The 89-year-old musician and ballroom dancers who keep a city’s dwindling community halls alive

On a brush-lined road between Murray Bridge and the Riverland, South Australia’s Burdett Hall doesn’t host a lot of big business these days.

But feathers, adornments and sparkles are on the agenda when local ballroom dancers show up to celebrate its centenary.

In the foreground on a keyboard is a man who plays a huge role in keeping the music alive, 89-year-old Vic Herrmann.

“He’s magic, isn’t he,” said dancing Neil Burbidge.

“He just sits there and plays all night and doesn’t think about it.”

Mr. Herrmann said he liked it.

“It’s a good feeling to play music,” he said.

“You see them on the floor having fun, and I’m one of them.”

Burdett Hall’s 100th Anniversary Ball drew a large crowd of ballroom dancers.(ABC landline: Kerry Staight)

Not a single lesson

While Mr. Herrmann’s mother taught him ballroom dancing when he was just 10 and it was all the rage, he never took music lessons.

“That’s exactly what I was able to figure out,” he said.

“I like to think that I am still improving.

“And that’s good for me because at my age I need to keep my mind sharp.”

He said ballroom dancing was also good for the physical and mental fitness of those on the floor.

“You have to have a good brain to remember a lot of these dances, which is great for older people,” he said.

“I’m sure it must be way better than going to a gym and lifting iron.”

Someone who never misses a night and is perhaps living proof of the long-term benefits is 95-year-old Mick Fabbian.

Photo of an older couple dancing.
Mick Fabbian, 95, and his girlfriend Betty never miss a dance.(ABC landline: Kerry Staight)

The former dairy farmer and welder started dancing after the death of his wife and now comes with his partner Betty.

“No matter what happens, rain or shine, something drags you here,” Mr Fabbian said.

“I can’t explain it, but something inside you makes you want to dance.”

A hundred years of stories

As the dancers salute the 100-year history of the church, Sunday school, agricultural office and voting booth, it’s clear that this modest meeting place is full of stories.

Former farmer Neil Burbidge not only took on the duties of emcee at Burdett; he also found his wife, Dianne, there.

“You walked through the kitchen door, I was sitting there, and it was like…this is him,” she said.

“We danced all night – and we still dance.”

Photo of a room.
Vic Herrmann mainly plays in venues not far from Murray Bridge, including Chapman Bore Hall.(ABC landline: Kerry Staight)

The ballroom circuit revolves around several community halls near Murray Bridge, including Chapman Bore Hall.

At first glance, the room doesn’t look like it was made for a pair of prom shoes.

“It’s mostly corrugated iron and looks ordinary,” Mr. Herrmann said.

“When they unlock the doors and walk inside, there’s this beautiful dance floor and [a] little scene.”

Sisters Dawn Weyland, Ellen Holmes and Glennis Ongley are regular faces at Burdett and Chapman Bore venues.

“[We come for] music of course and we sing, and we like to dance,” the sisters said.

“And the company of people is just lovely.”

Photo of three women seated side by side.
Sisters Dawn Weyland, Ellen Holmes and Glennis Ongley take a break from a dance party.(ABC landline: Kerry Staight)

Although these halls are no longer the thriving meeting places they once were, they still provide a social sanctuary for dancers.

Peggy Bennett is on the committees that keep the halls open and she understands their value.

“Loneliness is a great thing in [the] community, and the people who come here are not alone,” Ms Bennett said.

In addition to social connection, she says music provides a connection to the past.

“A lot of people hum while dancing because they know these songs.”

“They are part of our history. They are part of our DNA.”

Uncertain future

But there are fears that these steps and songs won’t be part of the future, with very few young people, especially males, making an appearance.

“These girls never make the boys dance with them; I can’t understand that,” Mr. Herrmann said.

“Nothing I loved more when I was a teenager having a little girl in my arms – it was adorable.”

Photo of young girls in ball gowns.
The participants’ grandchildren dressed up to attend the 100th anniversary ball.(ABC landline: Kerry Staight)

With declining interest, the numbers have plummeted – COVID has only accelerated the decline – leaving the future of venues as well as music in doubt.

“It’s very sad to see them die,” said Dianne Burbidge.

“All the local venues here feel 21st century.”

The occasion of a 100-year anniversary ball is enough to draw a few cooler, if not as sure-footed, dancers to the Burdett Hall floor.

“It’s good to have all the grandchildren here,” Ms Burbidge said.

“Hopefully this will bring people back to those old fashioned dances to get the crowds up a bit,” Burbidge added.

As for the man behind the keyboard, Mr. Herrmann had planned to retire this Christmas as he neared his 90th birthday.

Photo of an old man playing the keyboard.
In the lead and keeping the dancers on their feet for several hours is Mr. Herrmann.(ABC landline: Kerry Staight)

But it looks like it will be more of a semi-retirement.

“I’m under a lot of pressure not to retire because they said nobody would play that kind of music,” he said.

“I can cut back a bit. I don’t need more than two…maybe one a month – that’ll be enough for me.”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s landline at 12:30 p.m. Sunday or on ABC iview.