By Phil Jarratt
Rhys George leans in confidentially over his wine glass and says: “Let me put it this way: It’s the most intimate thing you can do while vertical.”
It’s an oldie but a goodie – the line about dancing being the most fun you can have standing up – a bit like Rhys himself, but it is the perfect description of the passion he and wife Sandy share for rock and roll and swing dancing. Barely able to perform the surfer’s stomp myself, I have been watching awestruck for months at live music gigs around the Coast as Rhys and Sandy, dressed in their ‘50s finest, swirl confidently around the dance floors, busting moves I could only dream of.
“Dance is essentially emotion in movement,” says Sandy. “Once you’ve learnt the steps you can let go and you move to another dimension.”
The couple met in Adelaide, having left first marriages behind. She was a nurse from Margaret River, WA, he a South Australian accountant and stockbroker. Their first date was a wine harvest festival in the Adelaide Hills, several hundred people partying, a great rock and roll band playing, and only three couples dancing.
“But,” says Rhys, “they were really, really good. I looked at Sandy, and we knew that this was what we wanted to do.”
Neither had much in the way of musical backgrounds – Sandy’s dad was a bit of an old rocker and filled their house at Margie’s with rock and roll music from his vinyl collection, and Rhys had studied a classical piano as a kid and bought a mid-life crisis electric guitar at 40 – and neither had any experience on the dance floor. But they were captivated by the magic of rock and roll.
Says Rhys: “We were lucky enough to find a couple of really good teachers who could get us into not just rock and roll but a range of associated dance styles, like swing and even a bit of Charleston, from the 1920s. In the early days we used to drive home from our lessons with the music going in the car, working out what we could dance to, what was too fast, too slow or just right. If we liked a particular song, we’d pull over into a service station and start busting a few moves on the forecourt.
Adds Sandy: “Learning more about the music and its roots has made us better dancers, I think. We’re still learning of course, and we go to lessons at a place called Swing-Out, and our teacher always gives us a little background to each song we dance to, and it really helps build a foundation, an understanding of where it came from and how to move to it.”
The culture and history of the music they dance to has totally absorbed the swingin’ Georges. Rhys can quote pre-rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s influence on Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, or tell you how some of the moves they employ came about when dancers had to adapt to cramped dance floors in the 1940s. They dress to the era and drive about in a restored ’59 Chevy (Rhys’s retirement project).
Rhys says: “We find music everywhere we go. It’s opened up a whole new world for us and has taken us from a 13th century cellar jazz club in Paris to a rockabilly festival on a beach in Spain where you could dance from eight in the morning until four the next morning, every day! We’ve danced on the top of the Jungfrau (the tallest mountain in Switzerland), on the Paris Metro, the heli-pad on the top of Montparnasse, and in every city in Australia, and a whole lot of country areas.”
While their home on the Sunshine Coast was being built, they caravanned around Australia for seven months, seeking out every country town with a rock and roll dance club or festival. “And there are a lot,” says Rhys. Dancing has built them a network of friends around Australia, around the world. For this couple, dancing is not a hobby, it’s a life.
But it all gets back to the movement, and it’s quite technical. Rhys says all good dancers have a “tool box” full of moves. Before they hit the dance floor, Rhys will check the beat on his phone, then work out the progression of appropriate moves. On the floor, the couple rarely call moves to each other, although they do have their own code for many of them. The communication is through touch.
Says Sandy: “You learn to respond to signals from your partner. If Rhys is leading I’ll respond to a slight pressure on my hand or my back and that will lead us into the next move. It’s like riding a horse in a way. You can’t tell a horse what you’re going to do next, you let him know by applying pressure on the stirrups or the knees.”
Adds Rhys: “So familiarity leads to better dancing. It’s very hard for people who don’t know each other to have that connection, and if you’re emotionally connected, well it takes it to a whole other level.”
They’re making eyes at each other across the table, the band is starting to play, Rhys is feeling for his phone, tapping his foot to the growing beat. It’s time to leave them to their art.
“One thing before you go,” says Rhys. “Everywhere around the world where there are rock and roll clubs, they celebrate Frankie Manning’s birthday on May 26. He was the leader of the swing movement that introduced tight moves on crowded floors, he invented the Lindy Hop. Frankie Manning Day is celebrated everywhere, except here.”
So if you see a ’59 Chevy pull up at a servo near you in a couple of weeks, and a very hip middle-aged couple start busting moves between the bowsers, that’ll be Rhys and Sandy, remembering Frankie Manning’s legacy.