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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Saturday Night Dance [Part 2]

About 9.40 pm, there would be interval, and there was no accident about the timing. This was when the musicians could go over and have a couple of beers and a smoke at the pub before it closed at 10 pm. The closing time for the bar was set in stone and would have been rigorously policed if necessary, but it wasn’t necessary because that was the way it had always happened, world without end amen.

So, 10 pm was a watershed moment for the Dance. It’s vital to understand that the age of maturity was then 21, not 18 as it is now, so anyone under 21 wasn’t in the pub at all the whole night; hence the reason for the unattached nature and age bracket of the dancers in the dance hall before 10 pm. I’m not saying there wasn’t some sly grog in cars, but anyone under 21 didn’t drink openly, as far as I knew. They could end up in the lockup if they did, as this law was policed by the State Liquor Licencing Board, and they could have spot inspections anywhere in the state, so the town copper himself could be in trouble if he didn't police it properly. The publican of course could lose his liquor license or face heavy fines, so underage drinkers weren't popular with either of them.

At 10 pm, all Gents or couples who weren’t already in the Hall would come over the road from the Diggers Arms pub and spill into the dance area, women in the canvas chairs and men standing round the entrance, on the dance floor itself. Having had a couple of hours to get a few beers into them, the married men would be cheery and a bit boozy, and the Orchestra would also have been enlivened by as many drinks as they could fit in over in the lounge at the pub at Interval, so the music went up a notch as well.

On hot summer nights, the men would be sweaty and merry, especially if they were wearing the new pure rayon shirts that were all the rage amongst the young Gents. The synthetic fabric, not much different from plastic, did not allow the skin to breathe like the old white cotton shirts, and the results could be a bit of a disaster in the livelier dances, with soaked shirts and man-sweat pouring off them in a stream and spraying everywhere. 

Even more alarming from the Ladies’ point of view, farmers’ hands had been engaged for the day in activities involving earth, animals and tractor grease, and most Ladies had early in their career as Ladies learned the dangers of choosing light coloured regalia for the evening. It wasn’t that the farm boys were dirty, just that most of that stuff takes a lot of time and effort to get off, and time was often short, bathrooms were dark, and the effort a bit too much to get some of the dirt and grease out of the cracks and fingernails, even with sandsoap.

By the end of the evening, a Lady who had succumbed to the temptation of choosing a fashionable pale colour over common sense would have a nice blackish mark from shoulderblade to hip by the end of the night. Maybe it could be viewed as some sort of status symbol, but if so there was no real indication it was. If she were particularly attractive, this mark might extend well down her rump, for the farm boys were not averse to a bit of a fondle as far down from the waist as they dared, especially if they’d had one beer too many and Dutch courage had entered the equation. Not that the Lady always had much choice in that, as the deed could be done before the touch registered on the hind quarter Richter Scale.

Now don’t get all huffy about this if you have a mind to; I never saw a country girl at a dance who couldn’t deal with unwanted attention very smartly. Not that she wouldn’t have had plenty of backup if needed – her mother, some aunts and cousins, or as a last resort, a brother or two would have a little talk with the offender if he had recidivist tendencies. And believe me, you probably wouldn’t want the last option if you were that bloke, particularly if the brother was more sober than you and resolute in his determination to defend the family honour - as he was bound to be. A protective brother used to throwing ten gallon milk cans around can be pretty persuasive.

Which brings me to that other institution worthy of describing. The Saturday night dance may sort out love and marriage, but on occasions it also settled matters involving youth and testosterone in another way. On some nights you could feel a different electricity in the air at a dance; or maybe this was just a boy thing.

It was usually precipitated by a few city slickers in their late teens or early 20s who had driven from Gladstone out to the dance, either to check out the girls in the hall or to engineer a fight with some of the local lads, whichever came first or looked more fun. Sometimes they wouldn’t even pay for a ticket and would stand outside the entrance door and ogle the girls inside from that vantage point – often with derogatory or suggestive comments that were intended to be heard by prospective suitors or brothers of the girls, if they were more intent on fighting than romance. One way or another, it was a clear challenge to the local swains.

The atmosphere would brew for some time. Let’s be honest about this – sometimes the farm boys welcomed the opportunity to have a go at these townies and were quite keen on a good fight – the impetus for it was rarely entirely one-sided. Not me – I stayed right out of the business end of these barneys. I’d heard the crunching sound of fist on flesh or bone many times from close enough range to know it wasn’t my thing as a direct participant. The Jenson boys weren’t backward in coming forward for a stoush, and a townie better know what he was taking on, because there were three of them and he might have to tackle them one at a time in no particular order if circumstances warranted. West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet all over again…. without the daggers or flick knives.

At some stage a fight would become as inevitable as another breaking of parole conditions by Lindsay Lohan. You would know this because the likely participants would disappear to a designated spot at the far side of the Diggers Arms pub, together with some of their seconds, thirds and fourths, sort of like a duel at dawn, only it was 10.30 pm on a Saturday night. Then came the moment we teenage boys in the dance hall were waiting for… that magic moment when the word ‘F-I-I-I-G-H-T!!! would be shouted in the door, and the dance hall would be totally emptied of males at great speed, except for some poor kid whose mother had anticipated the event and had collared him. 

The Ladies would resign themselves to a male-free agenda for the duration of the fight, while the Orchestra played a few numbers without any heart in their music. Sometimes the Ladies would dance with each other.  Strange, but there you go….

Needless to say, they were banned from this Absolutely Men's Business. Sad for them, I know, as I'm sure they would have been fascinated by the spectacle of their brothers, cousins or boyfriends slugging it out with a townie, but there are just some things that had special mystique we blokes needed to preserve. That mystique would have been shattered by the loud wailing of a girlfriend when first blood was drawn, or her pulling a loose paling off old Ma Stockbridge's fence to bring the matter to a premature and dishonourable conclusion.

dance1 | dance2 | dance3

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