The Bachelor and Spinsters Ball (an Australian Tradition)
When you ask people (especially under 30s) to name the most important events in rural Australia, the annual Bachelor and Spinsters Balls (or B&S Ball) would be right up at the top of the list.
From their Irish matchmaking beginnings, to their present role as little more than a grog and sex party, B&S Balls have been part of the Australian rural calendar for many years. Although the spirit and role of the event may have changed over the years, the importance of B&S Balls to outback and rural communities remains as vital as ever.
A Brief History
There is no record of when the first B&S Ball was held in Australia, however it is believed that the tradition originated in the town of Lisdoonvarna, Ireland where, every year since 1871, in September or October, a matchmaking festival would take place. At this festival eligible bachelors and spinsters would meet, in the hope of finding their match.
Many early settlers and gold diggers who came to this country were from Ireland and some may have brought this tradition with them as Australia's early B&S Balls were also in this mould - a place for young country men and women to meet, and hopefully find love.
Australia is a large country, with a widely dispersed population - particularly outside of the major population centres which are situated along the coast. In the outback it can take literally hours of driving to visit your next door neighbour, or the nearest town - even then, it may be not much more than a service station, general store, and a pub. In a country as spread out as this, it is very difficult to meet people. Australia's B&S Balls helped to bridge this distance.
The Dress Code
The dress code is somewhat unorthodox. Dinner suits, well at least black trousers and dress shirts, are required to be worn by the men (jackets are optional), however bow ties are often fashioned from whatever is readily available i.e. cardboard or lengths of twisted bailing twine. Suits are often accompanied by cowboy boots and an Akubra hat. Traditionally ball gowns or cocktail dresses are worn by the women. Boots are perfectly acceptable with a dress as well as festivities are bound to spill outdoors into the often dusty or muddy paddocks.
Although the dress code is fairly formal, it's not recommended that an attendee turn up in their best dinner suit or ball gown, as they would for a night of cultured entertainment, polite conversation, and dancing. Chances are, by the end of the night, your suit will be covered in beer, rum and food. Your dress may well be trailing in the dust, mud, and slops of hundreds of people who don't really care where they drop food, drink, or vomit. An op-shop or second hand clothing store is definitely a recommended place to purchase your clobber for wearing to a B&S Ball. Many young men who foolishly hire a suit for the event find out later they are unable obtain a refund of the deposit due to the condition of the suit on return.
The Evolution of the Modern B&S Ball
B&S Balls have changed a lot over the years. In fact, they are probably unrecognisable from their traditional roots. It's now more in the vein of getting completely shit-faced, and waking with a roaring hangover, and with someone unfamiliar sharing your swag.
Regulars who attend "B and S" balls insist that the initials stand for "beer and sex". These usually annual events attract young stockmen, shearers, jackeroos and jillaroos from outback sheep and cattle farms. They provide one of the rare opportunities to meet and get to know members of the opposite sex.
It will probably be held in some form of marquee or shed, in the middle of a paddock somewhere just out of town. The first things you'll probably notice are the utes (utility vehicles). They'll be everywhere. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with the standard Australian Ute, they're probably a little different to what you may expect. Most Aussie utes aren't huge 4WD monsters - they are about the size of a normal station wagon with a cut-off or flat tray-back. Utes are similar to what Americans call "pick-up trucks" though we never call them trucks.
*When you're at a B&S Ball, with your ute and looking to impress, you've gotta get into some circle-work. So just what is circle work? Well, it's pretty simple really. A roaring ute spins its back wheels, moving in an ever tightening circle, kicking up huge clouds of dust and mud, and the smell of burning, while you're screaming out the open window, your akubra firmly planted on your head all the while - this is circle work. How could it not impress the ladies?
*Another popular but highly dangerous B&S stunt is "surfing" on old car bonnets (hoods) pulled by a truck or ute.
Now, if you're a teetotaller, a B&S Ball is definitely not the place for you. There will be booze. A lot of booze. The foundation of a modern B&S Ball, is alcohol. Now, if you're thinking that you can turn up to a B&S Ball with a few Bacardi Breezers, or a nice bottle of wine, you're sadly mistaken. You'd better like beer. And you'd better like Bundy (Bundaberg) Rum. The fact is, you'll probably be drinking a lot of both. You'll probably drink so much, that at some stage you'll lose the ability to remember much of anything. Chances are, you'll wake up in your swag some time the next morning, not really all that sure just how you got to be there.
Chances are, you won't be the only body in your swag (the uniquely Australian combination of mattress, ground sheet and sleeping bag).
Sex, No Drugs, and Country Music
Another major difference between the B&S Balls of our grandparent's generation, and the modern B&S is SEX. Young ladies and gentlemen no longer meet, never touching except to dance, and just trying to make conversation under the watchful eyes of their parents. These days, there are no parents allowed, and if you see someone that takes your fancy, and they're willing, you'll wake with them the next morning and maybe share breakfast. At today's B&S you're given condoms on arrival. Fueled by alcohol, and hormones many country men and women will end up sleeping together - casual is the norm. What happens at a B&S, stays at a B&S.
