Dances and balls had long been popular forms of socialising for Melbourne's Italian-Australians. But, with Italy's entry into World War Two in June 1940, large gatherings of 'enemy aliens' (as people of Italian origin were now regarded) were viewed with suspicion. Following a decision by Archbishop Mannix, the dances recommenced, under the auspices of the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief.
Fr Ugo Modotti, chaplain to Victoria's Italian community, announced from the pulpit that the Catholic Church would be organising weekly dances. The dances were about keeping the Italian community together despite the hardships of war and internment. Unity was so important to the Church that priests ministering to the Italian community put aside any misgivings about unmarried couples dancing together!
Lena Santospirito was the organiser of the Archbishop's Committee's dances. Most dances were held at St George's Church Hall in Carlton, and at Cathedral Hall in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Lena Santospirito was assisted in her work by various helpers. Young single women were particularly eager to help at the dances. One helper remembers that at each dance there would be four of five volunteers, serving drinks to the dancers. 'Two girls would stay, always to serve drinks, and the others would go out and take it in turns to go dancing'.
Between 1940 and 1943, Santospirito arranged 57 dances, which netted 2092 pounds (around $100,000 in today's terms) for the Committee's welfare activities. The dances grew even more popular during the post-war period, when the numbers of migrants from Italy grew rapidly. Financial documents in the Santospirito Collection show that, in the early 1950s, each dance, held on every Saturday and Sunday night, had attracted at least 500 people (see Series 33 Dance Returns).
The dances provided a way for the 'old' (pre-1945) and 'new' Italian-Australian communities to interact. Many marriages between Italian-Australian women and men newly arrived in Australia from Italy resulted from meetings at the post-war dances. One woman reflected: 'I can remember, it was strange for some of the new migrants, because in some places in Italy, the priests wouldn't have approved of dancing at all. But here in Australia, we'd go to confession, and we'd go out of the church and into the hall, to the dance-and the priest would come too!'
The Archbishop's Committee also organised debutante balls for Italian-Australian girls. The first was held in 1946. The Santospirito Collection contains records from the Grand Coronation Debutante Ball in May 1953 at St Kilda Town Hall and the Return Ball, held at Fitzroy Town Hall in August 1953.
Source: Italian Historical Society