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Jo'Burg Days: The Spring Ball

...Imagine my horror on opening the door to view my date clad in a white Tuxedo a là Glenn Miller, (you could almost see the conductor’s baton in his right hand) the pustules on his face glowing after a recent close shave and his irregular teeth heavily stained from chain-smoking...

Barbara Durlacher found that the Spring Ball in Johannesburg was not the sophisticated event she had anticipated.

Not long after the end of the Second World War some of the prominent and highly-placed ladies in Johannesburg society decided to introduce a function similar to and loosely modelled on Queen Charlotte’s Ball, with a nod to the British custom of presenting girls at Court, a practice that had originated during Queen Victoria’s reign and continued up until the middle of the 1950s. In its early stages, being presented was considered an essential part of a young lady’s entry into womanhood, and once accomplished, gave her entry to the fashionable gatherings of her social group. It also of course, enabled the young of both sexes to meet and provided supervised occasions for honing a young lady’s skills at flirtation and attracting the opposite sex, and the opportunity for a young man to talk about his prowess on the sports field and similar sophistications.

Johannesburg’s social scene was not as bright as London’s, but nevertheless there were many residents who felt it had plenty to recommend it as the city in Southern Africa which set the tone of ‘How Things Should Be Done’. Consequently, for several years in the 1950s, an influential group of ladies organised and presented a “Spring Ball” at the old Carlton Hotel at which twenty or more attractive young girls were presented to His Excellency, the Governor General. The purpose of the ball and the introductions which might follow gave the girls a chance to move into a wider society than they had previously known and, to many parents anxious for their daughters to make a “good” marriage, might in time result in a wedding, and enrich Father’s bank balance and as an bonus, go some way to improving the gene pool.

Like many young girls of that time, I cherished ambitions to marry ‘my’ special Prince Charming; the Knight on a White Horse who would sweep me off my feet and install me in that little thatched cottage with roses round the door, where before long two winsome children would cluster around my skirts.

Faint hope! But putting that aside, the time has arrived to describe the event.

Rehearsals were held for six weeks before ‘THE’ night, and during these interminable and uncomfortable afternoons, we were taught how to make a low “Court” curtsey; how to present oneself to the Governor-General (if required) as well as how to form two parallel lines accompanied by our gentlemen partners in white ties and tails, and then walk in procession up the ballroom to the Governor’s platform. After a few moments, we were to separate into two rows down the length of the room, while two selected girls went forward and presented formal bouquets to the dignitaries. His Excellency would say a few words, the girls would resume their places in line, the orchestra would strike up, and then Sir Brand and Lady van Zyl would take the floor for the first waltz.

After weeks of preparation the magical night finally arrived. My dress was ready – the pride of my loving mother’s heart and one over which she had carefully laboured for weeks. Heavy oyster satin in a lustrous shade of pearl with a wide shawl collar and a graceful flared skirt, it was not a gown to stand out, but right for my rather stocky figure. To save the expense of a formal florist’s bouquet, my dear aunt had created a charming Victorian-style posy of concentric rings of little flowers with a pink rose as the centrepiece and finished it off with a fall of delicate ribbons in the same shades. She’d decorated the ribbons with sprigs of the same blossoms as the posy.

I’d had my hair cut and styled by one of the best hairdressers in Johannesburg and on the appointed day, by which time I was sick with anticipation and the family agog with excitement, I couldn’t wait for the festivities to start. Then I heard the noise of his horrible old jalopy as my partner arrived to drive us to the venue.

Imagine my horror on opening the door to view my date clad in a white Tuxedo a là Glenn Miller, (you could almost see the conductor’s baton in his right hand) the pustules on his face glowing after a recent close shave and his irregular teeth heavily stained from chain-smoking. “Oh lord, what have I done?” rushed through my mind, and despite all the anticipation, effort and expense, I nearly cancelled the evening on the spot.

I’m glad I didn’t, as it proved an experience to remember.
Before the formal presentation, the debutants gathered in a side room to primp while they waited for the honoured guests to arrive. Suddenly there was a flutter and an agitated voice enquired urgently, “Where’s the Governor General’s bouquet?” The query was met with startled silence. Glancing around, the lady convenor saw me standing there waiting for the proceedings to start, and quickly grabbing my simple, but charming little posy, said “This will do, no one will notice it’s not professional,” as she darted away to give the flowers to the girl selected for the presentation. A few minutes later as the music struck up, we formed our lines and moved forward.
When it came to my turn to curtsey to His Excellency, straight after another girl had presented my little posy, he’d still not recovered from his surprise at the simplicity of his “formal” bouquet, but had the composure not to let it interrupt the proceedings.

The gracious ballroom at the ‘old’ Carlton Hotel came into its own; two orchestras played all night, the gowns and starched white shirtfronts of the men-folk glowed in the lights of the chandeliers as they stood watching their daughters and grand-daughters introduced to the world as a validation of the family’s status. It was possibly one of the last of the ‘big’ occasions modelled on the British tradition before that venerable hotel was demolished. At the buffet, the chefs in their stiffly starched white toques carved the turkeys, hams and roast beef of ole England while heaped dishes of strawberries, puddings and melons provided bright splashes of colour on tables lavishly covered with delectable food.

By the time the fox-trotting and waltzing was interrupted for supper and we trooped to the buffet I was beginning to regain my self-confidence and composure. Maybe the stars in my eyes shone less brightly, and the surroundings had assumed a hue less rose-pink of early evening, but the white Tuxedo-ed partner had proved the best dancer on the floor, and excellent company. His warm personality and ready humour had made our table one of the happiest and many a gust of laughter followed his witty repartee and jokes.

Standing at the buffet as the chef busied himself with the roast beef, I got the shock of my life when a beautiful woman in a gorgeous one-shouldered plum-coloured gown came up, and to my astonishment said to her two accompanying swains, “Christ, I’m BLOODY hungry” and popped a handful of black olives into her mouth. There she stood, munching away, and spitting pips into her hand, before moving away with her plate piled high with as much as it would hold.

Not quite the sophistication and elegance I’d expected at such a grand occasion, but I suppose not entirely unexpected in a city that began as a rough mining camp less than 70 years earlier where one of its most prominent citizens was known as “Pickaxe Mary”.

And before I forget, His Excellency’s bouquet was later found in the service fridge a few yards along the passage. It had been all the time, of course!


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