Although casual sex is accepted as part of the B&S culture, drugs (apart from alcohol and cigarettes) are not! No designer party drugs here. These party goers are good clean-living horse-riding, cattle-mustering, sheep-shearing, crop-planting young men and women for most of the year, and although drugs are not unheard of in rural areas they are the exception rather than the norm.
The other important factor for a successful B&S Ball is the music. You've got to get that right, or the atmosphere simply will not be there. And when you're throwing a party for country people, you really can't have anything apart from country music. If the event is large enough, there will be a live band playing. There will surely be some iconic Australian country music like Slim Dusty, Lee Kernaghan, Troy Cassar-Daley or Casey Chambers. None of your fancy city dance music, rap or hip-hop - this is the music of the land, pure and simple. Nothing else will do.
Ode to the B & S Ball
by John Hansen © 2014
The shearing shed becomes a hall
To house the local B & S Ball.
Stockmen don suits, and jillaroos gowns
Flocking into the nearest towns.
In tray-back trucks and farmer's utes,
Wearing Akubra hats and cowboy boots.
Entry fee is eighty bucks,
All you can drink, food, and f***s.
Young men and women from near and far
Gather at the makeshift bar,
Bachelors and spinsters all
Hear the outback mating call.
Bundy rum and ice cold beer,
Country music for the ear.
Trestle tables piled with food,
Pick-up lines both suave and crude.
Only plastic cups allowed,
No glasses with a drunken crowd.
Guys take turns on the 'bucking bull'
To see how many girls they pull.
Mating males will seek to fight
Like moths attracted to the light.
Suits are ruined and dresses rip,
Some boys throw up, and drunk girls strip.
Food dye is thrown around the crowd,
Singing, laughing, shouting loud.
People wrestle in the dirt,
Others fondle, kiss and flirt.
Some pass out, can't stay the course.
It's all for fun, there is no force.
Besides it isn't every day
That outback singles get to play.
This Aussie icon's under fire,
Insurance costs are getting higher.
Will many future balls be held?
Only demand and time will tell.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service
"The RFDS began as the dream of the Rev John Flynn, a minister with the Presbyterian Church. He witnessed the daily struggle of pioneers living in remote areas where just two doctors provided the only medical care for an area of almost 2 million square kilometres. Flynn’s vision was to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for these people and on 15 May 1928, his dream had become a reality with the opening of the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service (later renamed the Royal Flying Doctor Service) in Cloncurry, Queensland.
Over the next few years, the RFDS began to expand across the country.
By the 1950s, the RFDS was acknowledged by former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies as “perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time.”
Until the 1960s, the Service rarely owned our own aircraft. We used contractors to provide aircraft, pilots and servicing. We progressively began to purchase our own aircraft and employ our own pilots and engineers.
Today, we own a fleet of 61 fully instrumented aircraft with the very latest in navigation technology. We operate 21 bases across Australia. Our pilots annually fly the equivalent of 25 round trips to the moon and our doctors and flight nurses are responsible for the care of over 270,000 patients! We've come a long way from that first flight in 1928 which saw the Flying Doctor airborne at last."
Benefits to the Community
The real beneficiaries of these B&S balls are the communities that run them. These events are a vital financial lifeline to rural townships, bringing in much needed cash. The average B&S Ball attendee will spend around $450 (Aus) for their ticket, suit, food and drinks and fuel.
The money that is raised benefits the community in a number of ways. For instance local stores experience an increase in business, and charity organisations such as the Rural Fire Service and The Royal Flying Doctor Service receive large and important donations.
The Future of the B&S Ball
The Australian B&S Ball is still as popular as ever. People willingly travel hundreds of kilometers to attend these events, and even young country people now forced to live in the city look forward to attending the B&S as a way of staying in touch with their roots .
Unfortunately however, the greatest threat to the continued success of B&S Balls may be something that is beyond the control of any event organiser.
Public Liability Insurance poses the greatest threat to the future of B&S Balls. It has become more and more difficult to secure insurance for this type of event, particularly as in recent years, insurance companies have either refused to cover risky events, or have increased their premiums by massive amounts.
*Both "Circle-work" and "Surfing" have now been banned by organising committees under increased pressure from the police.
Also, liquor licensing laws have become far more strict - for every 100 people, there need be 1 security guard. For every 50 people, 2 bar staff are required. These higher insurance premiums, as well as the requirements of licensing laws, have meant that a B&S Ball is becoming far more expensive event to run - possibly out of the reach for many smaller communities.
Despite this, I believe the B&S Ball will live a long life in Australia. The young people of ouback and regional Australia need events like this - a chance to cut loose, let their hair down, write themselves off for a night, and have a whole heap of fun.
I love this poem by David Campbell.
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