Australian National Folk Festival and Colonial Ball

How the National Folk Festival Colonial Ball came into being by Peter Ellis

It is worth highlighting the fact that Shirley Andrews was one of the key founders of the National Folk Festival which grew out of the Port Phillip Folk Festival. The first venue under consideration was to have been a high school at Kilmore, although at the last minute it changed to the Teacher’s College, now a section of Melbourne University. Shirley related how she, Merle Lamb and possibly Rae Dowdle dressed in their finery including hat, pearl necklace, gloves and handbag to deputise the Principle in 1967 and convince him his college would not be taken over by a bunch of hippies.

Dancing did not always feature strongly at folk festivals but gradually became more popular due to the Shirley’s efforts as well as her publication ‘Take Your Partners’ that proved a valuable resource for aspiring Colonial Dancers. I was later to co-author ‘200 Dancing Years’ with Shirley for the Australian Bicentennial in 1988. This was an honorary publication on our part which was initiated and produced by the Australian Government and distributed free to every municipality throughout the Nation.

In the early period of Shirley’s interest in Folklore and Dance she visited Nariel meeting up with other collectors (Norm and Pat O’Connor & Maryjean Officer) who were also from the Folklore Society of Victoria and the Victorian Bush Music Club (now the VFMC). They were interviewing Con and Beat Klippel following recommendation from the singing Dyer family at Benambra near Omeo and the first contact was Christmas Day 1962. It turned out the Klippel family and the Nariel and Thougla districts had a strong heritage of good dancing and musicianship.

As a consequence the Nariel Folk Festival was established on the Labour Day long weekend March 1964 with assistance from the VFMC, the first get together however was the year before, February 1963. It was an ideal location in this regard and became the Mecca for traditional old time dancing. It was the first Folk Festival in Victoria and the second in Australia and the longest continual event of its kind.

Social dancing had been a community event at Nariel, Thougla and Biggara for generations before this, as well as in most country areas of Australia. I can think of Wychitella, Buckrabanyule, Yeungroon, Kooreh, Emu Creek, Fryerstown and Fenton’s Creek as other examples in Victoria. The establishment of the Colonial Ball at the National Folk Festival is an interesting development and the reason and style is something that most in the folk scene today are probably unaware. To my knowledge the first Colonial or Old Time style ball was held in conjunction with the Sydney National Folk Festival in 1982. Frank Canty organised it as an adjunct to the festival (not part of the formal festival programme) with the Wedderburn Oldtimers and myself as MC. This was on the Monday night in the Sydney Town Hall.

Around 1982 at Nariel, Peter Hunter from South Australia asked me how the Bendigo dances that I had instigated operated and the reasons for their success. I explained the aspects of a rural country dance and ball and that we had our own musicians to learn tunes for the other special dances we were collecting from various districts. Harry McQueen of Castlemaine had been a key informant in terms of many of the old dances and the tunes to be used. Others that provided information were the Wedderburn Oldtimers, Morrie Gierisch from the Gay Charmers and Beat Klippel of Nariel. They were collectively of enormous assistance.

From the early 1980s the Bush Dance and Music Club of Bendigo (Colonial and Old Time) ran learn to dance classes through Continuing Education – the basics of Waltzing, Foxtrot, Barn Dance, Pride of Erin etc. as well as teaching the main quadrilles i.e. Lancers, Alberts, Waltz Cotillion and some of the ‘polkas’ such as Polka Mazurka, Varsoviana, Polka and Highland Schottische. An important core within this was inclusion of some ‘bush dances’ such as Virginia Reel and Galopede and other popular forms like the Dashing White Sergeant, Waves of Tory and Waltz Country Dance. This we hoped would attract young patrons to our dances and to an extent this worked, certainly with young families.

We also had the advantage of veteran country dancers to help in dances like the First Set and Polka which they knew first hand. In fact these dances were still programmed in some country districts such as Lockwood South and Fenton’s Creek. I also made a special trip across to Corryong where Beat Klippel, Barbara Klippel, Tom and Peg Byatt, Edna Whitehead and other local dancers demonstrated their versions of the quadrilles.

At home local MCs such as Colin Silk, Ron McNally and Les Rankin were of considerable assistance in reconstructing local quadrille versions. Also Shirley Andrews organised a special filming of the Nariel dancers demonstrating the old couple dances and the Lancers. I had formed Emu Creek Bush Band which included all ages from children through to 83 year old violin veteran Agnes Corry; and this band (more recently over the last decade or so) has digitally recorded on CD music for nearly all the old dances.

