From the Monte-Carlo dance to the Veleta waltz: country dances and bands

Country dances have been a major source of entertainment for decades, as described in my previous post, but what types of dances were popular last century, and who provided the dance music?

In an oral history interview, Harry Portlock talked about some of the dances he remembered from the 1940s and 1950s.

The cover of Albert’s Old Time Dance Album No. 1 (published 1932).  According to the front cover, the music was available in parts for the most common band instruments: piano;  soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; E-flat and B-flat clarinets; trumpet; violin; flute and oboe.  Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Military two-step, the military three-step, the Pride of Erin, the modern waltz which was my favourite, the quickstep, the jive – oh, a great variety of things.  Veleta waltz, which was too complicated for me, I couldn’t do that particularly well.  But yes, a great number of those particular ones… Another favourite was the Canadian barn dance, where at each change of music you changed:  the girls went clockwise again; the boys, you stepped back and took the next partner that came to you.  The girls would move forward one, the boys would move back one and then you went on to the next partner.  They were a delight because you’d get to meet all of the girls in the hall because we’d go completely right around.  Very popular.”

Confetti dance

One of the novelty dances in that era was the confetti dance, which Harry describes:

Photo showing the 5 members of the Jamestown Dance Orchestra c1930.

Members of the Jamestown Dance Orchestra, c1930. Photo courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

The girls would be there in their ball gowns and their partners, and you would get someone to take a streamer or a series of streamers.  The girl would hold one streamer in her hand, the boy a streamer in his other hand, and they would waltz around the floor until they were completely covered in streamers.  There was a prize for the one who had looked the prettiest or disappeared behind the wall of streamers.  Then, after Miller Peake had played for some minutes, say three to four minutes, and the couple would waltz round and round and round, they would be completely covered in streamers and the blue, the green, and the white and the red and all of those, and depending on how much you had in your pocket, whether you could afford the penny each for the streamers, as to whether you and your partner would be declared the winner of the confetti dance, and if you won it would probably be a packet of powder for the girls and a bottle of hair oil for the boys or something like that.”

The Monte Carlo dance

Monte Carlo was a delight.  You could change your partners.  If there was a girl that you weren’t able to dance with all night their chance would come up there.  In the Monte Carlo, when the music stopped the girls made a circle in the middle, the boys to the outside; the girls went in a clockwise fashion, the boys in an anti‑clockwise fashion; and when the music struck up again the girl that was nearest to you was your partner for that particular bracket.  If you were lucky enough, it might have been the girl that you wanted to dance with all night, you could get her.  There would be a very short little interlude where you would do one of the dances that the MC would recommend and then you had to leave her again.  She went into the circle in the middle again to do clockwise, you and all the boys went to the outside and did anti-clockwise, then of course when the music stopped you would then grab the partner that was closest to you.”

Keeping in time

Local bands provided the music for the dances, playing popular songs of the time.  Joy Craill remembered in an oral history interview that there were songs such as Put your shoes on, Lucy, and You are my sunshine.  She described the bands that played:

The Frank Cleves Band, playing at the Manhattan Dance Club in Mount Gambier in 1953. Photo courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

The music was local dance bands.  The one, of course, who was the most often there when we were was Miller Peake from Mount Barker, and there was he, and he was on the drums, and there was Peg on the piano and her husband… on the saxophone.  That was the three-piece orchestra.  Sometimes we were lucky and there was another orchestra there with four people.  But he kept absolutely fantastic time, so that was the important thing.”

Barry Ellis also remembered the bands who supplied the dance music:

I guess the first thing that springs to mind when you say dance music is Miller Peake’s Orchestra.  He was a chap that used to live at Mount Barker.  He worked on the PMG telephone lines, that was his daytime job, and he had a chap that used to play the piano – a lady used to play the piano, sorry – and a chap used to play the sax, and they provided most of the music for the dances in the [Adelaide] Hills in those years.  And then there was another band called the Green and Gold Band, that had an old Meadows bloke in it by the name of Jimmy Woodrow, and a couple of fellows from Strath[albyn]:  Arthur Schulz used to play the piano and David Hopkins used to play the drums and it was – yes, so they were generally local bands.  Jaensch’s Band was another one that used to play a lot around the area.  That’s just to name a few, but that was where the music came from.”

Miller Peake and his band
newspaper article from 1932 about the formation of a new dance band

Article about the formation of the Scarlet Gaieties dance band, Mount Barker Courier, 15 January 1932.

Miller Peake (actually Henry A.V. Peake) was an important local identity in the Adelaide Hills music scene.  He is mentioned in the Mount Barker Courier as providing music for dances from 1931, although his band was not called the Miller Peake Band at that stage.  In 1931 he acted as a judge at a dancing competition, and in 1933 he ran dance classes and provided decorations for dances. He played the piano and the drums, was an accomplished singer, and acted as MC at dances from as early as 1920.  He also ventured into film-making – although that’s another story!

In 1932, the Mount Barker Courier reported that locals felt there was a need for a local dance band.  Miller Peake set about establishing such a band and organising regular practices.  They were known by the delightful name the Scarlet Gaieties.  Based on newspaper reports and oral history interviews, the Miller Peake Band supplied music for dances from approximately 1941 to 1964.

If you have any stories about local dances and dance bands, please write about them in the comments below.

Quotes from oral history interviews with Joy Craill, Barry Ellis and Harry Portlock courtesy of the State Library of South Australia (OH 829-12, 18 and 5).

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