Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU)
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Performing Arts

Nineteenth-century Social Dance


Bell, Brendan, National Folk Festival Canberra: Australian Pioneer Dancers display on the Piazza, Easter 1997. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12549234-219-v

Both traditional British country dances and newer, European dances such as waltzes and polkas had a strong base in folk traditions. Some of them, such as Barn Dances and the Alberts, survive in popular ballroom dancing today. Colonial dance is the term sometimes used today for nineteenth-century social dancing, and it is kept alive by clubs and interest groups of various kinds.

Reasons for selection

In the previous century social dancing was a major pastime and enjoyment of all social classes in Australia. Traditional English, Scottish and Irish dances such as sets, reels and jigs were popular as well as European folk-based dances such as polkas and mazurkas. Today the tradition is maintained by groups such as Scottish Country Dancers.

Area where performed

All over Australia

Essential elements of the performing art

Dance, Music

Detailed explanation

Nineteenth-century social dance, or colonial dance, has passed out of common practice today, despite some survivals among a minority of the Australian people who retain an interest in ballroom or country dancing. Apart from occasional revivals, interest in social dancing has waned during the twentieth century, although the popularity of disco among young people might be considered some kind of continuation of the social dance tradition.

Interest groups in Australia such as the Colonial Dancers in Victoria regularly rehearse and perform the old dances at Folk Festivals and other community events. Their repertoire might include quadrilles, the polka, mazurka, varsoviana, schottische and galop, with many variations. The Colonial Dancers in Victoria will often be accompanied by musicians playing authentic music of the period such as the Wedderburn Old Timers (band).

For many years social dance was a major community activity even in the most remote parts of Australia. Dancers were frequently held out-of-doors or in a woolshed, and today, a Woodshed Dance will still attract a large crowd. By the early years of the twentieth century every small town in Australia had built its community hall, which provided a major focus for the district. Activities held in these country halls included dances, weddings, engagements and Debutante Balls, where young girls of about 16 years of age would come out and be presented to the local adult community.

Publication and textual documentation

ANDREWS, Shirley Take Your Partners: Traditional Dancing in Australia.

Audio documentation

Cassette tapes to accompany colonial dancing have been produced by the interest groups maintaining the tradition.

Visual documentation

Folk festivals and some interest groups may have amateur video tapes.

Institution/organisation involved in preservation and promotion

The National Library of Australia has many sound recordings of traditional dance music.

Data provider

Dr. Gwenda Davey AM
Honorary Research Associate
National Centre for Australian Studies
Monash University, Melbourne
Address: Clayton, Victoria, 3168, Melbourne, Australia

(Revised in July 2004)
Dr. Gwenda Beed Davey AM
Honorary Research Fellow
Centre of Cultural Heritage in Asia and the Pacific, Faculty of Arts, Deakin University
Address: 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria, 3125, Australia.