Heels up for community, charity and good, old-fashioned fun
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Heels up for community, charity and good, old-fashioned fun

Category Rabo Community Fund

Heels up for community, charity and good, old-fashioned fun
Kate Strong and Claire Harris, photo credit: Jackson Madders

There are plenty of ways to travel across Australia, and while boot scooting tends not to be one of them, line dancing duo Claire Harris and Kate Strong have kicked this theory to the ground.

Last year the girls Nutbushed their way across the country, covering 46,000km and providing rural and regional communities an opportunity to shimmy along with them during their ‘Hoedowns For Country Towns’ tour.

And it was all in the name of a good cause, with the girls raising $38,250 for charity.

Both proud Queenslanders, Kate from Clifton and Claire from Brisbane, theirs is a friendship that blossomed boot scooting. The pair met at Toowoomba Line Dancing Fun and Fitness in 2018 – although Kate laughs that it took a bit of a boot to get her there.

“Upon finishing school I worked for a season on a station up north, which was great, then I came home to help mum and dad on the farm,” she explained.

“After a while they weren’t so subtle in suggesting I needed to get out and about and meet a few young ones my own age – most people join a netball or tennis club, but I saw line dancing classes advertised and thought to myself ‘what’s not cool about learning to line dance!’”

After her first lesson in 2016 she was hooked.

“I was attempting dances well above my pay grade but it was so much fun, I didn’t sit down all night, it certainly ignited a new passion.”

Claire, on the other hand, has danced her whole life – from ballet and jazz to salsa and Zumba – and upon embarking on an honours project at the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus in 2018, was looking to further capitalise on her new rural surroundings.

“I thought, now I’ve moved here, what’s something stereotypically country that I can try – and line dancing it was, I loved it from my very first lesson,” she said.

Claire and Kate hit it off immediately in 2018, and were no sooner dancing at local pubs across Toowoomba.

Hoedowns For Country Towns born

The idea to line dance across Australia together was a long-held dream of the pair, and in 2022 it became a reality as the girls toured regional Australia for nine months, running 75 events.

“We knew first hand how uplifting line dancing was, and wanted to share the love with people right across the country,” Claire said.

Having both travelled across regional and rural Australia with their careers – Claire a former agricultural journalist with South Australia’s Stock Journal rural newspaper, and Kate a former agricultural consultant for Resource Consulting Services – they were  acutely aware of the importance of bringing communities together, particularly after an incredibly tough few years of covid and natural disasters.

“We wanted to give people in the bush a reason to smile, and it also provided a great opportunity to support worthy causes,” Kate said. “We narrowed it down to seven charities, one in each of the states we visited, all with a rural focus.”

Establishing their not-for-profit Hoedowns For Country Towns, all funds raised above running costs were donated to charity. While they laugh that “we had enough that we didn’t need to live on baked beans each night”, an unexpected highlight was the generosity of the communities they visited.

“It’s so hard to narrow down the highlights of our trip, but the kindness extended to us during our travels was so heartening, people made such an effort to ensure we were supported, whether it was providing us with a meal, or an event venue – it absolutely blew our expectations,” Kate said.

Rabo kicks up its heels

Rabobank was one such organisation, with local Rabo Client Council member Wendy Allen hosting a hoedown at her South Australian winery, Pindarie Wines.

Supported by the Rabo Community Fund, Rabobank’s Yvette Loyson said the event aligned perfectly with Rabobank’s community values, and that it was a pleasure working with the girls.

“The intention of the Rabo Community Fund is to support initiatives just like this – grass roots events and programs that make an impact on the community.”

With the fund’s strong focus on rural health, Yvette said Hoedowns For Country Towns was a fantastic opportunity for our rural communities to stay active, and connected.

The Rabo Community Fund provided a donation to the girls’ charity of choice in South Australia, Cottages for Country Care, an organisation providing accommodation for rural people coming to the city needing medical care.

An adventure embraced by Australia

From Uluru to the Tasmanian coastline, Kate and Claire hosted events that the whole community could participate in, attracting a diverse range of ages and skills.

Heels up for community, charity and good, old-fashioned fun

“We had a six year old who could dance better than us, right through to an 84-year-old who had a blast, and that was the beauty of our event, it was an opportunity for communities to come together, learn a dance – even if you have two left feet – and most of all, have fun,” Claire said.

Setting out in March 2022, the girls admit they had no expectations, laughing that there’s not really a blueprint for boot scooting around Australia, but by mid-June their reputation preceded them.

“Initially we pitched ourselves to local councils and community groups, asking if we could hold our events in local halls, and thanks to media and of course the old bush telegraph, it wasn’t long before we picked up momentum, and communities began to approach us,” Kate said.

Their largest gathering was 104 people, and in some small towns only a handful attended, but everyone who did, came away thrilled.

“We met so many wonderful people, and the impact the event had on them made it all worthwhile,” Kate said.

From line-dancing with the cops at Kununurra, described by Kate as a true 'what has my life come to' moment, to teaching a giraffe onesie-clad group on a remote outback station, the girls could write a book with the stories they gathered.

And it just so happens they are, with a book highlighting their adventures currently in the pipeline.

It wasn’t all roses and sunshine, with both conceding that there was much exhaustion, and days when they couldn’t face one more Nutbush.

“Regardless of how we felt, we had to put on a bright face and literally put our dancing shoes on to inspire an event full of eager line dancers, and their energy immediately empowered us back into top gear,” Claire said.

“If even just one person had fun, then it was all worth it.”

They describe some of their adventures as “type 2 fun – horrible at the time, but quite amusing in retrospect”.

Nearly running out of water in Kakadu, because they thought there were drinking taps in the park, was one such occasion, as was teaching at an event in Coolgardie after not having access to a shower for three days.

Eating ham and cheese sandwiches that had been stored in 40-degree heat in Birdsville, and navigating through a flooded NSW provided more ‘type 2 fun’.

Returning to their loved ones in December, both agree they were ready for a break – from each other, they laughed, and life on the road.

Initiative leaves a lasting impact

And while the bulk of the adventure is over for Hoedowns For Country Towns, the pair still have a few moves up their sleeve for 2023.

Hoedowns For Country Towns was a feature of this year’s Rabobank Grow2gether, a Rabobank staff event helping build team culture which includes leading international and local speakers examining new ideas, innovations and practical solutions for the vitality and sustainability of the food and agri sector.

“We’re were excited to have been asked to such an important event on the Rabobank calendar, and had so much fun getting guests up and dancing and helping contribute to a great atmosphere,” Claire said.

The transition back to reality has been welcomed, a return to routine the tonic they both needed.

Kate is based in Rockhampton working at Central Queensland University in the Ag Tech Education and Extension department, helping develop ag programs for use in schools, whilst Claire is in Adelaide, and looking to expand her freelance journalism work and also set up two small businesses, one teaching line dancing in schools, and the other writing the life stories of senior members of the community.

Both are exceptionally proud of what they achieved, reflecting fondly on the people and places they experienced.

The past 12 months has also fuelled a deeper sentiment to live a life with purpose.

“We live in an incredible country – we can attest to that first-hand – and I want to make sure I continue to contribute, at home and at work, for a greater good of the community,” Kate said.