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My Dancing Life | Print |  Email
Tuesday, 30 May 2006
From the fumbling and faltering to the fancy duds, Mary Moylan remembers the dancing... Jitterbug, anyone?

By Mary Moylan (moylan@canada.com)

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Hardly anyone whistles anymore. Not like when I was growing up, and you’d hear workmen on the road and farmers in the fields whistling as they went about their days. I had that thought the other morning when a neighbour was working on his garden a few doors up and he began to whistle one of the old tunes that I hadn’t heard in years. “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning”. And a fine rendition it was too.

And you know how these things are, you have the coffee cup in the hand, you stop doing whatever you’re doing, and you’re listening to the whistle and the mind drifts off to other times and places. Like the old Opera House in Cork in the early fifties and a team of little girls in fluffy red taffeta dresses with matching hair-bows are tap-dancing to the above mentioned ditty and some other musical numbers of that ilk (“Red, red robin”).

There we were, on the big stage, Cork’s very own “Tiny Tots”! I can’t remember too much about the performance itself, but I do remember the High Tea at the Imperial Hotel that we all had afterwards with the grandmothers and the aunts and uncles and all the relatives who had been dragged into town to see my cousin and I perform.

After such a stellar beginning, I regretfully tell you that my dancing career proceeded to then fumble and falter along for quite a few years. I had no real talent as a dancer but what I lacked in a natural gift, I made up for in the intensity of my desire. I was a tall girl for my time, with a body more suited to camogie than to ethereal flights of dance, but I didn’t let that stop me. I had my eye on the prize and tap-dancing was merely the launching pad into ballet lessons at Miss Moriarty’s School of Ballet on Marlborough Street. I stuck that out for a couple of years, I managed an en pointe just the once - my poor ankles just about shattered with the strain.

Bloodied but unbowed, I moved on to Irish dancing, a more earthbound endeavour, and stuck that out for another couple of years but I was too impatient to get into the important shoes, the hornpipe shoes, and didn’t have the stamina or the talent to first put in all the soft-shoe slip-jig and reel practice so I could compete in the feises which were all part of the ascension up the Irish Dancing ladder with the prize of those serious iron-tipped shoes at the end of it. It seems that my dreams were far, far greater than the sheer grind of practice required in order to achieve them.

I had just about put the dancing dreams to bed when the world of showbands and dancehalls opened up in Cork in the early sixties, co-inciding with the advent of rock and roll and a world changing forever though we didn’t know it at the time. I had at last found my true dance venue. From the time of this discovery, I was about eighteen then, to the time I got married a few years later, dancing three or four times a week was as part of my life as breathing. Rocking, jiving, twisting, limbo, we did it all, night after night. There was Highfield Rugby Club dance on a Saturday night, Constitution at the Imperial Hotel on a Sunday night, The Rest, which was at UCC (the university) on a Wednesday night, Shandon boat club on the river, Red Barn at Youghal, the Majorca in Crosshaven, I could go on. These halls had the great showbands playing - the Pacific Showband, The Miami Showband, the Drifters, the Dixies, the Swingtime Aces, the Freshmen, to name a few in an era of what seemed like an endless supply of extraordinary talent.

We would send up notes of requests to the front singers like Brendan Bowyer and Dickie Rock who would play for the entire evening with hardly a break and we would literally never leave the dance-floor. We had a long series of “duty dances” to get through, these were the dances with the fellahs you knew for years and who were always reliable to get you out on the floor so you could see and be seen. And then came the fellahs who were interested in you or you in them and would want to take you out to the pictures during the week and would ask you as they whirled you around the dance floor. In those days of innocence, dating was fun, the more dates the merrier.

And of course there was the ballroom in Cork - the Arcadia Ballroom near the Glanmire Railway Station which often featured the bands (called orchestras by the purists) from our parents’ times. I remember one in particular – The Victor Sylvester Orchestra which had us up jitterbugging and doing the quickstep. I hear the Arcadia is a victim of the ubiquitous wrecking ball now, torn down to make room for housing. But what a lot of memories it had sheltered, for in my time the dances there would harbour people from all age groups and we would watch in awe as some of the old ones took to the floor and showed us a thing or two about the finer elements of the tango and the waltz. I still can’t get my head around a Cork without the Arc.

And I’ll have to mention the dress dances, when the monkey suits and the fancy long dresses were dragged out. It seems that every club and society in the city of Cork put one on once a year. There would often be eight or nine to attend just in the one season. It became so that three or four of us pooled all our ball gowns (our budgets only stretched so far!) and then we would get into this complicated pattern of alternately wearing them, we almost had to have a user graph! You wouldn’t be caught dead in the same dress at different formal events with the same fellah, so the dresses would circulate, often with a lace top added or different gloves to give it a different flavour, hard to imagine that we wore long evening gloves on these occasions! In a 1964 photograph I’m attaching, it shows me all eager for the dance floor and today, looking over the fancy duds I’m wearing, I don’t think I owned one item on me. It belonged to the “pool”!

But this was all part of the fun, the dressing up, the seven-course meals, the live showbands, the dancing until all hours. Afterwards we often wound up going to the first Mass of a Cork Sunday – at St. Mary’s Dominican on Pope’s Quay which had a 6.00 a.m. starter Mass. What an odd looking bunch we must have all appeared (in those days we roved in packs!) still in our fancy clobber from the night before, exhausted, almost falling asleep but all ready to tell the parents when we got home that yes, we could now miss going with the family to Mass, we’d already been, thank you very much, and were going to sleep most of the day away and then get up in time for tea and venture out once more to get down to Red Barn or to Constitution for the night’s hoofing.

For there could never, ever be enough dancing in our weeks!

May 2006




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