I'm frequently nostalgic. Usually it's about a girl. Every now and then I get a bit obsessed about things from my past, and, as if to satisfy a tiny wee voice inside me, I hit the google machine and look for evidence that I did actually exist "back then". Sometimes my memory tricks me. Sometimes - quite frequently actually - I think did that really happen? So it feels good to see some old photographs, or faded letters, or (in these modern times) to see proof-positive on the Internet that my memory does indeed serve me well (most of the time).
So it was the other night when I got to thinking about my old dancing teacher, Irene Oliver. I remember Irene was well over a hundred years old when she was teaching in the 70s. Well, she seemed to be well over a hundred (I was a teenager so anybody over 30 seemed ancient), but in reality she must have been in her 60s or even 70s. And I've often wondered over the years if she has died, and when. But equally it wouldn't surprise me if she were still alive and is actually now well over a hundred. She lived for two things, as I remember. Dancing, and caring for her elderly mother. Probably in that order. But it goes to show that longevity is in Irene's genes.
It surprises me how little information I can find online about her. Under a simple Google search I found this beautiful photo of her, from a collection in Te Papa. But no others, as yet. There are also several photos of the iconic Rotorua studio, Danceland.
I can't count the number of times I was in this building. Three or four or five nights a week for several years. A friend and I painted parts of this building in school holidays and we did many odd jobs around the place on weekends. It seemed to be falling down then (in the 70s). I'm still searching, but indications are it is still standing.
There's a reference to "Irene Oliver, 1914?-2009, QSM" in Index New Zealand, and several articles in the Rotorua press that I will have to look at (or get some contacts in Rotorua to search for me. Do I have any contacts in Rotorua?). In the online Births Deaths and Marriages records there are up to five possibilities, three Irene Olivers and two Olivers whose middle name is Irene. To my shame I don't know anything about the woman who might have been one of the most influential people in my life.
The 70s are kind of a blur for me. I used to think it was because my life was so traumatic in that decade that I just blocked it out. In reality, I think it was just so mundane and boring I couldn't be bothered recording it in my brain. Either way, many of the few vivid memories I have of the 70s are of Irene Oliver, Danceland, and ballroom dancing.
Although, I did find this sash in my box of photographs and memorabilia. It gives us a 1st at the Matamata Ballroom Dancing Festival. 1st for what, I have no idea, but a 1st nonetheless. So maybe we weren't too bad.
Many of the competitions we went to, we went simply to ogle the fantastic dancers that came from the big cities, mostly Auckland. So serious we (thought we) were, we often considered moving to Auckland so we could take advantage of the better (more highly regarded) dance instructors. For all her iconicness, Irene was old school and her dancers were too. Very few of her students made it big, and those that did, didn't until they moved to Auckland. The only names (from Rotorua) I remember as doing well in NZ dancing are Ross Champion and Tania someone (I think). I'm sure there are more, but as far as I recall, none of Irene's students could compete with the guns from Auckland. Candy Lane (of Dancing With the Stars fame) was one of the Auckland instructors.
But dance at Danceland I did. I did okay. Unfortunately I was just self-conscious enough to hold back a little; but I was also arrogant enough to be a snooty little shit who knew I was better than most everyone else. It was every cliche you can think of, the environment at Danceland (think Strictly Ballroom - a very real representation of Ballroom Dancing schools). I had so many arguments with Irene. A few with my sister. My mother loved - and hated - dancing with me. How many times did we win the parent-child quickstep or maxina? I remember dancing the public maxina once at the Sound Shell (at one of the Rotorua festivals), and was told later I would have won it except I was dancing in bare feet so was disqualified. One time during a competition I walked off the floor leaving Joanne Iberson standing there on her own because she'd made some smartass comment about my dancing ability. If I remember correctly, Joanne went on to do quite well in NZ dance sport.
Brian Cumming. I think he danced with and dated my sister for a while, too. Sadly he passed away before his time.
My niece was such a wee flower with a gorgeous smile, and a very good little dancer.
My sister and I. I don't remember many specifics, but I was probably a shit to partner. I was a volatile mix of insecurity and feigned bravado, and so closed off to anything positively expressive I'm surprised I ever got near a dance floor. Nicole Hassell made a disparaging remark about my dancing moves (at a disco in probably Form 1) and I don't think I've ever "danced" recreationally since. Me and Melville Gourlay (RIP) went to learn the Brooklyn Hustle and I spent most of the night hiding in the corner. Even I'd forgotten how self-conscious and scared I was (and still am).
Irene Oliver. Inadvertently one of the most influential people in my life. Her shrewd little smile. She would calmly tell me what to do, let me rant about how wrong she was, and then give me that little smile. And tell me what to do. She exuded discipline. She personified sticktoitiveness. But so too, for all her age and knarled bones, she embodied grace and poise. And never did I ever see her with a hair out of place.
I danced briefly in Hamilton at Virginia Davey's studio, but by then (1983) I was over dancing so didn't carry on. But dancing is one of those things that once it gets in your blood, it never leaves. I've dabbled with ballroom a couple of times since I've been in Christchurch, but for various reasons haven't been able to pursue it.
I'd like to find out about Irene. If she died only in 2009 I am ashamed to think that I could have visited her at least once over the last twenty years, just to say hi and thanks.
Angela Marsh (told you it would be about a girl) - whom I have always had a very fond memory of, and I remember as being one of the prettiest girls at Danceland (hence I was always terrified to dance with her, tho we only danced together a few times) - wrote a beautiful tribute to Irene on Irene Oliver's Danceland OldFriends page. I hope she won't mind me copying it here. The last line is one of the most beautiful things I've read for a long time. Thank you Angela. I hope Irene got her wish, too.