A Punter’s Perspective
Random inexpert observations on the world of folk from the side of the stage
#2 Everybody (bush) dance now
First published in Trad and Now magazine, February 2007
By Bill Quinn
Scratch the surface of the folk scene and you soon find there’s plenty to keep the average punter occupied for several nights of most weeks, especially if you’re into dancing. Turn to the Dance Calendar in this very publication and you’ll see what varied options lie in wait in your neck of the woods.
The Canberra dance scene was ripe for a tentative foray into the relative unknown, approached with some caution, since I own the equivalent of two left feet. More correctly, they’re something akin to two swinging voters: apt to go either way, and often at the same time.
Canberra is blessed with many diverse dance options within a small geographical area: Irish set dancing, the colourful and energetic Bordonian Heritage Dancers, and the Contra Club just for starters. More on those in later editions.
But for a trip back in time to those school and parish ‘bring a plate for supper’ dances of yesteryear, first stop was the Monaro Folk Society (MFS) New Year’s Eve bush dance at the Yarralumla Woolshed.
If you’re going to have a bush dance, you can’t beat a hundred year old former shearing shed for atmosphere. You get the feeling the sheep were only cleared out hours earlier to make way for the stage, sound desk and supper tables.
The shed’s supports occasionally proved to be challenging obstacles, as the ever-increasing circle of dancers chose their promenading paths with care. “Dodge the poles!”, came the cry from the stage. We kept an eye out for the Hungarians as well.
(That joke celebrates its 15th birthday later this year. I’m buying it an iPod.)
Torrential rain and mountainous hail drifts in some parts of the city in the early evening did not deter a large crowd of young, old and in between. The drops of rain from a few gaps in the roof could even occasionally be counted on to plunk in time to the music.
Our entertainment for the evening was provided by Canberra bush dance legends, Franklyn B Paverty, one of Australia’s most enduring bush bands.
Lessons learnt from the evening: ‘Brown Jug Polka’ is not a spotty design for kitchenware. A ‘Cumberland Reel’ is not used for fishing in Parramatta River. And ‘Stripping the Willow’ is not pornography for carpenters and cricketers.
Bush dances, like many other ‘called’ dance events are tailor-made for punters due to their instructional nature. Especially for the uninitiated, as some of the moves can feel like the dance equivalent of rubbing your tummy while patting your head – with your feet.
The newbie punters were either seeking to hang out in sets with the more experienced hands, slavishly aping each move until it all fell into place. Or were forming little coalitions of incompetence and making up for a lack of knowledge with startling bursts of energy, innovation and even creative interpretation. (The last of these being code for: “I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing, but it goes a little something like this”.)
Over all, there’s a feeling of acceptance for the novice bushy, as you trip over feet that are suddenly dosey do-ing in unexpected directions. Or you try a manoeuvre called ‘Wringing Out the Dish Cloth’, a thing of grace and beauty when done well, but slightly embarrassing if done badly – especially if you happen to reef your partner’s arms from their sockets in the process.
It’s this relaxed attitude to getting it right that was best summed up by dance caller Bob Buckley after an intricate introduction to one dance: “If you get it wrong, enjoy it anyway!”
Which we did.
Jenny Wardrobe, sometime participant and organiser of MFS bush dancing, emphasises this importance of enjoying yourself. “Too many people are worried about being technically good instead of having fun. Bush dancing is all about having fun.”
Jenny has watched the numbers of participants wax and wane over the years of her involvement. “We’re competing with other forms of dancing for numbers. Kids get to an age where it’s not cool anymore. But it can be addictive,” Jenny says, citing the case of one of her own little bush-dancers.
Indeed, there was a fair smattering of young’uns taking part, and it was quite the sight to see the kids promenading on tip-toe to reach up and cross hands with partners twice their size.
The numbers appeared more than healthy on this night, and when midnight struck, the large shed was barely large enough to accommodate the massed revellers as we spread out in the traditional circle and belted out a festive version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, followed by that old Australian bush standard, ‘Rock Around the Clock’.
Another MFS tradition during the summer months is ‘Dancing in the Park’: bush-dancing on ‘Stage 88’ near Lake Burley Griffin, from early evening to sundown. It has all the advantages of dancing under cover with the added attractions of stopping to watch the sun dip into the lake, and performing for the occasional bemused Monday evening picnicker in Commonwealth Park.
DITP has just wrapped up for the summer, but it’s well worth looking out for in December. A handy hint: don’t make this punter’s mistake and turn up without a water bottle. Bush-dancing is a full-on aerobic workout and you skip your rehydration at your own peril.
MFS holds monthly bush dances, ‘Settlers’ Nights’ at the Merry Muse, and bush dance classes. Their next big event is the Shearers’ Ball on 3 March at St John’s Hall Reid, with a timely theme of ‘Breaking the Drought: Send it Down, Huey!’ For more information on these events, see http://www.monarofolk.org.au/dancef.htm