During the discussion with Peter Hunter I covered the social history and pointed out that at special balls in the country the local brass band was sometimes engaged. For example at St. Arnaud according to Ron McNally a Lancers competition was once held to the original music played by the brass band. Actually at the TSDAV’s second function held in Bendigo Nov. 1982 I organised brass players (Wayne Bowden and Doug Gray) for the Alberts with Harry McQueen, Jack Heagney, Tom Walsh and Alby Hood sitting in on squeezebox, fiddles and spoons. The Wedderburn Oldtimers played for a dance the night before. Peter Hunter was present and rapt in the whole thing and that consolidated his plan to take this up.

Following several discussions, Peter returned home and as dance MC for the Adelaide Colonial Dancers and had within a short time organised a ball in which the Gawler Brass Band played for part of the programme. This tradition continues with the Adelaide dancers today. Also at the TSDAV weekend at Bacchus Marsh in March 1983 Shirley and I revived a version of Sir Roger de Coverley with the Serpentine figure that Peter Hunter took a liking too and brought back to the Adelaide Colonials.

He was also instrumental in locating the Tugwells out of Adelaide that had a dance club named ‘Taradale’ after the Victorian town arising from a friendship with Harry McQueen and from whom Peter got the contact details. Coming out of this new friendship was the ‘choreographing’ of the Taradale Quadrille and Cotillion that respectively won a TSDAV dance competition.

Again while at Nariel 1982/83 through discussion with Shirley and myself, Peter Hunter floated the idea of a Colonial Ball at the National Folk Festival at Magill Adelaide for Easter 1983. Originally he planned to have the Nariel Band, the Wedderburn Oldtimers and Harry McQueen’s band supported by Emu Creek Bush Band (not then in name) members at the festival, but this turned out to be not viable.

Finally the full Nariel Band and dancers were organised to travel by bus from Corryong to Adelaide coming through Bendigo and collecting members of our dance group as well. We were lucky to get past Pinnaroo just inside the South Australian border. We stopped at the pub for a late lunch and danced a set of Lancers while waiting and with jugs of free beer the publican was determined for us to stay the night; but we had to press on.

Shirley, Peter and myself had worked carefully on the dance programme which was strategically balanced between the Old Time dances like Pride of Erin and Maxina that everybody knew, the older forms such as Varsoviana and Lancers and most likely some ‘bush dances’ that the Nariel band could handle. Whilst I don’t remember specifically, it would have been something like the Galopede or Galopede Country Dance (La Galopede) and the Circassian Circle to which the Nariel Band could adapt their First Set tunes. Of course there would have been the Grand March with variations.

We had the Nariel, Bendigo and Adelaide dancers help lead off and Shirley with assistance from Lucy Stockdale had mustered up the Melbourne contingent. Peter had been busy collecting South Australian versions of dances from the Eyre and York Peninsulas and around Blanchetown through assistance from Brian Shultz whose father had been the local MC. So their special form of ‘double Alberts’ and the Polonaise version of the Grand March was incorporated to give the South Australian flavour for their year. It was Brian Shultz originally who workshopped the double Alberts that his father as local MC used to call. He also had a version of the Princess Polka nicknamed the ‘Blanchetown Steeplechase’.

More recently I discovered the full version of the Polonaise as well as the Waltz Mazurka and Kreuz Polka from Ma Seal at Kimba when collecting with John Meredith in 1991.

We did a Cake Walk at the Adelaide ball as well; Peter’s partner of the day Pam Pittaway was very keen that this be included. There was some reason why Shirley wanted the Four Sisters’ Barn Dance on the programme (and we hadn’t revived Uncle Ev’s Barn Dance at that stage) and this was the one dance the Nariel Band went to special trouble to learn to play. Shirley commented to me she had never heard the Nariel band play as well as they did at Adelaide. Unfortunately, the style of the Four Sisters’ Barn Dance which used to be great has deteriorated since those days, and I could say the same for many of our dances which some Colonial groups today have either not upheld on their programmes or simply pay lip service to a tradition in name but not performance.

But this is how the National Folk Festival Colonial Ball commenced and Shirley, generally with Lucy Stockdale and in consultation with representatives from the relevant state drafted a programme almost every year from then except when in ‘W.A. for Perth’s turn and at Maleny, Kuranda and Alice Springs, although even there three musicians from Emu Creek with myself and Harry McQueen and Shirley’s help played for an impromptu dance that was added to the programme. The other big National Folk Festival Ball was in Melbourne at La Trobe University in 1986 with the Wedderburn Oldtimers. Shirley and I organised the programme as well as workshops in which veteran dancers from Nariel, Colac and Bendigo assisted with demonstrations. This workshop was filmed by Michael Crichton and Harry McQueen, Agnes Corry and Neville Simpson played for it. It was the last time Beat Klippel danced and Joe Byatt partnered her. Ken and Glad Cropley and Chas and Bev Stevenson from Colac assisted as well as Hec and Mavis McGregor from Bendigo.

