When Lisa Petty found a letter in her grandmother’s house from a solider their family hadn’t known about, she never imagined it would lead to countless conversations about the vibrant, meaningful dancehalls of World War 2.

Dear Ida stage shot

The letter addressed to Ida, Lisa’s Nanna, was from a young solider Harold, leaving for war. He was all kitted up, boots on, uncertain as to where he was going next, but he knew he was being deployed. Harold was killed three months later.

In the letter, he mentioned dancehalls, naturally sparking interest in Lisa, a trained performer, choreographer and movement director. She ended up completing her Masters investigating the role of these dancehalls, advertising for participants on community boards and in the RSL’s Mufti magazine.

‘Some of these stories would curl your hair, they’re so saucy! Every single person brought up the topic of sex. It was a racy time in history, and why wouldn’t it be? If you thought you might not be alive next week…’ Other stories, of course, were profoundly sad. But all were deeply moving, and highlighted how meaningful these nights were.

The physicality was mentioned by everyone: ‘To dance with someone, to feel someone, to smell them and touch them… it was a complete sensory experience completely offset by the trauma of war.’

‘One man from the country sat with such rigid posture for our whole conversation. Ironed jeans, white sneakers, hands in fists on his knees. Without moving, he told me “The dancehalls were the most profoundly moving experiences of my whole life.” And he’d been married and had four kids.’ 

The conversations illustrated how scarce those moments of escapism were, not only because of the war but the role of religion and responsibility. ‘Politics and religion stood to the side in these halls… and most people worked through to Saturday, and Sunday was for family and church. So there was this brief window which made the experience so much more luminous.’

Lisa wrote Dear Ida to tell these stories with the richness and nuance often omitted in wartime narratives, and to communicate the healing that occurred in these dancehalls. 
Some interviewees showed Lisa photos of the events, which emphasised how important they were. ‘People would tell me how glamorous and wonderful these dances were, but a lot of the time it was a very plain hall, or an empty lifesaving club. There was nothing special about the venues at all, it was about what happened in them: everything was magical.’

Listen to 'Dear Ida' at this year's Victorian Seniors Festival radio Reimagined Radio Plays.