5 December 2023

Kick your heels up at Wollongong's 60-year-old Scottish Country Dancing Club

| Zoe Cartwright
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People Scottish dancing

Arnold Thurling, 89, with his daughter, Jo, out in front of a lively Scottish Country Dancing group. Photo: Zoe Cartwright.

Arnold Thurling might be 89, but that doesn’t stop him kicking up his heels at a ceilidh.

Arnold has taught the art of Scottish dance in Wollongong for the past 60 years and doesn’t plan to hang up his dancing shoes any time soon.

“I can’t get up on my toes like I used to,” he chuckles. “But I can still go through the movements, and I’m still teaching.”

Arnold credits his wife, Joan, with getting him started back in 1962.

After a demonstration at the Scout’s Christmas party up on Mt Keira, Joan told Arnold she’d like to give Scottish dancing a try.

“I’d never done much dancing, but we went that Friday and haven’t stopped since,” he said.

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He credits her unwavering support with keeping him going, too.

“All the way through my wife has been the mainstay,” Arnold said.

“If she wasn’t behind me I probably would have given it away, but she loves it as much as I do.”

Arnold was born in Wollongong and Joan in Sydney – neither of them have a direct connection to Scotland. But that hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm and, over the years, Arnold has watched Scottish dancing spread across the world.

“To start with most of the people in the club had migrated from England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales and formed groups here to keep their culture going,” he said.

“Now I find it’s more people who got involved in the music and dancing and just loved it so much they keep going.

“Every club seems to want to produce their own book of dances, and the dancing has spread throughout the world, across Europe, Asia, America, Canada, South America, New Zealand and Australia.”

A group of smiling people wearing tartan sashes stand together inside a community hall.

The Scottish Country Dancing Club in Wollongong welcomes everyone from beginners to experienced dancers. Photo: Zoe Cartwright.

In 1964 there was a split in the club, and Arnold became the new club’s president.

Then one teacher moved back to England, and another to Newcastle, and Arnold found himself teaching.

He went on to teach across the region in Wollongong, Mittagong and Picton.

At one stage the club had between 20 and 30 teenagers involved, and he and Joan would take them to dancing competitions as far afield as Canberra and Inverell.

He organised the dancing displays at famed Bundanoon Highland gathering, Brigadoon, for 15 years.

In 2005 Arnold was awarded the Sydney Branch Award from the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in Scotland, for Outstanding Service to Scottish Country Dancing, one of the first Australians to receive such an award.

“I’m still very proud of that, I’ve got it hanging on the wall in my hallway,” he said.

“It’s been a huge part of our lives. We’ve met so many wonderful people and formed very long-lasting friendships.”

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It’s also been an enormous part of his family life.

To start with it was a fun night out that Arnold and Joan’s five kids could enjoy along with mum and dad.

In the decades since, their daughter Josie has gone on to teach at the club in Wollongong as well.

And more recently, Arnold and Joan’s great-granddaughter, Issy, has begun to come along.

The club is always on the lookout for new members, and you don’t need anything other than a willingness to try.

“Age is no problem, you can even bring the children along from the time they’re about eight or 10,” he said.

“It does not matter what you’ve done before or how timid you are.

“You can come along and have a look – we won’t make you get up, but everyone is very helpful and keen to have you join in.

“Most of the dances are straightforward, and you can walk through it if you can’t do the steps.”

To give it a go, head to the Presbyterian Church on the corner of Burelli and Kembla Streets any Monday night from 7:30 pm.

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