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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Saturday Night Dance [Part 1]

By far the most important social institution in Calliope was the Diggers Arms Hall, directly across the road from the Diggers Arms Hotel. I want to tell you of its pivotal social function in our fair village, just as the dance hall has been in the past for rural areas all over Australia. Sadly no more, I fear, the B & S Balls now the last vestige of the local dance, having become a mockery and corruption of that once venerable ritual. But if you get an inkling of what the Saturday night dance meant to Calliope, then you start to understand the people in it, their relationship to each other, my family and me. So here we go.

The Diggers Arms Hall at Calliope had a dance floor, a stage, a ticket office and a side verandah where food could be served. At the end of an alleyway on each side of the hall were the toilets, accessed by the men down the left and darkest side, and by the ladies on the broader and better lit right side. I think there was also some sort of light in the Ladies’, but mostly the men just took the pressure off their bladders by going down a bit further into open ground beyond the Men’s. The grass was definitely always greener on the other side, thanks to the watering and generous nutrients it received weekly.

Dances were every Saturday night in normal times, sponsored by various community groups in rotation – mostly Church Ladies’ Guilds. At times of severe drought, there wasn’t always enough money about to hold dances, but circumstances had to be dire for that to happen over a sustained period. Mostly they went on without fail. Mitchell’s Orchesta just about always played for these dances in Calliope. Shirley Mitchell played piano, Theos Mitchell was on drums, and Basil Heeney played clarinet or saxophone. This we knew to be a Very Good Orchestra, though it was the only band many of us younger ones had ever known, so there was no real point of comparison. No-one had ever said otherwise – and in fact, it was perfect for our needs. TV hadn’t quite made it to Calliope by then, so we didn’t know about shows like Bandstand,  Countdown or Rage, or even the Black and White Minstrel Show. Those would come – but not just yet.

The music was a mixture of 30s, 40s and a fair smattering of 50s songs; we knew them all, and the order of the dances. The Opening Waltz began proceedings about 8 pm, followed by a Gypsy Tap to liven things up, and a Foxtrot or a Barn Dance. Ladies would sit round the dance floor in canvas chairs and the men and boys stood in a clump down the entrance door end of the Hall. This ensured that no Gent missed the entry of any Lady to the Diggers Arms Hall. When the MC announced a dance, the Gents would fan out from their cohort at the end of the hall and ask a Lady to dance. Such requests were rarely if ever refused, because [a] the Gent well knew which Lady to ask or not to and [b] at that stage of the night at least, it was bad form for the Lady to refuse. Just not done.

Right before or during the Opening Waltz, Pops Ballroom Dressing was sprinkled over the floor of the dance area – a mixture of wax impregnated sawdust, I would say, which made the floor slippery – essential for waltzing in our leather soled shoes. Most riding boots were leather soled and some of us even had leather soled dancing pumps. If the floor was still ‘too sticky’ then another carton of Pops was demanded until the surface was good and slippery – not quite like ice, but not that far off it either. It was a point of honour that a Gent never allowed his partner to slip over, though couples would occasionally come down together, occasioning much laughing and jeering and lewd suggestion.

Dance brackets were about fifteen minutes long, depending on the amount of enthusiasm shown for the style. Not enough enthusiasm might shorten them; an executive decision taken by the Orchestra, which, after years of playing there, was pretty much a law unto itself really. Much enthusiasm by the dancers or a refusal to sit down when the final bracket was over might result in another bracket of songs if the Orchestra yielded to popular demand. In the breaks between dances – usually about 10 minutes – boys were allowed to slide from one end of the hall to the other – usually by taking a short run in leather soled shoes or sandals, and then ‘surfing’ the floor as far as momentum would take them. As kids we got really skilful at this and it did wonders for our balance when dancing on the slippery floor years later on with a partner on our arm. Today’s sneakers would be death to this activity. You cannot slide in rubber soled shoes. Nor can you dance.

Even a casual observer would have noticed one thing that you would never see these days, apart from the fact that the only place you might ever see such dancing now would be at some sort of bush dance. That was the fact that early in the night, most of the Gents at the end of the Hall were young and unattached. There was a good reason for this and the dynamics of the dance changed suddenly at a particular point in the night. I’ll come to that in a minute but I’ll give you a clue – think 10 pm. Or if you are a Victorian who can remember back far enough, think Six O’clock Swill.

Things were fairly predictable and slightly formal for an hour or so, but a Tap Gypsy Tap livened things up. This was near identical to but differed from a Gypsy Tap in one vital respect. All the Gents who wanted a dance but hadn’t asked a Lady to do so grouped in the centre of the dance floor for this dance, and it was their right to tap on the shoulder any Gent dancing with a Lady, and that Gent had to relinquish her to the interloper, go to the centre with the other unattached Gents, and tap the shoulder of another dancing Gent [or the same one who had taken his Lady] and dance with that partner. There were unwritten rules about tapping that weren’t entirely unbreakable depending on the relative sizes of the tapper and the tappee.

Usually a Gent would be allowed one circuit at least before the original tappee could tap him back and resume dancing with his former partner, but it was open slather on Gents dancing with Ladies who hadn’t been tapped by that particular Gent before. Thus a Lady might have a score of partners during just one bracket if she were Miss Popularity. A Gent who had chosen a not so popular Lady to start the dance might find himself stuck with her the entire Tap Gypsy Tap, which may or may not have suited one or both of them depending on how they felt about each other. A hasty choice could have you repenting at leisure as you went round the circuit for the hundredth time with someone you weren’t all that keen on, praying for a tapper to relieve you. I daresay the Lady might well have been praying for the same thing - maybe even more than you.

There was a lot of good natured fun in this dance and it was one of the favourites for the Gents and for the more popular Ladies, as partners were rapidly exchanged. For example, if a couple liked each other, they would do their best to evade shoulder tappers by dancing as far away from the centre as they could, or whirling out of range of a pursuer. If the Lady wasn’t that keen on her partner, she would, if skilful enough, ‘accidentally’ manoeuvre their way close enough to the middle to make it easier for someone else to tap her unwanted partner, and hope for the best.

I’ve taken some trouble to describe this dance because it had a vital social function amongst the unattached, or not so firmly attached. It first and foremost established who the most popular Lady was, and the order of popularity of the others. It also gave every unattached male the opportunity to indicate his interest in one or more of the Ladies on the dance floor, while giving them the chance to indicate their level of interest in him, without any real embarrassment to either.

So while each dance had its subtle way of matching couples, there was nothing quite like the Tap Gypsy Tap for the initial sorting out of eligible Ladies and Gents. Later in the night, a slow and slinky Jazz Waltz would settle things in terms of who was really interested in whom, so each dance was of considerable interest to mothers, sisters and to a lesser extent, the men of the families involved. Basically this was regarded more or less as Women’s Business, but make no mistake, it wasn’t just about tripping the light fantastic – this was about settling far more enduring relationships.

About 9.40 pm, Interval would be announced by the MC, and there was no accident about the timing.
dance1 | dance2 | dance3

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