected not to drink and there was little drama. They made their own fun and were adopted for the duration by the locals who invited them to their homes and churches.
Each time I returned to the city I would extend my learning curve in dance. I could not afford to pay for private lessons so I joined a dancing school for group lessons, which were available on Tuesday nights.
For a small admission fee we learned the “Quickstep” “Modern Waltz” “Slow Foxtrot” and “King’s Waltz”.
Latin: - “Cha Cha Cha” “Tango” “Pasa Doble” “Samba” “Rumba”.
Old Style:- “Pride of Erin” “Military Two Step” “Canadian Three Step” “Tangoette” and “Merrelyn.
And THEN “Circular Waltz” “Viennese Waltz” and the “Swing Waltz”
By this time the dancing school had accepted me as one of their own. I had given up the country photography and was working for my father again.
At the dancing school most students were expected to start taking private lessons and study for their “medals”. In this association, these medals ranged from “Bronze” “Silver” “Gold” “Silver star” “Silver star and Bar” and “Professional” being the highest.
This I could not afford.
Further we were expected to have a competition partner. A person not on private lessons could not get a competition partner.
The school director came to the rescue and made a deal with me that if I spend Saturday morning as a practise partner for juniors, this would be exchanged for a one-hour lesson with a senior teacher during the week.
I was on my way.
I was partnered with a young lady a few years older than me, and of ten times my skill who’s regular partner was recovering from a serious illness.
We got on like a house on fire, and started training for inter school “teams matches”. My weakness was the “Circular Waltz”, which in those days was a prerequisite for teams competitions.
I just couldn’t get it right.
The director was called. She was a slender upright energetic lady. If a non-dancer she perhaps would have been considered elderly. She was as young as she felt and dressed always in black, wearing stout dancing shoes with heavy high heels that clumped on the polished wooden floors as she walked or danced. She NEVER partnered anyone but would train couples that needed the touch of a master to bring them to excellence.
Marked on the floor in the practise room were painted crosses which marked the boundaries to be followed in certain dances. She clumped alongside my partner and I, lifting me by the elbow with strong hands when needed, pushing me down when I was standing too high, counting quietly to correct my beat.
We made circuits of the floor, with the director clumping alongside, taking care to turn pricisely on the corner marks as required in the “Competition Circular Waltz”. After each circuit we would stop and receive verbal instructions and the music would restart and we would go around again.
Suddenly I got it!
I didn’t notice at first but the director was standing off to the side with a smug smile on her face, nodding her head.
The Director motioned my partner to man the record player, and marched to the start position, and called me over. She signalled me to “take the start position”, this time with her instead of my partner.
At her nod the music commenced and on the correct beat, I moved off as I had been doing all evening. We waltzed in a steady straight line down the floor with me anxiously aiming for the mark at the first corner. Making a precise ninety degree turn left towards the second mark, we moved rhythmically across the floor to the second turn point then the third and back to the start point, precisely ending in the correct position to bow to the non-existent judges. By this time the school was buzzing about someone dancing with the Director.
My partner and I danced through the season in teams matches, our club against all and sundry. At the end of season ball, I was awarded my “Bronze”, which I felt I really didn’t deserve as I felt that I couldn’t fail with my partner who was three grades above me.
Her partner returned from illness and they went on to greater things, eventually marrying and becoming amateur champions.
I could have stayed and started with another partner but felt that it would never be the same. I still had a crush on my last partner.
I decided on another photography trip, but this time on my own account and not with the old company. I looked up one of my photographer friends who had originally trained me and set up arrangements for Lab services, and agreed on a range of charges and prices. I set off over the border again as on that side of the border the grass was greener – literally. My state was drought stricken most years and there was more money in the farmlands over the border and more places to dance. I was a year older and a much better dancer so looked forward to good times.
On a rainy Friday afternoon, I landed in an area where the roads were flooding, some of them were washed completely away. I had been able to book accommodation ahead in a hostel down the road.
