The Australian Dancing

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by Philip Nicholas

It is a great pleasure to be asked to write a short history of Australian dancing and what was always talked about as the Australian style, that we seem to have lost over the last 10 years . The official records of our Australian Championships go back to 1945. But dancing goes back much further, I have articles from Henry Jacques when he came from London to the Brennon Dance School in Melbourne in 1933. He later moved to Australia and trained many great champions including Dick Foley and Kay Waterman who many people will remember. Dick died earlier this year ,he and Kay were one of the first big movers on the ballroom floor. They were 7th in the British having only trained in Australia which in those days was nearly impossible. Dancing was bought to our country by the British who sent their convicts and afterward free settlers also arrived. Dancing was very popular all over our country even in the very small towns and Sidings of our remote country areas. In these areas dancing was the only form of entertainment they had . The dancers they did were not standard but what we call today New Vogue possibly started from the English old time with a mixture of Irish and Scottish dances. Many of you who have been to Australian have seen the New Vogue style which is still danced along side standard and Latin at all Championships. My grand father had a dance orchestra in the small country town where my family come from,and he would travel every Saturday night to the different dance halls around the area so all the little towns had a turn at putting on a dance. At first he traveled by horse and sulky and later he bought a T Model Ford. He started around 1910 and continued until he retired in the early fifties and gave it to his son who continued until his death in 1980. Even today if you travel to the outback areas of Australia you come across old dance hall that are still being used for local dances. Near where I live in Fernvale there is an old dance hall and every Saturday night there is a dance and around about 150 people come to dance. I will now talk about the Australians who went to England and were successful before talking about the Australian style. The free moving Jack and Joyce Bosley came in 1948 and the came back again in 1949 with a team of Alf Davies and Julie Reaby, Frank South and Muriel Watts and Kayne and Beryl Hansen who were all given the single honour of a special Exhibition interlude on the Wednesday evening of the festival ( which probably first planted the idea of the Exhibition contest.

The first Australian couple to and have great success in England were Alf Davies and Julie Reaby in 1952 came 5th in The Professional Ballroom Championship. They had been trained in Australia, this was a great achievement for them . In 1954 there was a tie between Alf and Julie and Sonny Binick and Sally Brock and in 1956 the won it .Alf and Julie completely changed the ballroom style especially in Tango and Quickstep a revolution in the English style, their dancing was powerful fast with new exciting steps even the splits in Quickstep.. Many couples copied their style but could never really match it ,they were always the crowds favorite. Alf always said go to England to learn the technique from the British but keep the Australian flair. In 1952 saw the introduction of the Exhibition Contest that was won by Bob and Shelda Wrightson from Perth Australia dancing to (When day I done ) Bob died earlier this year. Second were also from Australia John Blake and Laurel Wilson. From 1952 till 1962 Australians dominated the Exhibition contest with Charles Smitheran and Amelia Rowe, The Delicados, Jim and Betty Maschmedt, Edgar and Hilary Peters , John and Betty Harrison and Roy and June Mavor who then moved the the USA and took exhibition to the Brigham Young University in Utah and so started all the great Exhibition dancers from the USA. Alf and Julie and all the exhibition dancers forged the Australian style. After this time many Australians left their homes and went to England with a dream of becoming great champions and I will name the couples who won were finalists or semi finals in the major amateur and professional British championships. Arthur and Linda Cornwall, Kevin Gibson and Shirley Sanderson,Barry and Cheryl Wrightson,Neil and Jenny Rosenfelt,Robert and Helen Richey, John and Wendy Thornton,Kerry Wilson and Kerry Walker, Kerry Wilson and Ann Harding,John and Carol Kimmins, Greg Smith and Marion Alleyene, Philip and Jan Nicholas,Doug and Sue Potter,Allex and Julie Schembri,Michael Baker and Jill Walters,Tony Gauci and Dianne Wills Johnson, Tony Gauci and Tania Mc Guinness Paul and Ann Wilson Larry and Kerry Clark,Doug Newton and Candy Lane, Jason Gilkinson and Peta Roby,Paul Green and Karen Rufus, Dan Buric and Joanne Boden, Paul Houston and Lauren Haig, Jason Roditis and Tonia Kosovich, Matthew Rooke and Anna Longmore. I hope I have not forgotten anyone if so I am very sorry. Many of you will remember some of these couples as this was the golden time of Australian dancing Internationally. This is the time when the Australian style was really out there and every body talked about it. We were powerful movers fast very colourful and had to be seen and do whatever we needed to do to shine. So what made the Australian style???

I think much of it comes from our history and our isolation form the rest of the world. Most of us come from people who were convicts who were sent from the UK because they committed a crime They were people who had a very hard life in the Uk and who took risks to better their existence. They were not calm gentle educated people, they did what they thought they had to do to survive. They were often sent to Australia for a minor crime and got a 7 year sentence with no return. My great great Grand mother was sent to Australia for 7 years for stealing a cow she was 17 years old, they had no family in Australia and after they had served their sentence they had to make a life for themselves in this hard land. So they learnt to stand up for themselves and succeed. And I think it is in the Australian culture to make your mark on what ever we do.

