We’ve seen it on TV shows, but what really happens when you pack your bags and move to the coast? For Dainy Sawatzky and Robert O’Neill, it means finding a community and room to breathe.
words katie cincotta photos warren reed
When she was 16 and auditioning for a place in The Australian Ballet, Dainy Sawatzky never imagined her life would take such a dramatic turn. The petite, doe-eyed beauty was dealt a cruel blow by the company’s doctor, who told her without reservation that she would never make it as a ballerina. “I was obsessed with ballet. It was my life. But if you don’t have the talent, the body shape, or the thick skin, you’re history … you have to have it all going for you.”
For most aspiring ballerinas, it is the emergence of hips or a bust that sidelines their career prospects. For Dainy, it was her feet, specifically the rotation of her legs. “My issue was that I didn’t have the turnout.” The doctor told Dainy if she continued to force her turnout from her feet and her knees, rather than her hips, she would be left an immobile arthritic by her 20s.
That was the first of several blips on the life path that would send Dainy’s plans into a pirouette.
Years later when she was doing a photo-shoot with a principal dancer, Vicky Attard, she was horrified to hear the star ballerina’s stories of a sordid and lonely life at the top. “I thought it was a catastrophe at the time, and then you look back and say, ‘Thank God I didn’t end up in that world’.”
The RMIT fashion graduate went on to build a successful career as the head designer for bridal couturier Mariana Hardwick, later launching her own line of dance-inspired clothing – Body. She and her actor husband Robert O’Neill revelled in their respective success until the birth of their two children, when city life became a stressful juggling act. “I felt a massive yearning to slow down, spend time with my young kids and be a ‘proper’ mum. I felt overwhelmed, stressed, and not happy. At 6am we’d be taking the kids to childcare and you were always feeling like you never had time to be with them, so we decided to sell the business.”
The company that bought Body kept Dainy on as an employee, but when they became a victim of the GFC she found herself out of a job. By this time, Rob had rediscovered his love affair with the sea and had taken up paddle-boarding – the family trekking most weekends from bayside St Kilda to Kilcunda or Inverloch.
The wind was moving them seaward – the pull of the ocean, the wind whispering through towering trees, the quiet lull of a town not caught up by congestion or noise or pretention.
They drove to Inverloch and never went back. “Two weeks later we had signed a lease, cancelled the childcare, and packed the car. It was the most amazing feeling,” say the buoyant sea-changers. “I just wanted somewhere I could surf. Dainy wanted trees. Because mum had sung in the jazz festival at Inverloch for many years, she knew people. So one Thursday we got in the car and drove down just for a look. And that afternoon we enrolled the kids in school and rented a property,” says Rob.
Perhaps there was a tethering to this seaside town, a place that reminded Rob of his childhood in Cornwall. And where Dainy had the sense that she could simply breathe again and Rob’s mother, Nana Patsie, could take her family into a protective fold.
Patsie shares a very special bond with her only child, her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren Scout and Ryder. As a ‘railway child’ – a real-life Paddington Bear – during World War II, four-year-old Patsie and her five siblings were shipped off to the country to escape the bombings in London. This government initiative cast children off at train stations with just a suitcase: they would wait there for someone to choose them and take them to a strange new home. She grew up to be a jazz singer in London, fell in love with a professional soccer player from Scotland, moved to Chicago and had a baby.
When the couple split, Patsie moved back to the UK, but in the 60s single mothers were not permitted to rent houses, and Rob was sent to live with his aunt in the seaside village of Cornwall. He remembers climbing out of the window onto the roof and looking out across the rugged English coastline, and feeling a connection to the ocean.
Dainy’s immigrant father also endured hardship as a German born in Israel into a religious cult called The Templars. “When
the war broke out he was shipped to Australia and not allowed to go back home. He spent the first six years of his life in a prison camp in Tatura.” For both Dainy and Rob, those incredible family life events have given them a rare perspective, and even as complete opposites, they don’t doubt they were drawn to each other as kindred spirits.