As I travelled I came upon signs advertising a ball put on by the local progress association, to be held that night. I drove past the hall to the town where I had my accommodation booked and moved my things in and paid my fees. In the evening I drove the 50 or so miles back to the hall and was amazed by the sight. The rain had not let up and flares lit up a stony roadside field, half a mile before the hall, where cars were parked without bogging. Ladies in ball gowns were dropped off under the canopy of a large tent to await transport to the hall. A tractor pulling a large canvas covered cart, was loading ladies in ball gowns by means of a set of stairs attached to the back of the low cart.
The tractor and cart drove to the hall to unload the ladies under a similar canopy at the hall where they could disembark without getting their feet muddy.
The men in typical fashion walked from car to tractor in their Dry-As-A-Bone coats, not very worried about a bit of water at all.
Children ran all the way to the hall, splashing in every puddle that could be found. It was a remarkable evening put on by the local Cheer Box committee to raise funds for local charities.
There were all types of competitions with prizes for “Belle of the Ball” “Ballerina of the Ball” “Comedy couple” for those willing to come in fancy dress, plus “Youngest couple” “Oldest couple” “Lucky spot prize” “Lucky door prize” and “Lucky partner”. The substantial entry fee included a copious supper and “Bottomless” punch bowl.
My interest of course was aroused by the advertised “Circular Waltz” contest.
Unfortunately I was there by myself; not a trained partner in sight.
One of my favourite dances at these “do’s” was still the Progressive barn dance.
This is a dance where everyone participates. After a few back and forward moves the couple waltzes a circle and the lady progresses to the next partner in line on the circle and the man moves back to greet the next lady in line. These are good-humoured events in country towns where people who have not met for years are dancing with each other. As the dance progressed I noticed a lady of similar build and stance to the dance school director. I was in my late teens, and she was a slender mature lady of the “blue rinse set” moving towards me in the circle. She gave me a lovely smile and a murmured “good evening”.
As we came together and began our brief dance, she was as light on her feet as one could be. She supported her own weight and did not lean on me as poor dancers do. She executed a perfect waltz circle and raised her eyebrows in surprise and looked at me more carefully as she progressed to the next man in line.
When the dance was over I walked my ending partner back to her seat and looked around for the waltzer. She was sitting with a sprightly old-fashioned looking gentleman who appeared slightly older than she did.
I set off towards them at once.
“Excuse me.” I said. I smiled at them both then turned to the lady. “I was impressed with the way you waltzed”
“I wonder if your partner would mind if I stole you for the ‘circular waltzing’ contest?”
She raised her eyebrows at her partner in question.
“Not at all, young fella, not at all!” said the man.
I looked at the lady and she smiled up at me.
“Thank you,” I said. “I will return when they announce the dance”.
The way of these competitions at country-dances is that couples wishing to enter line up in front of the orchestra and stand and wait their turn to start off. One couple dances at a time. The turn points are chalked on the floor by the judges. The first couple is announced and moves off immediately when the music starts. They waltz in the approved manner and points are given for accuracy and style. When they have completed a circuit and been applauded, the second couple starts off. We were the third couple of seven couples to perform.
I held my partner in the start position during the introduction and we moved off precisely on the correct beat of music. I had no trouble in communicating my intentions to my willowy partner who followed my lead perfectly.
As I had been taught I steered precisely to the turn point and we moved off again at 90 degrees left at each point until we returned to the start point. What a delight my partner was! It was like steering a sports car, not that I ever have.
She allowed me to steer straight and true and when we ended we turned together to bow to the judges and still holding her hand we turned to each other and I bowed to her. What did she do but curtsy to me, bringing instant applause and laughter! You would think that we had rehearsed for weeks. Two of the four couples went and sat down at once.
The final two couples had their turns, emulating our moves almost perfectly.
Of course we won. When we returned to her partner, he grinned at me.
“Well young fella, you have made her year! The local chins will wag about this forever! We enter every year but never win. Must be me!”
The prize was a stainless-steel supper tray and ₤20 cash. I was pleased to receive the ₤20. In this one event I had been trained by the best and had chosen the best partner.
by Ignatius Writealot Home