The 89-year-old musician and ballroom dancers who are keeping a town’s fading community halls alive

Home Arts The 89-year-old musician and ballroom dancers who are keeping a town’s fading community halls alive
The 89-year-old musician and ballroom dancers who are keeping a town’s fading community halls alive

On a scrub-lined road between Murray Bridge and the Riverland, the Burdett Hall in South Australia does not host many grand affairs these days.

But the feathers, finery and sparkles are out in full force when local ballroom dancers turn up to celebrate its centenary.

Up the front on a keyboard is a man who plays a huge part in keeping the music alive, 89-year-old Vic Herrmann.

“He’s magic, isn’t he,” a dancing Neil Burbidge said.

“He just sits there and plays all night and thinks nothing of it.”

Mr Herrmann said he enjoys it.

“It is a good feeling to be playing music,” he said.

“You see them on the floor enjoying themselves, and I’m part of it.”

Photo of people dancing in a hall.
Burdett Hall’s 100-year ball attracted a big crowd of ballroom dancers.(ABC Landline: Kerry Staight)

Not one lesson

While Mr Herrmann’s mother taught him to ballroom dance when he was just 10 and it was all the rage, he has never had a music lesson.

“It’s all been just what I’ve been able to pick up,” he said.

“I like to think I’m still improving.

“And it’s good for me because at my age; I need to keep my mind alert.”

He said ballroom dancing was also good for the mental and physical fitness of those on the floor.

“You have to have a good brain to remember a lot of those dances, which is great for the old people,” he said

“I’m sure it must be a lot better than going to a gymnasium and lifting iron.”

Someone who never misses a night and is perhaps living proof of the long-term benefits is 95-year-old Mick Fabbian.

Photo of an older couple dancing.
Mick Fabbian, 95, and his partner Betty never miss a dance.(ABC Landline: Kerry Staight)

The former dairy farmer and welder started dancing after his wife died and now comes with his partner Betty.

“No matter what happens, rain or shine, something drags you in here,” Mr Fabbian said.

“I can’t explain it, but something inside you makes you want to dance.”

One hundred years of stories

As the dancers salute the 100-year history of the one-time church, Sunday school, agricultural bureau and polling booth, it is clear this modest meeting spot is full of stories.

Former farmer Neil Burbidge not only handled master of ceremony duties at Burdett; he also found his wife, Dianne, there.

“You walked in the kitchen door, I was sitting down there, and it was like … that’s him,” she said.

“We danced all night —  and we’re still dancing.”

Photo of a hall.
Vic Herrmann plays mostly in halls not far from Murray Bridge, including Chapman Bore Hall.(ABC Landline: Kerry Staight)

The ballroom circuit rotates around several community halls near Murray Bridge, including Chapman Bore Hall.

On first inspection, the hall doesn’t look like it’s made for a pair of ballroom shoes.

“It’s mostly corrugated iron and looks ordinary,” Mr Herrmann said.

“When they unlock the doors and get inside, there’s this beautiful dance floor and [a] little stage.”

Sisters Dawn Weyland, Ellen Holmes and Glennis Ongley are regular faces at Burdett and Chapman Bore halls.

“[We come for] the music of course and we sing, and we love dancing,” the sisters said.

“And the company of the people is just lovely.”

Photo of three women sitting next to each other.
Sisters Dawn Weyland, Ellen Holmes and Glennis Ongley take a break from an evening of dancing.(ABC Landline: Kerry Staight)

While these halls are not the thriving meeting places they once were, they still offer a social sanctuary for the dancers.

Peggy Bennett is on the committees that keep the halls open, and she understands their value.

“Loneliness is a big thing in [the] community, and the people who come here are not lonely,” Ms Bennett said.

As well as the social connection, she says the music provides a connection to the past.

“A lot of people are humming along as they’re dancing because they know those songs.”

“They’re part of our history. They’re part of our DNA.”

Future in doubt

But there are fears these steps and songs won’t be part of the future, with very few young people, especially males, making an appearance.

“These girls never have boys dance with them; I can’t understand it,” Mr Herrmann said.

“Nothing I liked more when I was a teenager to have a little girl in my arms — it was lovely.”

Photo of young girls dressed in ball gowns.
Grandchildren of attendees dressed up to attend the 100th anniversary ball.(ABC Landline: Kerry Staight)

With interest fading, numbers have dropped —  COVID has only accelerated the decline —  leaving the future of the halls as well as the music in doubt.

“It’s very sad to see them dying,” Dianne Burbidge said.

“All the local halls around here are feeling the 21st century.”

The occasion of a 100-year anniversary ball is enough to get a few fresher, if not so sure-footed, dancers onto the floor at Burdett hall.

“It’s good to get all the grandkids here,” Ms Burbidge said.

“Hopefully, it’ll focus people back on these old-style dances to get the crowds back up a bit again,” Mr Burbidge added.

As for the man behind the keyboard, Mr Herrmann had been planning to retire this Christmas as he approached his 90th birthday.

Photo of an older man playing a keyboard.
Up front and keeping the dancers on their feet for several hours is Mr Herrmann.(ABC Landline: Kerry Staight)

But it’s looking like it will be more of a semi-retirement.

“I’m having a lot of pressure applied not to retire because they said there is nobody that will play this sort of music,” he said.

“I can cut down a bit. I don’t need more than two … perhaps one a month —  that’ll do me.”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview.

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