Physical culture still going strong 

Bronwyn Lynch with daughter Brianna Gorfine Picture Jonathan Carroll . WINNER: Brooke Davey, senior national physical culture champion 2012.
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While these days you’re more likely to find people running off to a Zumba class in their lunch breaks, in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s it was physical culture luring them from their office cubicles to get moving.

Anyone with sisters, daughters, nieces, girlfriends or granddaughters are likely to have heard of physical culture – or “physie” – as it’s fondly known.

But as it incorporates a variety of dance styles, as well as gymnastics, marching and balancing, it can be difficult to describe.

“It incorporates a bit of ballet and gymnastics and calisthenics and jazz dancing,” says Fiona Way, of Waratah BjP Physical Culture Club.

A business women’s physie class believed to be circa 1940.

“It’s a really friendly form of dancing, and it’s age specific.

“It’s relatively low cost in comparison to other dance schools.

PIONEERING TEACHER: Val Connors at her home in Charlestown. Picture Jonathan Carroll

“It also lends itself to a competitive edge as well – you can compete as an individual or as a group for your club.

“But if you don’t want to go in a competition, you’re not compelled to. It’s optional.”

Competition starts mid-year, and those who make the national finals compete at the Sydney Opera House.

New routines are choreographed and learnt every year to suit the different age groups.

“There’s not a lot of sports around that can really be promoted as a mother and daughter sport, but physie is,” Way says.

“My mother started physie in the 1950s and she competed until she was in her 50s.

“I was about two when I started copying my older sister in the lounge room.

“I love learning the new routine and dancing to the music.

“I love competing in the team events and competing with the friends I’ve made throughout the years.

“You compete against girls you’ve known forever. Once you’ve got the bug you never really stop.”

Inspired by European and Scandinavian exercise styles, physie – pronounced “fizzy” – was developed by Danish-born Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen in Hobart in 1892.

(If you’re wondering at the name, former premier of Queensland Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was his nephew).

The success of Bjelke-Petersen Bros. gym – which later became the Bjelke-Petersen School of Physical Culture (BjP Physie) – spread to Sydney and Melbourne.

By the early 1900s, physical culture was taught in private city schools and some businesses.

“It started because more people were moving into sedentary jobs in offices and factories and as people moved into cities, it was a way to keep them active,” Way says.

“It was for men and women, but over the years it evolved into a dance sport for girls and women. They taught it at schools, and they would teach women in the city during their lunch breaks.

Charlestown’s Val Connors, 80, brought physie to Newcastle 50 years ago.

The milestone was celebrated with a reunion at Harbourview Function Centre in December.

“The DJ had probably never seen the dance floor so packed,” Way laughs.

Connors became a physie teacher after being rejected from teachers college on account of being left-handed.

“You weren’t allowed to be left-handed in those days,” she says. “And I started to stammer when they tried to change me, so I remained left-handed.

“But the Bjelke-Petersens ran a three-year course to train you as a PE and physical culture teacher, so I did that.

“Prior to that I’d only ever done physie at school, and I’d loved it.

“I was teaching in the private schools, then I took to teaching physical culture in the clubs in the evenings to make some extra money.

“My husband was a doctor and he took an internship at the Mater Hospital, so we moved to Newcastle.”

Introducing physie to Novocastrians wasn’t easy.

“No one had ever seen or heard of it,” Connors says.

“But I trained the teachers and they nearly all came out of Waratah club, and that’s how it expanded.”

About 700 girls and women continue to do physie in the Hunter Region today.

Connors retired from teaching four years ago.

She has collected many funny memories from the physie floor. She remembers telling the audience at a physie demonstration how learning physical culture would teach them how to move gracefully and beautifully, before promptly stepping back and falling into a hole on the stage.

“Another time, one of our teams went out and did their floor routine at a competition,” she says.

“Then when the music stopped they all got up except for this one girl who was still on the floor on her hands and knees.

