Uniforms and Dance Hall Days

Pagoda Ballroom at Como (Perth, Australia): pre-restoration.

Even though I have been travelling a fair bit for work lately, I haven’t added to my travelogue for a while (see category: Rooms with a View). Sometimes it’s not easy to find the inspiration, or a suitable topic, despite visiting so many amazing places around Australia. However I was in Perth the other week, and not only found a topic to write about but was inspired to go on a bit of a treasure hunt; to end up reflecting on family history.

To get the most of the rest of this post, I suggest that you watch this particular version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love:-  Leonard Cohen – Dance me to the End of Love  (Downloaded from Youtube 7 July 2013 – (C) 1984 Sony Music Entertainment Inc.)

Done? Ok, lets continue……..

The Pagoda (Perth)
While in Perth (capital of Western Australia), I stayed at a motel overlooking the river at Como. Arriving in the evening, I didn’t take much notice of my surrounds. However, I soon found something that caught my interest. While I was in the dining room waiting for my order, I skimmed through the menu and found a short write-up on the history of where I was staying.

The dining room, and conference spaces, were situated in the Pagoda: an iconic building with a very interesting past. This Pagoda was built in the 1920’s as tea rooms, catering to the well-heeled visitors to Como Beach. Alas there was not enough of them, so it soon shut. From there the building has served many purposes: soldiers’ living quarters during World War II; a ballroom; roller skate rink; live music venue for iconic bands such as the Easybeats; and a wedding venue. Then there was the time that it sat dormant and unloved, before this old Edwardian Oriental-styled building was finally restored. It’s now a restaurant, attached to a motel complex.

Dance Hall Days
Aware that my mother had grown up in Perth, I then spent the rest of dinner wondering if she had ever danced within these walls. It was nice to think that I may be standing on ground that my mother had stood many decades previously; in this now historic venue that must hold so many fond memories. Then it was as if I could hear the sounds of the band, clinking of glasses and tapping of shoes. And the laughter of long-gone girls floated in from the corridor, as they fixed their hair in the nearby powder room before they rushed back into the dance hall; to be twirled across the floor by eager partners.

The next day, I found out that my mother had indeed gone dancing at the Pagoda. When she had worked at the nearby South Perth Hospital, many years ago, she and the other nurses spent hours on that dance-floor. Her lifelong friend had met her husband at the Pagoda. And my auntie had found her husband on the very same dance floor; when she worked at the nearby hospital, and he was a soldier. My parents didn’t meet at the Pagoda, but at a dance across the Swan River; at the army barracks, where my father was stationed. My grandmother also met my grandfather at a dance, in Adelaide; a few years before he enlisted.

The days following my return home, I got to thinking more about those times long past, when dances were the rage. And dancing partners were forever, until death did indeed part them.  It made me think about the older women in my family, the men they have loved, and their times spent in dance. And a thought went to the uniforms they have worn: so many nurses and soldiers. Some of these men have seen active duty, whilst others spent years on standby. Of those who were called, not all came home.

I recall growing up in a time of innocence. Even if there were wars, they were so far away; and there were yet no blinking screens to bring news of them into my home. So it was not until I was almost an adult that it dawned on me that humans could inflict such horror on one another. War and conflicts: such an unbearable pain for all those women, as they said farewell husbands, fathers and sons; hoping in their hearts for safe returns.

Despite being in the shadow of war, the music of those past dance hall days had a type of innocence. Not like the music of my emerging adulthood. By the time I wore a candy-striped uniform, it was the early 80s; a confusing era of music, with many songs featuring futuristic themes. While others looked backwards, in nostalgia, at those days of innocence and loss (for example, Dance Hall Days by Wang Chung  (C) 1984 Geffen Records:-  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-xpJRwIA-Q ).

A Tango-for-One
In many ways, I broke away from the path that had been set by women before me. There were no dance hall days for me. Then and now, women often dance solo or in packs. There was no soldier waiting at the edge of the dance-floor, trying to muster up the nerve to ask me for a dance. There will be no dance partner to waltz me to the end of love. And that’s ok; for I like to dance to my own tune. Even as a child, only I heard the music that played all around me, and through me. Sometimes joyous sounds, sometimes sad; and all the music in between. There have been a few duets, and some mis-stepped dances with not-so gentlemen. Mostly its been a tango-for-one; a most suitable dance for a lone-writer.

Breaking the pairing of uniforms may not be so bad. For at least I will never feel the anguish of waving farewell to one of my own, as they travel to foreign soils to face the horrors of humankind. The battle for me will be to capture some of the memories of the women in my family, before more depart the dance-floor So that I can hand these treasured tales and life-lessons down to the generations that will live on after I have finished my final dance.

By the way, years ago I chose Dance me to the End of Love as my Swan-Song. Morbid? Perhaps. But I have chosen the music that has played throughout my life, so why not at my departure.

Read more about the Pagoda’s history
City of South Perth website: http://southperthlocalhistory.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/pagoda-ballroom</

The Esplanade River Suites website http://www.esplanaderiversuites.com.au

Or listen to http://blogs.abc.net.au/wa/2013/05/whats-all-that-about-the-pagoda-ballroom.html (Breakfast with Eoin Cameron on Radio 720 ABC Perth; reported Alex Hyman speaks with heritage expert Richard Offen)

Photo downloaded 7 July 2013, from Local History @ the Library, City of South Perth http://southperthlocalhistory.wordpress.com/