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Robertson, James (Sandy) (1908–1995)

by Kay Ferres

This article was published:

James ‘Sandy’ Robertson (1908–1995), teacher of ballroom dancing, was born on 9 April 1908 in Edinburgh, son of James Robertson, saddler, and his wife Mary Wight, née Moffat. After his mother’s death, his father remarried. A second son was born, to add to the existing family of a son and daughter. Sandy attended Dalry Primary School, before working in a bakery for two and a half years. Unhappy at home, he moved to Craigielinn farm, Paisley, which trained poor boys for employment as rural labourers in the dominions. In 1925 he made a ‘Lads’ Application’ (QSA 1122825) for assisted migration to Australia. To qualify for the scheme, he signed an undertaking to engage in agricultural work. He sailed for Queensland in March.

The story of Robertson’s impoverished background and his escape from it was one he liked to tell. Having worked in the bush to repay his passage, he moved to Brisbane as the Depression hit. One night, he went to the Trocadero dance palace, and found his vocation. He practised tirelessly, blackened his ankles with boot polish in place of the socks he could not afford, and went on to win a series of amateur ballroom-dancing competitions. In 1934 he and his partner, Peggy Smith, became the Queensland and Australian champions. This win heralded the beginning of a more glamorous life. He was contracted to give demonstrations at gala events from Melbourne to Cairns, performing with popular orchestras such as Billo Smith’s band. His success gained him employment in C. E. Moss’s dance studio. On 1 November 1936 he opened his own studio in Brisbane, trading as J. Sandy Robertson.

National dancing competitions declined in importance during World War II. When they resumed, Robertson’s pupils were prominent. Among his protégés were Dick and Noela Orchard, who won the South Pacific amateur championship in 1952, and John and Carol Kimmins, who would later be British champions (1976). Those dancers became teachers in his expanding studio, and their success attracted many other pupils.

Social dancing was a major form of recreation in the years following the war, and in Brisbane its popularity was reflected in the number of well-attended venues, among them the legendary Cloudland, where romance flourished and many a proposal of marriage was made. Dancing was also promoted to returned servicemen to aid their reintegration into the peacetime community. Robertson worked with soldier amputees and children with prostheses, and with the vision impaired, so that they could participate in social life. He would continue to work with disabled people throughout his career.

In 1946 and 1947 Robertson toured Britain and met Constance Dorothy Harmer, née Dolden, a divorcee. She joined him in Brisbane in 1948, as a teacher in his studio. On 22 March 1951 they were married in the Ann Street Presbyterian Church. The couple gained local recognition as authorities on dance, demonstrating the latest crazes. They also gave advice on deportment. At their classes, children and teenagers were taught not just how to dance, but how to behave. When the young Queen Elizabeth II visited Brisbane in 1954, Connie demonstrated the curtsy to women preparing to attend the royal ball in Brisbane.

After television came to Queensland in 1959, Robertson saw an opportunity to broaden dance’s appeal to young audiences. He became a regular on the live Saturday morning children’s show The Channel Niners, hosted by ‘Captain’ Jim Iliffe. Children queued around the block for tickets to the show, and a fortunate few were plucked from the audience to learn the steps from ‘Uncle Sandy.’

Robertson promoted the professionalisation of dance teachers. One of the first members of the Queensland Society of Dancing and a member (1938) and later fellow of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, London, he had represented the Federal Association of Teachers of Dancing, Australia, on his tour of Britain and, while there, had arranged its affiliation with the imperial body. As a result, he and other Australian dance teachers were recognised internationally as examiners and adjudicators.

Divorced in 1976, Robertson married Barbara Mary Boddy, herself an accomplished dancer, on 22 March 1982 at his house at Sorrento, on the Gold Coast. They travelled with an international group of dancers to Hong Kong, Macau, and the People’s Republic of China in 1988 for festivals and demonstrations of ballroom and Latin American dance, which drew vast audiences at live venues and on television and, in China, raised money for disabled people. He was one of a panel of six international adjudicators for the twenty-day tour.

The Australian Dancing Board granted Robertson life membership and in 1994 he was awarded the OAM. He died on 9 November 1995 at his home and, following a Presbyterian funeral, was cremated. His wife survived him; he had no children.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Carbon, Daenie. ‘AM [sic] Recognises Lifetime’s Work.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 26 January 1994, 2
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM1122825
  • Robertson, Barbara. Personal communication
  • Smith-Hampshire, Harry. ‘100,000 Chinese Welcome Dancers.’ Dance News, no. 1051 (August 1988): 1, 8–9
  • Smith-Hampshire, Harry. ‘The Pioneers of 20th Century Dancing: Sandy Robertson.’ Dance News, no. 1102 (August 1989): 13–14

Additional Resources

Citation details

Kay Ferres, 'Robertson, James (Sandy) (1908–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-james-sandy-27839/text35585, published online 2020, accessed online 9 August 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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