As for the Colonial Balls, the balance between well-known Old Time, Colonial and Bush Dances made for a very sociable event where all from any part of Australia could get together to enjoy themselves. There was a very minimum of walkthrough instruction. Generally any different or new version of couple dance was started with a lead couple then everyone else followed. Variants of quadrilles or couples dances due to State versions or the odd new revived quadrille or Colonial dance were workshopped thoroughly at the Festival leading up to the ball and it all worked very well.

I have a copy of a letter given to me by Pauline Cambourne of NSW where in 1996 Shirley Andrews outlines to the National Folk Festival organisers that it is generally unacceptable to walk through dances at a ball and that this is only done with the one or two complicated dances in the whole evening where the figures are walked through once in succession, and then the whole thing danced through without any walk through between figures. This usually only happened with the five figure National Quadrille or something new like the Polka Country Dance or Galopede Country Dance, even although they are very easy single figure dances. Most other programmed dances were selected to be well known to all.

There was one National FF where Shirley didn’t organise the programme and I based it on a country style dance such as at Nariel or Wedderburn, but kept it entirely Colonial except for the Pride of Erin and Maxina. I recall Annie Didcott being very enthusiastic about that particular ball. I could go on to say that I would know of no ball in the country or the city where a dance would ever be walked through or someone would say ‘this is a dancers’ dance, if you don’t know it don’t get up!’. When the Wedderburn Oldtimers played for the ball at the Sydney Town Hall in conjunction with the NFF in 1982 I was instructed by Frank Canty to walk all the dances through. I attempted to do this, but the band struck up before I could finish talking, it was totally unacceptable to them that this should occur.

Finding good bands for dance music in the Folk Scene has always been difficult and contrasted similarly with country bands that are good at old time but don’t know the bush and Colonial dances. Emu Creek Bush Band played for some of the early Nationals and one I recall was Sutherland out of Sydney 1988 in which Peter Hunter returned as MC. We also played at the last National Folk Festival in Adelaide 1991 and the first in Canberra at the ANU.

Soon Wongawilli was on the scene and we often shared a half of the ball programme. This seemed to work well. I think that many of the dancers and musicians today have not come from the living tradition of dance and music and this has made it difficult for some of the states in maintaining the Colonial Ball. Conversely there are enough of us still around that could help. It is also significant that the Australian traditional dances and the Old Time social dances continue to be overshadowed by traditions other than ours. We are rapidly losing our own heritage of dance. If it was simply because its use-by date was up, I could accept it; however I know it works well and as evidenced by the success of the Bush Dance and Music Club of Bendigo as well as their extremely popular annual ‘Dinki Di’ Ball which has been supported by the Wedderburn Oldtimers, Emu Creek and Gay Charmers. I remain puzzled that others don’t see the potential in promoting these dances and heritage.

For some reason, which is rife in the folk scene, it seems necessary to make up a programme of largely competition awarded dances and dances from other cultures so that inevitably must be walked through. This is fine of course for special workshops on these dances, but it’s not what a Colonial or Heritage Ball should be about.

Originally the workshops leading up to the ball at the NFF worked well, and they have certainly worked very well at other festivals such as the very good Australian Folk Festival at Kiama or Albion Park that unfortunately no longer exists. The problem in later years was that those who needed to attend the workshops didn’t and then demanded instruction at the ball. Again this seems to be a folkie expectation that for a while Shirley and I had managed to overcome.

To see it can be overcome, put the Dinki Di Ball at Eaglehawk on the 3rd or 4th Saturday in September on your calendar and see for yourself. In particular I think the NFF organising committee should attend. While you’re at it, stay Sunday and enjoy a wonderful ball unwind in the Whipstick, picnic, bushwalk, songs, Lancers, convivial company, comradeship, humdinger yarns and jokes and everything Aussie including the widest multicultural heritage from the gold rush (Swiss Italian Bull Boar sausages). I’ll even play Danny Boy on the Swanee Whistle to séance a protesting Shirley Andrews to join our gathering.

On that note it would be great if the Colonial and Old time Heritage Ball along the lines described could be re-established at the NFF and it should be in memory of Shirley Andrews and Lucy Stockdale – Shirley & Lucy’s Heritage Ball sounds like a good name to me.

The greatest memories I have of the Colonial Ball are from playing on stage at the Coorong and enthralled with the spectacular Grand March and Quadrille with over 300 hundred dancers, mainly in magnificent costume and at the same time noting countless viewers milling past in the upstairs viewing section. It is a sight I doubt you would see anywhere else and unfortunately the many dance groups in Australia seem oblivious to a treasure they have in their own heritage that I’m sure many overseas visitors would be impressed and astounded. Our tradition seems to be a minority even at our own Australian National Folk Festival.

Peter Ellis February 2010