“I went over to her and whispered, ‘What are you doing?’ and she whispered back, ‘I’ve lost my contact lens!’ So she and the rest of the team were crawling around the stage looking for the missing contact lens,” she laughs.

“There have been many funny moments and mishaps over the years.”

Many may still associate physie with big hair, heavy make-up and fake tans.

Some young dancers (circa 1980s) were even known to skip school the day before a physie competition so their peers wouldn’t see them decked out in hair curlers and orange-tinted tans in preparation. Fake tans weren’t nearly as subtle then as they are today.

But the sport has changed in that regard. Especially for the younger dancers.

“It’s like anything – some would go over the top,” Connors says.

“The children were allowed to have their hair teased, and then all of a sudden they became these huge bouffant styles – they were enormous!

“And little kids were wearing false eyelashes and glitter on their faces.

“They did away with all of that gradually about 15 years ago.

“They are children when it’s all said and done.”

Now, girls up to the age of 14 cannot wear face or body glitter, false eyelashes, fake tan, hair pieces, fake nails or heavy eye make-up in competitions. Their hair must be simply groomed, adorned only by a plain ribbon.

“I was very pleased when that rule came in. They were starting to look like the little kids in those beauty pageants,” Connors says.

“Now there is more of a positive message – it’s not about what they look like, it’s more about how they’re dancing.

“But the senior girls can do whatever they like – they all wear the fake tan, without a doubt.

“But the senior girls are beautiful, and really quite glamorous.

“They move so beautifully and they know how to present themselves.

“Their make-up is perfect, their hair is spot-on, they choose leotards and clothing that suits their complexion.”

The leotards were introduced in about 1967.

Prior to that, they wore tunics.

“They were horrified, they thought they’d never be able to walk out in a leotard,” Connors says.

Physie has had to move with the times and evolve.

More than 130 clubs are registered with BjP Physie, with numbers ranging from 20 to 250 members at each. It remains the largest physie organisation in the country.

Last year, some of its members broke away to begin APDA – the Australian Physie and Dance Association.

“Some people’s perception of physie was that it needed to be modernised,” APDA director Ronelle Wilson says. “A few of the teachers wanted to move it in a different direction.

“It’s still pretty much physie as people have always known it, but we wanted to bridge the gap between contemporary dance and physie.”

There are APDA physie clubs in Port Macquarie and the Central Coast, but none in Newcastle as yet.

“The first option for a lot of parents is to take their children to ballet or jazz classes,” Wilson says.

“Physie offers that anyway, but people might not think to go to physie.

“So we’re trying to bridge that gap even more, so that if you go to physie you get jazz ballet and contemporary dance all mixed into the one class.”

Everyone agrees on the benefits of physie.

The self-confidence it brings, the health and fitness benefits, and the good posture, flexibility and sense of rhythm it promotes.

You can start physie from as young as three, and there is no upper age limit.

Some women compete into their 70s and 80s.

“There’s an over-60s team event, and there was a team from Merewether who got a place in that section last year,” Way says.

Merewether’s Bronwyn Lynch, 38, has done physie non-stop since she began as a three-year-old in Wauchope.

As a junior, she won five of seven titles at the Sydney Opera House national finals.

Now she competes in the ladies category, and teaches physie.

“It gets in your blood and you just keep going,” she laughs.

The dancers are judged on their strength, control, flexibility, accuracy, expression and posture in competitions.

Lynch continued to do physie throughout her two pregnancies.

“It’s great to be able to do physie together, to do it as a mother and daughter thing,” she says.

“It’s that constant personal achievement to do something the best you possibly can.

“And the fear of getting into fishnets and lycra in November each year is enough to stop you eating too much rubbish, let me tell you,” she laughs.

Physie has changed a lot since Lynch began 35 years ago.

“It’s much more dance-oriented now, and the music is much more current.

“Years ago it was getting a bit daggy, but it has really come up to speed.”

There are seven physie clubs in Newcastle and surrounds. They are taking registrations for 2013.

To find your nearest club, visit physicalculture南京夜网.au.