Granny was a go-go dancer (almost)

I’m back! I have been a very bad blogger for the past three weeks. There are two reasons for this:

1) I have been living a pre-Industrial Revolution life. I bought myself a bustle dress and a proper, torturously beautiful corset and I spend my days assembling my wares. My arms are so tired by the end of my 15-hour days, that it’s all I can do to raise a toothbrush to my mouth.

My beauteous corset!

2) I am researching a family tree. One of the men in the tree fought in the Boer War, was imprisoned on St Helena, worked in Johannesburg’s gold mines and in consequence died from black lung, his only possession one old model radiogram worth £10. It is such a relentlessly hopeless life that I cannot tear myself away from the tragedy of it. I’ve been to the National Archives and run my finger over his signature on a document that nobody else has seen for 109 years. I’ve wept (really wept) upon seeing a beautiful waterfall while driving through a cutting in the Waterberg Mountains en route to Pretoria North. I had just passed Paul Kruger’s house and that beautiful old church opposite it. I cannot tear myself away from the Boers’ relentlessly hopeless dream of their ZAR and as a result have written over 3000 words about that one man in a family tree that I hope will eventually include hundreds of men and women. Thank goodness I have my wares because I certainly couldn’t make a living researching family histories if I spend that much time on each individual.

In researching the tree, I have come across the most wonderful stories about St Helena; its capital, Jamestown, with buildings that look like a rockfall, crammed into a narrow valley with its 699 step “Jacob’s Ladder”; a graveyard at a 45 degree angle on a slope; island horseman unable to mount their horses while escorting the Boer general Piet Cronje on a prison camp inspection; Napoleon’s fountain; Napoleon’s bones.

Jamestown in 1900, like a rock-fall

But these stories are all to follow because on Sunday, I caught myself singing in the garden.

I was on my own. There were no children about. I wasn’t singing to my husband or to the dogs. I was singing a made-up song ‘I love Calendula in the morning’ sung to the tune of ‘I’m getting married in the morning’. I was just walking in my garden with a cup of tea and I was singing my life as if it were a musical. My first thought was while this wasn’t necessarily normal behaviour, it was perhaps genetic. You see, my granny was very nearly a go-go dancer.

I didn’t know my “Petty Gan” (who has need of Rs when you’re 2) for very long; she died when I was 3. I have one very vivid memory of her bedroom though. She is not in it at the moment that my memory snapped the picture. Perhaps she had already gone. The floor in her bedroom is wooden – parquet – and there is a free-standing wardrobe, dark wood, against the wall. It sits between two windows. They are open and the mauve, scratchy-looking, unlined curtains are blowing in a breeze. (Did you know mauve was an appropriate colour for clothing in the latter stages of Victorian mourning dress custom?)

My picture of my gran comes from the stories my father told me. He adored her. The photos I have of her show her a grey-haired, round, older woman. She looks like a gran. Hers was a relentlessly hopeless life. She was widowed at 39 and never remarried. She worked hard for the M.O.T.H.S to provide for her two children. She put cardboard in her shoes to make them last longer and she walked instead of taking the bus. When her children grew up and moved out, she lived with dignity and grace in a flat in Parktown with parquet floor and purple-curtained windows. Petty Gran jumped one day from one of those second storey windows. It was not a soft landing.

It is the saddest of sad stories, so you can imagine my surprise when I learnt a few years ago that Petty Gran was a dancer before she married her airforce beau in 1940. A proper dance-hall dancer! She was offered a job dancing at The Folies Bergeres. Her Victorian mother forbade it, but I love the idea that once upon a time, my sad and broken Petty Granny danced around the house. If my life is a musical, hers was a dance at some point. And because it was the Folies, sometimes, she must even have danced around the house without knickers!

Folies performer 1900

The Folies Bergeres opened in 1869 as a casual theatre. You could enjoy a night of polite debauchery – a little too much laughter, a little too much alcohol, a little too much thigh – watching a musical, a comic operetta, a gymnastics display, admiring the beautiful costumes and lights. In the early days there were as many male performers as female. It was only towards the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th that women became the focus of the shows at La Folies Bergeres. And it was only in 1918, when Paul Derval took over management of the theatre, that shows began to feature what he termed “small nude women”.

It was after the Great War, the world had changed and as time roared towards the licensciousness of the 1920s, The Folies became famous for its exotic, nude revues. If you have a minute, watch the very beautiful Josephine Baker, “The Bronze Venus” performing her famous Danse Sauvage in little other than a banana skirt. It is wonderful! The dry, dry commentary makes me giggle. And I marvel at the thought that my grey-haired granny, while slightly younger than Josephine, could perhaps have been doing a similar dance.

Maybe I have been wrong about desperate lives. Maybe my Boer War hero danced to the music played on his old model radiogram. Maybe my Petty Gran’s fall was the smallest part of her life. Maybe she sometimes can-canned in front of the mirror and loved (really loved) her legs. And maybe, sometimes, they sang about Calendula as if their lives were musicals. I hope so. I hope so. Tr-la-la.

10 thoughts on “Granny was a go-go dancer (almost)

  1. We have another thing in common….. genealogy! This has been a passion of mine for the last 20 years. I’ve been in countless archives and crawled through cemeteries. I understand completely your thrill at the signature! 🙂

    • Oooooh cemeteries! I keep meaning to plan a trip to the Braamfontein Cemetery but as it’s in a dodgy part of town, it’s probably sensible to go in a crowd. I need to assemble an interested party 🙂 You’ve reminded me to put it on my to do list.

  2. A sad but very lovely post.

    If only we could know the stories of our ancestors. Some of the amazing hints I have about the tales hidden in my own family tree just make me dream of finding more, although I’m sure I never will.
    I love the thought of your Petty Gran dancing when nobody was watching 🙂

  3. Another great and interesting post!
    And I just wanted to let you know I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. I hope this will be welcome news for you. Some people choose not to participate, others enjoy the opportunity to visit new-to-you blogs and to be visited by new-to-you bloggers. To see more about the award and accepting this nomination, please visit my post at

    Have a great day!

  4. Hullo Tracy. I am Emma’s stepfather. I would love to tell you a story of my father, born in 1898, travelling to SA from India in the 1920s when he received a telegram at Dar Es Salaam from a young woman with whom he was closely acquainted (in a manner of speaking) saying “Pregnant. What now?” to which he replied “If true meet me in Durban”. She did.

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