The couple crossed paths three times in their lives – first as teenage students at The National Theatre, years later at the building of Mariana Hardwick’s Bourke St store, and finally at a party in St Kilda. Like something out of a Hollywood rom-com, Dainy recalls leaving the party early and heading home with her girlfriend in a taxi before doing an about-face.
“I got in the cab, looked at her and said, ‘There’s someone I’m supposed to meet at this party. I don’t know why, but I need to go back’.” Dainy returned, and within minutes a hand was extended in greeting. St Kilda bar-owner Robert O’Neill had spotted her across a crowded room. “I was reeking of desperation. And my first words to her were, ‘Haven’t I seen you in my local paper?” says Rob. “He was totally tall and dazzling and I was awestruck,” admits Dainy.
A few days later he called her and proved his worth as a prankster. “I said I was a 300-pound transvestite with one leg who needed a costume,” says Rob. “I had a few transvestite customers,” Dainy remembers, “so I couldn’t really dismiss him, but he said his performance focuses on his high kicks … and then I clicked.”
Rob has done some colourful work in his time, working as a DJ in London, and scoring the gig as the host of Countdown Revolution in 1990. “I remember meeting Molly Meldrum. His first question was ‘Do you love music?’ He gave me a Motley Crue album, and asked me for my opinion on it.” After the music show was axed, Rob went on to manage bands and nightclubs.
“And then I met Dainy …” “Then his life started,” adds his wife. “And then I had to grow up,” says Rob. “But I did get a skateboard for my 51st birthday,” he brags.
Having left behind the stress and pressure of life in the city, this young family has found sanctuary and freedom in Inverloch. “We have the best of everything here – the kinder, the school, the supermarket … there’s still a sense of community, and that really sets up the town. It’s easier to make friends – you connect more readily and I’ve never sensed that before. That was an unexpected bonus.”
Dainy laughs when she thinks back to the chaotic mess of her old life. “I used to be the mum sending the kids to Crazy Hair Day on the wrong day. Now the kids ride to school. There are no traffic lights. If they ever put any here, we’ll be very cranky. Even if the kids are down the street on their own, I know there are people around who will look after them. It’s the feeling that your whole town is your little supportive cushion, like an extended family.”
Rob says the overall feeling of the sea-change is one of security. “It’s that feeling of safety that you don’t get in the city. In our street we had people with substance-abuse problems and you had to be in eye-line of your kids all the time. There was dread. Here’s it’s so relaxed,” says Rob.
The Hardiplank house they bought a year ago, with its grubby green carpet and rabbit warren of rooms, has been transformed from its ‘hideous’ past into a light, open haven. “We looked for a place that had massive potential. The outlook was one of the selling points for us, and you can just see the water. The inlet beach is a five-minute walk away.” Two chickens, Chocky and Caramel, roam the back yard and come up to the back door for a sticky-beak. Dainy’s workroom is where she puts together her handcrafted cloth Lola With Love dolls, which look naturally beautiful without the hyper-sexualized look of a Bratz or a Barbie. “It started with making one for my daughter for Christmas. We got here and I thought, ‘I’m going to be a proper country mumma and make presents rather than buy them’.”
She admits her parents were insular people and she was becoming the same, but she made a conscious decision to reach out in the small town. “I was aware that I was so caught up in work that I found connecting with people very hard. But I did really want to change that part of my life, and it has taken time to learn how to do that. The first thing I did was join a craft group, and forced myself to go out and meet people.”
Now, there’s no talk of busy jobs and fancy cars. “We ask about each other, the wind, the swell, the surf. Nobody talks about what they do, what they own, and where they’re going. It’s a very relaxed vibe.” And what of a beloved fashion wardrobe born of decades in the business? “There’s no heels anymore. I can do silver sneakers, but even that’s on the cusp.”
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