15 Jun 22 - Resident stories

Dancing through the decades

Dancing has been called ‘the kale of exercise’ because of its health benefits. But for Summerset on Cavendish residents Brenda and Dennis Neill, it is more than a way of keeping fit; it’s a way of life, and one they have been living joyfully for 30 years.

“There was a rock and roll revival class locally, and we decided to give it a go just as
something to do. We both really enjoyed it and started going every weekend,” says Brenda. “After a year of classes, we started competing.”

The couple have taken part in dance competitions together in towns and cities across the country, from as far south as Invercargill to as far north as Whangārei.

Smaller competitions gave way to larger ones, until they were competing in national contests. “The last time we competed was in 2019, at the Rock Around the Clock Senior Nationals in Lincoln. We were in the 60-plus age group. We had about 10 to 12 friends from the village come to cheer us on, and we came in fifth for that one.”

Brenda has also trained as a dance judge and has travelled the competition circuit judging for various age groups. In addition, she was the secretary for the New Zealand Amateur Rock’n’Roll Association for over 18 years, responsible for organising the championships and selecting the music. “I worked for the Canterbury Property Investors’ Association, and I had 12 bosses on a committee, so I think I developed my negotiation skills there, which certainly comes in handy at times,” Brenda says, laughing.

Top left and bottom right: At the 2019 national championships. Top middle: National championships 2005. Top right: Demonstrating a deep dip at the 2011 national championships. Bottom left: Taking first place at the 2011 national championships.

Despite competitions being disrupted or cancelled in recent times due to Covid, Brenda is hopeful she will be able to judge later in the year. “Dancers are judged on a number of things: the routine, the timing, harmony and variety,” she says. “There are no prescribed moves, and some of the dances contestants perform are really innovative.”

Although there may be no specific steps for rock and roll like there are for ballroom
dancing, performers do have to dance to music from a particular era – songs between 1953 and 1964. “Buddy Holly, Bill Hayley and the Comets, Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins; they are all good to dance to. We dress up in the proper clothes too. Ladies wear the dresses with the full skirts that swing around when you twirl – they are so great to dance in. Men can choose drainpipe trousers and winklepickers. Shoes have to be flat for competitions. In fact, shoes are better flat for dancing generally – high heels can be antisocial on a crowded floor,” says Brenda with another laugh.

Heels might be unfriendly, but everything else about dancing is avidly social. It is not always done in pairs either. “Dennis and I have competed together as a pair, but we have also performed in teams. There are usually six dancers, and we dance to a chosen song, working out the routine to fit the song and coordinating our steps together.”

Brenda and Dennis have been members of the Christchurch Rock and Roll Club since they took up dancing, and their fellow members have become good friends. “We have danced together, competed together, been on holiday together. Dancing is about having fun first and foremost. Whenever anyone new joins the club we emphasise that, and if they are taking things a little too seriously then we remind them that it needs to be fun for everyone. It is very social. There’s no point having a show pony and a wallflower; that’s not going to work,” says Brenda.

Brenda and Dennis are partners both in life and on the dance floor, but what happens if they have a tiff at home? “It stays out of the hall,” Brenda says firmly. “You can be grumpy with one another off the dance floor, but you leave that behind as soon as you get on it. That’s the rule.”

Brenda and Dennis are keen to introduce dancing to both their peers (they were instrumental at helping kick off Summerset’s first ever ‘flash mob’ in October 2019) and to the younger generation. “The children were never that bothered by it, but two of Dennis’s grandchildren took it up for a while and we took them to a junior nationals in Invercargill. There are always more girls that learn than boys though. Girls can dance together quite easily,” Brenda says. “It’s interesting though how many of the residents – both men and women – enjoy dancing and having a boogie. A lot of the men have got some good moves – everyone in our generation knew that the best way to get a girlfriend was to learn to dance!”

This is an article from the Winter 2022 edition of Summerset Scene magazine

Click here to read the full issue