Keith and Colin: it was all strictly ballroom – in the beginning

The tributes and obituaries for Keith Bain, who died on July 4, show once more how ballroom dancing was such an important entrée to theatrical dancing for Australian men in the mid 20th century.

Keith Bain took his first steps as a dancer on the ballroom floor, following his father, who was both a barber and an accomplished ballroom dancer.

Born in Sydney in 1926, Keith grew up in Wauchope in New South Wales and with his family, was drawn to Scottish and ballroom dancing at a very early age.

He became a school teacher but clearly his heart lay in the world of social dance and by the time he was 20, Keith was a ballroom dancing instructor in Sydney.

I’ve come across an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly, (a segment is pictured below, left), in which he is seen teaching the new craze, the Mambo, in 1955, at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Sydney. By then he was 29 and had also discovered Gertrud Bodenwieser, whose company he joined and whose dance studio he managed, along with Margaret Chapple, after Bodenwieser died in 1959.

This early career closely followed that of Colin Peasley, who has been a member of the Australian Ballet since its formation in 1962.

Peasley learned ballroom dancing from Leslie Rutherford in Sydney.

In an interview with the dance writer, Blazenka Brysha, he explained his steps from ballroom to Bodenwieser:

“In the 1950s, when I wanted to dance, it was looked upon as very strange if a fellow wanted to dance…to ask to be a dancer was something that was not allowed. So, one: it hadn’t crossed my mind because it was taboo, and two: if it had, I wouldn’t have been allowed to do it anyway.

“However, my sister wanted to do her début – it was a time when people made their début – and she needed someone to partner her in the formation waltzes and things you had to do to make your début and so, I took up ballroom dancing and caught the bug from that.

“While I was ballroom dancing, I went through all those medals: gold bars, gold stars, every award possible, because I’m obsessive in all I do and then I started exhibition dancing.

“Well, in exhibition dancing you have to pick the girls up and throw them around and put them down; I was picking them up all right but I couldn’t put them down without falling over, so, I went to an adagio teacher, and the adagio teacher was on the floor above the Bodenwieser studio. One day when I was coming down, the studio door was open. I looked in and saw real dancing for the first time”.

As for Keith Bain, he continued to teach ballroom and Latin American dancing into the 1960s, and his unconventional dancing style was ultimately the inspiration for Baz Luhrmann’s film, Strictly Ballroom.

If it had not been for his love of ballroom dancing, Keith may never have had a long and distinguished career in dance, becoming a highly respected movement teacher, first at the Independent Theatre in Sydney and then at the National Institute of Dramatic Art where he established the movement studies course.

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Keith Bain (centre) with dancers of the Bodenwieser Ballet in Errand into the Maze, 1954, National Library of Australia, photo, David Muir

Keith Bain rehearsing the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, 1972

Keith Bain & Coralie Hinkley in Central Australian Suite by Bodenwieser, 1957. Photo © Max Dupain

Keith Bain teaching the Mambo, Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 April 1955