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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Saturday Night Dance [Final Part]

[continued from Part 2]

Much more rational than the curious behaviour of women was the men’s desire to witness a good fight. 

   Now let me explain something crucial here. This isn’t the sort of brawling you see on TV these days. Fights in the country on a Saturday night as an occasional diversion from the dance itself had as strict a set of rules as the Marquis of Queensberry could ever have devised, and not all that much different in essence. 

   For one thing, the local policeman would keep out of the way, though just close enough to break things up if they should somehow get out of hand – which never happened as far as I ever saw. 

   The men made a human ring around the two fighters. This was something of a disadvantage for either or both participants who might have wished to change their minds at the last moment and escape, because they couldn’t, really. That's something like sati worked in India before 1857, but let’s not complicate things by bringing that dreadful ritual into the discussion.

   As well, there was no dirty or low punching and no attacking the other bloke when he was down. No kicking or gouging or anything like that. The male audience was all ages; often, as in the case of the Jensons, with their father in the front row of the ring as it were, and he would no more have tolerated his own sons doing that as any of the townies. 

   Of course you might expect townies to be more likely to try on some illegal stuff, as they were less likely know any better, being less honourable than country boys because of the latent corruption endemic in urban life. But they’d only have done it once where we came from before they learned not to. There’s considerable loss of face in having your fight stopped by ten righteously indignant middle aged farmers on account of something you shouldn’t have done, shoved bodily in your FJ Holden with twin overhead foxtails and being told to piss back off to town and never come back. No twenty year old of any size, shape or fighting prowess would have dared try to resist that offer. I saw that happen only once. A flock of fearless farmers is a formidable force [as many a politician has discovered].

   The fight would go on until one or other had had enough, maybe with a heavily bleeding or broken nose, or a closing eye, badly cut brow or tongue, sheer exhaustion, or the realisation that what seemed a great idea on the way out to Calliope from Gladstone wasn’t so appealing after all at the moment of truth. 

   If the fighter showed no real heart to continue the battle, that was it. The fight would be stopped simply by virtue of the body language of the obvious loser. There would be no formal declaration of a winner as none would be required. Five minutes or so can be a very long time when someone muscular is trying to hurt you as much as they possibly can with their fists in as short a time as possible, but the Jenson boys had excellent stamina and I don’t remember any townie actually being declared to have won a bout against one of them. Not that there would have been any home turf advantage, of course. And it must be admitted, some of those town boys could fight, or they wouldn't have come out to the dance in the first place.

   After the fight, when the adrenalin and testosterone had settled down a bit, the dance would resume. No-one would be much the worse for wear, even the fighters, though you couldn’t say the same for their clothing, often a bit blood-stained and badly dishevelled, for which their mothers would have given them the rounds of the kitchen when they got home. Maybe the Jenson boys would have escaped it as Mrs Normie Jenson was secretly proud of the fisticuffery of her sons and was a bit pugnacious herself. I wouldn’t have wanted to take her on if she was in one of those moods, I can tell you, and she wasn’t very big. Well, not very tall, let’s say. She was fundamentally barrell-shaped. Oh, and if you wish to question the etymology of the noun ‘fisticuffery’, I suggest you read H G Wells’s A History of Mr Polly, and keep your doubts to yourself, thank you!

   There's one other point I’d like to make here, if you’ll just hang on a sec and wade through the next couple of paragraphs. I’ll keep it brief, I promise. In the 60s as a callow youth, I loved boxing, although from an audience point of view rather than as a participant. You may have guessed that. It appealed to base, primal and tribal instincts in every male, I am sure. So it's not our fault, you see; we have evolved to be like that. 

   The ‘boom-boom, boom-boom’ of the Aboriginal boxers drumming up business with a big base drum for the Jimmy Sharman Boxing Troupe at the Gladstone show every year synchronised with my heartbeat and poured adrenalin into my system, though I now know it was cruel on many young Aboriginal kids who may have come in as one of his boys to fight the locals for little more than their tucker and a place to sleep. 

   To be fair, it was said that Jimmy Sharman [Senior] looked after them, and a place in his troupe did give some of them the chance to go on to bigger and better things in boxing.... maybe.

Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Troupe [Photo courtesy Aust Film Lib.]

Australian boxers like Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon, who won world professional titles over fifteen rounds, I greatly admired. Cassius Clay, before [and after] becoming Muhammad Ali was to my mind the greatest of them all. When you saw him as an amateur boxer and a light heavyweight gold medallist at the Rome Olympics in 1960, I doubt if you’d ever see a more impressive specimen of physical perfection. 

   But I have long since grown to hate the sport, mainly because of what it did to many boxers later in life, such as Muhammad Ali as a professional fighter. To see him with Parkinson’s Disease, which I am sure was caused by having his brain jarred constantly by massive blows to the head, fighting men as tough and courageous as he - men like the brilliant Joe Frazier - in 40+ degree C temperatures under fierce lights - that's taken much of the pleasure out of the sport for me.

   Back to the Calliope dances - briefly, as I’ve said enough. You can see from all this that without those dances, the township would have had no heart and soul and no fire in its belly. 

