Take your partners, Dale Williams

Light Fantastic: Dance Floor Courtship in New Zealand
Georgina White
HarperCollins, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869506193

Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand
Alison Clarke
Auckland University Press, $35.00, 
ISBN 9781869403829

Who doesn’t recall the excited flutter of one’s first dance? Leila, the heroine of Katherine Mansfield’s “Her First Ball”, was 18 when she experienced it. I was 12, and my Standard Six social launched us primary school leavers into our giddy teenage years. The memory lingers still, as do the remains of that dance frock – white polished cotton strewn with scribbly aqua and lime tulips – turned into a fetching apron.

Funnily enough, although we could dance every dance on offer, we’d had no formal lessons. Ballroom dancing was so much a part of New Zealand life that the gay gordons, the waltz, foxtrot, hokey cokey and ballin’ the jack were just routines we picked up from family parties and sports club after-match socials, rehearsing them in the school playground. Later, in the fourth form, cringe-making ballroom dance lessons were organised with nearby Wellington College. The clammy grip of hormonal lads fresh from rugby practice was endured to acquire a few more numbers: the valeta, military two-step, modern waltz, quickstep. All these were regularly on offer in Saturday night dance halls of the era. Nothing Latin: rhumbas, cha-chas and their sexy ilk were too raunchy for adolescents.

Dancing is as fine a vehicle for the display of sexual allure as polite society can tolerate. The rituals of ballroom dancing were an attempt to impose some constraints on the display, while still providing an occasion for romance to take wing. It worked: generations of New Zealanders chose life partners from among their dancing partners.

Georgina White’s captivating look at how the dance floor helped nature along in New Zealand’s social history (from 1850 to the present day) had its origins in an exhibition in the National Library. This makes it a very visual book, beautifully designed and with well-researched illustrative touches, from programmes and dance cards of the early formal balls to photographs ancient and modern of dancers in action.

Though White makes a readable fist of describing the wider history of the evolution of public dances in this country, the book really comes to life when individuals start telling their own stories. She invites a score of locals to reminisce about the dances they went to, and the shining specimens of the opposite sex they met there. And what stories they tell.

Always an elegant meat market, in wartime dancing became a form of patriotism. Many girls volunteered at dances held to keep the servicemen’s spirits up and to make US servicemen feel the separation from their loved ones a little less keenly. Dancing brought joy, warmth and intimacy to young men uncertain of what tomorrow might bring.

But dance floor intimacy started to fall apart with jitterbug and rock and roll. In the latter 1950s and early 1960s, couples flung themselves around linked only by a hand, and the twist compelled the sexes to perform separately. Looking into your partner’s eyes was no longer possible, and the death knell of formal dancing was sounded. The whole infrastructure of formal dances crumbled, and dancehalls closed. As White points out, “when you no longer need a partner in order to dance, established dancehall codes of conduct become redundant.”

Now that bars and nightspots have become the rather riskier hunting grounds of Kiwis in search of a mate, and ballroom dancing has been renamed dancesport and relegated to the sphere of the hobbyist, we experience it as an over-hyped television popularity contest in which the few dance, and the many text support from their sofas.

I know a group of lively 80 year olds who have been passing Light Fantastic round their circle with coos of delight. It really speaks to their generation, but you don’t have to be as venerable to enjoy it. Its text and pictures – it’s tempting to say words and music – sing of a more gracious era from our not so distant past.

Another glimpse of what our forebears did with their free time is Alison Clarke’s more conventional history, Holiday Seasons. It explores how the first couple of generations of 19th century settlers introduced Christmas, New Year and Easter celebrations into New Zealand, how these became formalised holidays, and how observation of them changed as they settled into the ways of their new land.

Far from entering its stride as a commercial festival with scanty or even no religious underpinnings, as it is marked today, when our early settlers arrived, Christmas was a time for devotion. The Christmas tree had only recently been introduced from Germany by Prince Albert, Father Christmas had not settled into any recognisable format, and all the gaudy gimcrackery now inseparable from Yuletide was not even a gleam in a marketer’s eye. Christmas was not marked as a holiday by some, Scottish immigrants preferring their merrymaking at Hogmanay, and colonial Dunedin on Hogmanay from the earliest days was a place of revelry, fireworks and drunkenness.

The novelty of a Christmas season in fine (with luck) summer weather appealed mightily to some settlers. Dining room furniture was hauled into the garden by willing helpers, marquees and tents were erected, and fine olde roasted, baked and boiled English fare was choked down by roisterers perspiring in their Sunday best.

No doubt some of it was for the benefit of that recent novelty, the camera, to provide a hi-mum-gee-whiz moment to send back Home. Others, particularly the homesick earliest generation, felt that Christmas in summer was disorienting, a step too far when seasons and hemispheres had been turned upside down, and they wrote plaintive letters. The holly bore no Christmas berries to decorate their homes and churches, so they made do with the red blossom of pohutukawa and rata, or ripe cherries. They may have looked glorious, but traditionalists found them a poor substitute.

Fine weather meant folk soon found new ways of celebrating old festivals – community events such as galas, sports days, regattas, and train and paddle steamer excursions became an anticipated part of the colonial Christmas. Huge community picnics were widespread. The holidays brought communities together and even helped heal wounds – in Waitara in 1876, for example, Maori sportsmen joined in the New Year’s games enthusiastically and won events ranging from canoeing to climbing the greasy pole, yet just 16 years earlier this had been the site of bitter warfare.

Clarke chronicles it well, if a little earnestly. She has unearthed some intriguing material about our waning interest in observing Lent, which in the colony’s early years many observed quite stringently. Caroline Abraham, wife of an Anglican Archdeacon, nursing her husband with an injury throughout Lent 1857, wrote to a friend that she was enjoying his company too much – that it was “too pleasant for Lent”. Such sentiments are indeed history.

Easter was not a holiday break – Good Friday and Easter Monday were separate holidays as most worked on the intervening Saturday, a situation we have returned to since weekend shopping demolished the 40-hour week. But not all old customs should be mourned in their passing. Clarke’s account of the militia convening on New Year’s Eve in various centres to show off their prowess with firearms gives pause for thought. A return of that practice to spots like contemporary Queenstown and Mt Maunganui might make a Hogmanay to remember.

Dale Williams is a Waikanae editor and reviewer.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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