If you look at all our great sports people they are very often loud and colourful and will always stand out in a crowd. We are a party people if we win we party if we loose we party more. When I was teenager all the young wanted to go to Europe; we were so isolated here in Australia we all wanted to see what was happening over there. In those days Earls Court was called Kangaroo Valley because of all the young Australians coming to London, around Australia House in central London there were always Combie Vans parked with for sale signs on them. That is how the Australians got to travel around the UK and Europe. Young Australian were very visible at that time all over Europe. And I believe this desire to go to the other side of the world and succeed all the Australian dancers had. When I arrived in London I was a hairdresser,so I thought what can I do to stand out on the dance floor. So I coloured my partners hair bright red, I used Dylon material Dye as the hair products were not bright enough. All the girls in England had brown, black or blond hair very drab. And after a few competitions we were known by everybody not for our dancing but the girl with the red hair, most people thought it was horrible the British were very conservative but I started a fashion that is still here today. The Australian could move across the floor with great speed and power maybe not as controlled as the British but we got seen and made our mark.

We had left our families on the other side of the world; remember there was not Internet or mobile phones, to phone home was far too expensive and the connection was terrible. I called my family only twice in 6 years, but I wrote letter all the time to my friends and my family. To go back a failure was not an option. My first lesson in London was with Lorraine she said what you are doing is very nice but you cannot dance. I thought maybe we should go home, but no we had to work hard and make it. And we loved our lessons with Wally and Lorraine. First competition very small competition did not get out of the first round.O dear, keep trying to improve. Two months later we danced the East of England Championship 1 week before Blackpool and the Worlds the week after that. We made the second round for us a big improvement, none of the top couples danced. Had a lesson with Wally the next day he had judged that competition, and he said that we looked very inexperienced and said what were we trying to do out there. I said we were trying to do everything he had been teaching us. He said just forget everything that I have said to you, that is what you should do at practice, but in the competition just perform. So in our first Blackpool we came 18th and 8th in the Worlds the following week. We just got out there and were those fast colourful Australians that they said could not dance.

That is my story but all the other Aussies have the same story we all had the determination to be seen and be faster and stronger than the others that was the Australian style. So what has happened to the Australian Style where is it no one talks about it today and the results of our dancers are no where near what they were before. SO WHY??

I have thought about this and talked to some of my good friends about this. One thing is everyone wants to look the same today; I never wanted to be the same as the others and I think this is world wide. I hear many people say there are no characters now. Before there was the German style, British style, American Style another country that has lost their style, South African style Japanese style but today that has completely changed a great pity. Here in Australia since the early 90’s there have been many people come from Eastern Europe to live here especially from Russia and the Ukraine. These people have a completely different culture and if you look very many of our Australian couples today are from there. I am not saying they a not good because they are very good. But they do not have the same history as we or the same desire to be out there and seen. As I said before Australians are very loud and forceful Europeans are different. Another reason is that many Australian went to England to learn and came back and teach the British way, they have forgotten what the Australian flair is. Will it come back difficult to say,I hope because it was our way and was very successful and I think it could be again. Chris and Tracy Milburn have a very successful school dance program here where children around the age of 12 years learn to dance for one year. It is based on all modern music young teachers and fun. He has a big competition day between all the schools around 3 thousand children in each session. Chris invited me come along, it was like going back in time, not meaning they all look old fashioned the complete opposite. There I saw these modern with it children really out there wanting to stand in the crowd and it brought back memories of the Australian style. So maybe there is hope. Otherwise we just look like a herd of sheep maybe it is better to be the black sheep.


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8 Responses

  1. Great reading and very true. I have seen the change in the Aussie style over the past decade or so. Individuality has gone. Today’s dancers through out the world are all cast from the same mold. Thank you Philip for the history of Aussie dance.

  2. Thanks Phillip…. and quite accurate… lets bring that Aussie style back… I have great memories of many of the couples you mention, and yes, their passion, drive and energy made the “Australian Style”.
    One couple you missed in the exhibition… Bernard and Jan Reilley from WA… I remember them dancing, and Jan is still teaching many of the leading couples today. Thanks again!

  3. Yes I unfortunately did forget them and yes they were a great part of that time in Australian not only in the exhibition section but in our own New Vogue section hence the Tracy Leigh Waltz one of the beautiful championships dances. Their Charlie Chaplin number was exceptional.

  4. Hello, We’re neighbours of Jim Maschmedt and recently took him to a concert where he met some other Champions. Jim can’t find a lovely calendar sent from Perth about 3 years ago which featured Betty and him dancing (in the ’50s?). Any idea if it’s on the ‘net please as Jim would love to send the photo to the dancers he met the other day.

    Many thanks, Jan

  5. Great article from a great old,.. really old timer!!! LOL…I remember some of those great dancers ,and miss seeing many of you .If any of you are reading this i hope your all well ,you are so right about todays dancers all looking the same ,they just don’t get it !! the only thing that is the same about champions is all champions are different, ……thank you for the memory trip Philip

  6. Last line:- “herd”, not “heard”.
    In dancers who went overseas to make their mark, I didn’t see Dick Foley and Kay Waterman, Neville and Pat Boyd. Unfortunately. Dick passed away a couple of years ago, as did Pat Boyd and Betty Maschmedt, Kay – after several strokes, is now permanently “in care”.

  7. I was very surprised & disappointed that my name was not mentioned as one of the successful Australian dancers who went to England to compete. I made all the finals of every major event as an amateur – British Open, International, Uk Open, World’s etc & all the semi-finals in the professional events including a Worlds & European final. I don’t want to boast but that’s better than most.

  8. Just wondering if anyone knows where John thornton , world champion dancer , can be found .Trying to connect again

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