As an eight-year-old girl, Elizabeth Sim - now 82 - was transported into a musical orbit.

Her mother had taken her to a concert at the Royal Wanganui Opera House to see Winifred Atwell.

"I went into orbit and never came down again ... all I wanted to do was play the piano like Winnie.''

Winifred Atwell, from Trinidad, was hugely popular in Britain, Australia and New Zealand during the 1950s, thrashing her honkytonk piano in fast-paced boogie-woogie and ragtime hits and selling more than 20 million records.

Advertisement

And she inspired Elizabeth, who taught herself to play.

She has her own three-piece "girl band" called The Glencroft Group, comprising accordionists Anne Bernstein in her mid-60s, 77-year-old drummer Joan Robinson and Elizabeth on piano, and they have been the musical stalwarts of the Wanganui Caledonian Society's winter dance season, which runs from April to October every year. In fact, Elizabeth has now been tinkling the piano for the society for 48 years.

Even when she wasn't doing the Saturday night gig for the Caledonian Society, Elizabeth was in constant demand.

She remembers years ago a dad calling on behalf of his daughter who wanted Elizabeth to play at her wedding. The date for the wedding hadn't been fixed because they wanted to fit in with the piano maestro.

"I looked on my calendar and I was completely booked up on Saturday nights for 15 months ahead," she recalls.

"I said I was very sorry and hoped the wedding would go well. About a week later he rang back and said they'd set the wedding date for 15 months ahead because his daughter only wanted me. I was amazed.''

By the time she was 16, Elizabeth's mother decided to buy a piano because she wanted to play the violin and needed her daughter to accompany her.

"I could sort of play - I'd taught myself though as I've never had any lessons.''

When she was in her 40s, Elizabeth had an accident on the family farm when she was out feeding heifers and seriously damaged six discs in her spine.

While in hospital she was told by the doctor she would be at least two years flat on her back in bed - she was in absolute disbelief.

" I was shocked but he wasn't kidding. I've never known such pain ... I used to pass out with the pain and, yes, I was two years on my back."

She decided she had to do something so she didn't get depressed.

Even though she could play the piano, she couldn't read music so she signed up for a music theory course.

"There I was on my back with a tiny keyboard, like a toy one, and I learned to read music and qualified in the exams."

These day she also teaches music, the piano, ukulele, guitar and drums and her pupils are aged from six to 80.

"I only have a few pupils these days and I enjoy the lessons. It's a lot of fun showing people how to play a piece."

She laughs remembering a six-year-old boy being so overcome that he'd managed to play a piece right through without stumbling.

"He was so thrilled he wrapped his arms around me and gave me a big hug. Then he sat down and played the piece three more times in a row."

But over the years it's been the old-time dances at the Caledonian Society that have captured her heart.

"I first went along when my daughter was three and have been up on that stage playing the piano ever since."

The society is now in its 143rd year, and the monthly dances are every third Saturday at St Andrew's Hall in Bell Street (the hall next to the police station).
Elizabeth said you don't necessarily need a partner.

"In fact, you don't even have to dance. But people come and see it, enjoy it and end up joining in old-time dances like the Monte Carlo, Gay Gordons, Valeta, Maxina and Military Two-step."

Children are welcome and encouraged to join in all dances. There's also a lolly scramble and special dances for the young, like the Birdie Dance and the Hokey Cokey. The Caledonian dance season started last Saturday.

"And we run through till October now on every third Saturday." And just to add to her busy schedule, Elizabeth also accompanies dance classes.

"I have a wonderful life - every day is filled with music."