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Australian Colonial Dancing Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Australian Colonial Dancing
By David Ogilvie, Ann D'Arcy, and Susan Maddrell, 1982



The migrants who followed Captain Cook from Europe certainly brought with them to Australia a knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the dances that they had done in their homelands. It appears from the remnants of information available from that time that the dances done in the early days of the Australian colonies were mainly those popular English, Irish, and Scottish Country Dances that were well known in the British Isles. Many of these dances were already very old by the time they were brought to Australia, as England, Ireland, and Scotland all had a long and lively tradition of dancing and singing. Country Dances, such as Galopede and Circassian Circle were among the earliest dances introduced to Australia.

Colonists in those early days were still dancing only the Country Dances that they had brought with them to Australia, but by the 1820s, the Waltz and some of the new Quadrilles had been introduced. Dancing became a mixture of the older type of folk dances, and the new 19th century social dances, a merging of the two styles sometimes occurred, for example, in the Spanish Waltzes popular in the 1820s. These were dances done in various old formations, such as a circle or a set of two couples, with all the steps done in waltz time.

The great revolution that was taking place in dancing customs in the large cities of Europe had begun, by about the third decade of the 19th century, to influence dancing in Australia. In Europe, the Industrial Revolution caused significant numbers of rural population moving to the cities. The old social distinctions had begun to break down. This rural invasion brought with them their own folk dances that were used as the basis for new dances developed for the emerging urban population. Dances such as the Galop, Polka, Mazurka, Redowa, Schottische, and Varsouviana appeared in England during this period – the Galop first in 1829 and the others following during the next twenty-five years. The dances were soon transported to Australia, and quickly became popular here – in most cases, the names of these dances appeared on Australian dance programmes only a year after their appearance in England.

The old Country Dances were seen less frequently by the 1840s, and dancing began to follow more closely overseas fashion. One of the most spectacular examples of a new dance craze spreading to many countries within a few years was the Polka. Originally introduced in Paris in its ballroom form in 1843, it became popular in England in 1844 and in Melbourne in 1846.

The stamina and enthusiasm of the early dancers in rural Australia can only be admired. They not only danced until daybreak, doing such fast and energetic dances as the Polka and Galop, that feature prominently on the dance programmes of the time, but may also have had to walk or ride considerable distances to get to and from their night's entertainment. There are records of people in remote country areas traveling sixty miles to attend a dance.

Dances in the more remote country districts also were likely to be more egalitarian affairs than fashionable dances in the cities. One custom that became established quite early on a property of any size was for the end of the sheep-shearing time to be celebrated with a ball held in the shearing shed itself. Some of the properties had really large sheds, and the grease from the fleece helped to produce a smooth surface on the floor. At these balls there would be one source of music and one place to dance, but two groups of people to enjoy the occasion – the shearers, farm hands and roustabouts and friends on the other. The convention of the day decreed that the two groups should not mix – a chalk line was therefore drawn across the middle of the floor so that each should have its own space within which to dance. A historic incident occurred in 1861 on a far-away station in Central Australia where the members of the Bourke and Wills Expledition were entertained. The guests of honour were invited to "cross the line' and be the guests of both groups.

Some dances, such as the Quadrilles (the First Set) and the Waltz, retained their popularity right through the 19th century, even though there was continual importation of new dances from Europe. Others, such as the Polka, Galop, Varsouviana, and the Lancers, enjoyed a vogue when first introduced, then were replaced by new favourites, only to be revived and become even more popular later. The distances from dance sources and the difficulty in recording dance steps caused many variations of the more complicated dances to flourish in Australia, with different regions producing many local variations.

There were few new dances introduced to Australia toward the end of the 19th century. The Barn Dance and the Washington Post, both of which were imported from America, were notable exceptions. The Barn Dance was well established on dance programmes by 1894.

The early 1900s saw a significant change in the dances done in Australia, and the country became increasingly influenced by America, rather than Britain. Whilst the advent of dances such as the Grizzly Bear signalled the change, traditional dances were still popular in the 1900s in the country areas. The trend in the 1900s, in the moe populated areas of Australia, has been the development of dances that have short life spans, and that do not have the overall appeal to all sections of the population as did the earlier dances of the 1800s.


The folk revival did not really start in Australia until after the Second World War when initial studies concentrated on the old bush songs and ballads.

Studies of dance and dance music, undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s, revealed some elderly informants who could remember back to their early childhood in the 1880s. Very few dances done in the earliest Colonial days, however, had survived long enough to be collected from this living memory. The richest source of this collected material so far has been the Nariel-Corryong district on the upper Murray River in northeastern Victoria. One of the basic techniques used in tracing the development of folk dancing in Australia in the absence of any oral information has been to research historical records of the time. These tell us what dances were done at any time – they are then traced back to their country of origin and the dance instructions collected. Collecting by the English folklorists of the early 1900s has greatly assisted research in Australia, as they collected many dances in England that were similar to those being danced in Australia at the time.

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Australian folk dancing. Bands in the traditional mould are forming to play dance music, dance groups are forming to research and demonstrate traditional bush dances. Bush or woolshed dances have become increasingly popular – there are no restrictions as to age, the dances are simple, easy to learn, and fun to do. Once again, the types of dances popular during the last century are being enjoyed by both country and city people.

Printed in Folk Dance Scene, February 1982.