My cousin Nadine and I are on a family history road trip. She flew in to Brisbane from Adelaide this morning, and we’re heading for Stanthorpe, swapping family stories as we drive.
Just south of Warwick on the New England Highway we pass a road sign pointing to the small town of Killarney.
“Killarney!” says Nadine. “Our cousin Helen – did she ever tell you this? – she was Killarney Show Princess in 1968. And then Queen of the Darling Downs. We’re related to royalty!”
“Yes, she told me. She’s still got the sash. And she’s says she’s still Killarney Show Princess because a tornado wrecked the Show pavilion, and the next year’s ball was cancelled, so she never got to hand over to the next princess!”
Helen grew up outside Warwick, in Yangan. She is a pretty woman with a dry sense of humour and a great fund of family stories to share. She loved the beautiful gowns she wore to balls all over the Darling Downs, as part of her duties as Princess and Queen. I liked ball gowns, too, and the long kid gloves, stoles, elegant mesh evening bags and corsages that went with them. I even loved the hair-does – teased up and rigid with hairspray.
We all danced in those days. In Grade Five at Nambour State School, I learned the Gypsy Tap, Pride of Erin and Barn Dance. As a teenager at ballroom dancing classes at the O’Connor Boatshed at North Quay, Brisbane, I practised more sophisticated dances: foxtrot, quickstep, cha-cha. The girls sat along one wall, boys along the other, and when given the word the boys would come across and ask a girl for a dance. The boy had to be brave and risk rejection. The girl took a greater risk: the humiliation of not being asked at all.
Every city and town had annual balls: Catholic, Anglican, Masonic, Highland, Show Ball or Race Ball. There would be a local band, and the dances would be a mix of modern, old time and jive, with covers of The Shadows, The Monkees or Normie Rowe for jiving.
“Did you know that Helen’s husband Keith played in one of the local dance bands?” I asked Nadine. “They’ve both always loved rock music. Helen went to see the Beatles in Brisbane, in 1964.”
Many of the balls were Debutante Balls. In the mid-‘sixties, when I lived in Jandowae, on the northern Darling Downs, I went to the Bell Anglican Deb Ball. Bell is a small town on the western slopes of the Bunya Mountains, and the ball was held in the public hall, its smooth timber dance floor improved by the application of Pops wax flakes, shaken from a cardboard box. Between dances, kids would go sliding across that slippery floor.
In the Progressive Barn Dance, at Bell and elsewhere, we would change partners as we went around the hall, and there were always a few unavoidable characters: the showy dancer with the tricky steps; the sweaty-palmed man who held his partner too close; the drunks.
The supper room couldn’t cope with everyone at once. While in the first sitting we were enjoying our sandwiches and cream-filled sponge cakes, the second sitting was pounding on the door to hurry us up.
Helen didn’t make her debut. She told me she thought it was out-of-date and silly. I didn’t, either. My friend Carol was a deb in Ayr, North Queensland. “I have no idea why, looking back,” she says. “We trained for weeks. We learned to walk, sit, curtsey. It was a big commitment, especially for the poor blokes we had for partners! We learned all the dances, too – even the Dorothea.”
“The Dorothea? I never heard of that one.”
“We had an arch covered in flowers to walk under, and a special cake to cut…”
Con and I went to balls from Stanthorpe to the Gulf Country, back in the day, but my elegant gowns are gone now. I’ve still got my long, white kid gloves, my stole, and my Glomesh evening bag. They’re quaint and retro now, and my granddaughters use them for dress-ups.
This article was written three years ago. Helen, princess and queen, teacher and nature lover, wife, mother and friend, died recently after a short battle with cancer. I will always miss her. Rest in peace, dear cousin.
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