   A Progressive Barn Dance illustrates this perfectly. It made every male in the hall dance with every female, people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and dancing ability, all done with good grace on all sides. Ladies put up with some pretty ordinary dancers amongst the men, though most got around the dance floor reasonably well I suspect. And the less graceful included both the Tucker girls from Builyan, who in their entire lives were untouched by notions of body rhythm and timing on the dance floor. In the Progressive Barn Dance as the change of partners took place, to make contact with them sufficiently to place one hand on their waist and hold the other in yours was like grappling with a wrestler, Graeco-Roman style, who apparently had no intention of letting you near him – yet that was all they wanted. It just didn’t work out that way as you approached them. So in the end you just dived in with a grapple tackle, and hoped for the best.

   Oho, you think I am exaggerating, don’t you? Well, I just wish you had tried to get them into a waltz position before the waltz bit of the Barn Dance was over, that’s all. Then you’d know. But what did it matter? They got married in the end and had a tribe of kids each [so someone must have got the timing right! - or was the grapple tackle principle invoked in lovemaking as for dancing?].... and the world kept turning.

   Nothing could have built a sense of community and belonging more than this collective clannish experience. The Saturday Night Dance defined the relationship of each individual with every other in the township, with each kinship group and caste, and even with comparative strangers.

From a personal point of view, we enjoyed it even more when Dad had been over at the pub and had a little more than the usual couple of Fourex – or maybe he had one or two rums with beer chasers to vary the drinks. This didn’t happen very often, but if so, he would come over from the pub at ten in that state that I described before as ‘merry’, which meant he had just enough grog in him to be happy and want to dance, but not too much as to make him unable to or unsociable. 

   10 pm was an excellent time for us kids to ask him for a shilling to buy a pie at the café next to the dance hall; something we usually would be too afraid to do. He never refused when he was merry so we knew we were on a good thing. Still, it was always good strategy to be the first to ask him, because the shillings got a bit harder to come by the further down the food chain you were.

   On the nights we would walk home from the dance, before we had the car, he would be funny and happy in this relaxed state of inebriation, waking sleepy but offended cows as we walked through the paddocks and setting off foxes barking in the distance. Have you ever heard a fox ‘bark’? It’s a chilling sound at close range, but it didn’t bother us when we were walking home from the dance and Dad would mimic them. The noise is quite like the sound a fox terrier would make if you kicked it in the guts in mid-bark. Try it sometime and you'll see I'm right.

   Mum would make Dad a cup of tea when we got home and he would fall asleep within moments of his head hitting the pillow, as 1 am was late for someone who had to be up by 4.30 am and on any other night was usually asleep by 9.30 pm at the latest. 

   However, he would be well awake before milking time the following morning, as the rum and beer would have done the more sinister side of their work by 3 am. From my bed on the verandah, I would hear the unmistakable sounds of all the night’s fun coming back to haunt him, with Dad down under the mango tree getting it all off his chest, as it were. Throwing up, hurling, chundering, calling for Ralph, a technicolor yawn, chucking; call it what you will, it all amounted to the same thing. The party was over for that night at least, and milking the cows that Sunday morning was always bound to be a bit of a tetchy affair.

dance1 | dance2 | dance3


  1. You take me back to Moose Jaw, Canada, mid l960s. Somehow youth culture seems to have been the same all over the western world. Saturday night dances, girls all dressed up, local band playing badly, and the guys all ready for a fight.

    Sometimes the band would play gigs in small towns much like Calliope, and we would tag along and put on a good display for the small town hicks. We girls would get drunk on vodka and grapefruit juice (yuk!) and the boys who weren't in the band would fight the locals and we'd all "show them a thing or two", i.e. how sopisticated us city folk were :).

  2. Hmmppphh! Them's fightin' words, girlie! :)

    By the way, I find it hard to believe anyone could name a place Moose Jaw, even a Canadian. If so, it must be the same person who came up with 'Townsville'. Given the 'ville' means 'town', we have the meaningful title for our fair north Queensland town of 'Towntown'.

  3. Good reading Dennis. Interstingly, my grandfather Colin Newsome was a boxer in Jimmy Sharman's tent, and my mother tells stories of the drums as well (she was maybe 6 years old and found it very exciting, only realising later how much of the music and tension was staged to thrill the country crowds, although the matches were mostly real enough). Col boxed and wrestled ('wrastled')his way round Aus when he wasn't shearing in the sheds, rough riding, fencing or mustering and later in life wrote bush poetry about his travels, including Jimmy's tent (including one poem about a boxer he'd known who went blind after a match)...

    You would not find however, a greater or more generous gentleman or a better dancer (won trophies with grandma at many of the country dances). Col passed away 2 years ago at almost 92 years of age - with Parkinsons, which had also afflicted his brother. Sandra

  4. Sandra - I found your comment fascinating. Oh yes, the matches were real enough, as I knew the locals who were fighting Sharman boxers and from a metre or two away from the boxers there was no doubt about the power of the slugging out that went on. I had nothing but admiration for the fighters on both sides. Have you still got that poem? I don't know why but Col Newsome rings a bell but the name does. He lived to a great age, which proves he must have been a good boxer!
    Sad that Lionel Rose passed away a few days ago, but I was pleased that so many people remembered him. I was afraid that he may have been almost forgotten, but it's obvious that is far from the case.


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