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Curtain falls on Avis Tolcher’s Murray Marvels and Town Hall Troupers
A dance group for older locals has taken its final bow as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“All good things have to come to an end.”
A reluctant Avis Tolcher made the announcement in a Facebook post on May 4.
After a career as a professional dancer, then years spent teaching the art form, her last group – the Murray Marvels – was winding up.
For years they, and the Town Hall Troupers, were a fixture of volunteer lunches, mental health expos and nursing home performances in Murray Bridge and surrounds.
Just as importantly, though, they brought joy to the older women and men who stepped onto the stage at their every rehearsal.
They mastered steps of every kind over the years, but letting go proved to be one of the hardest.
So a dozen members of the group got back together for a morning tea last week, to reminisce about their theatrical adventures.
In her heyday, the former Avis Smith starred alongside some of Australian theatre’s brightest lights, including future Helpmann Award winner Robyn Archer in The Seven Deadly Sins, the show which opened the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre in 1974; and future State Opera of South Australia principal artist Brian Gilbertson in Irene in 1983.
She gained a qualification in classical ballet in 1967 after falling in love with performing.
“I, as a dancer, loved the audience,” she recalled.
“I loved theatres where the audience were close to you – the old Octagon at Elizabeth used to be wonderful.”
As a teacher, some of her pupils went on to scale great heights; but her main aim became putting the joy of dance into people’s lives, “so those kids would go on to support the ones who made it to the top”.
After 30 years, she finally began to drift away from dance.
It was a bout with breast cancer that brought her back again.
She wound up forming a troupe of breast cancer survivors, Dancers for Life, in Rockhampton, Queensland in 2007.
After moving to Murray Bridge two years later, she formed a similar group: the Pink Victory Dancers.
In time, though, “things went a bit pear-shaped” – many of the group’s members became more interested in dragon boat racing, and there were disagreements about how best to spend the funds they raised.
The dance group wound up, and the last of its funds were donated to the new chemotherapy unit at the Murray Bridge hospital.
Enter the Town Hall Troupers
By 2011 Ms Tolcher had been appointed the manager of Murray Bridge Town Hall, which gave her easy access to a stage; one of her dancers, Margaret Cowie, begged her to start a new troupe.
She founded the Town Hall Troupers, open to anyone over the age of 50, in 2013.
In the beginning, the group planned to stage an original revue.
Locals Max and Jacqui Merckenschlager wrote a script, Kevin Schrapel was set to direct, the late Don Watts would be technical manager, Christine Hodgen would be musical director and Ms Tolcher would choreograph the dances.
“We were going to do Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini in T-shirts with bikinis painted on,” Ms Tolcher remembered with a grin.
“Kevin called for auditions … and one person turned up.
“It never happened.”
Still, the dance group persisted with regular rehearsals and began performing at the Murray Bridge council’s volunteers’ lunch every Christmas.
“I had people say to me ‘I can’t wait (to turn 50), I’ve got another two years – they were really excited,”Ms Tolcher said.
In 2016 she started another group, the Murray Marvels, who performed at retirement villages and in nursing homes, including a “hysterical” performance of Mambo No. 5 at Aminya.
The two troupes even combined for one big performance at the volunteers’ lunch in 2018.
Ms Tolcher reminisced about a few of the special people her groups had included over the years: Richard “Mr Music” Cooke, a fixture behind the sound desk; Sylvia Heinrich, a stroke survivor who found dance helped with her recovery; a dancer in his 30s who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and enjoyed learning without ever needed to go on stage.
End of an era
As with so many things, it was COVID-19 that ended all the fun.
The group took a break after the pandemic arrived, and Ms Tolcher came to realise that restarting it would be difficult.
“I can’t dance any more,” she said.
“But I’m proud of the fact that I made it into my 70s.”
At the morning tea last week, dancer Janise Fournier presented Ms Tolcher with a bag of goodies to say thank you on behalf of all the dancers: “liquid refreshment”, chocolate, a puzzle book “because what are you going to do with your time if you’re not dancing?”, two marbles “in case you lose yours”, a piece of string “to tie up your loose ends” and many more items.
The ladies laughed uproariously as each one was presented.
Afterwards, Ms Tolcher said that feeling was what she would cherish the most about her years of dance teaching.
“I never, ever saw them leaving without a smile on their face,” she said.
“We laughed, we messed around a lot, but we still performed.”