An Autobiography of

Don Herbison-Evans

When I was a toddler during World War 2, my father and mother worked by day, so most days I was left with my Grandmother. She was a pianist, and played for a number of afternoon tea dances. Of course I was taken along. With the dearth of male partners, the many solo ladies there eagerly coopted me into dancing. So I learned the Veleta, and the St Bernard's Waltz and the Military Two Step etc., as soon as I could walk!

My parents had met and courted at social dances, and later tried some competition dancing. When they married, they turned professional. So after the war, of an evening, they would teach dance classes at various halls around my home city (Birmingham, U.K.). They were not able to afford a baby sitter, so I would be taken along too. Dancing just seemed a natural part of life.

My father at this time worked as a labourer attached to the analytical laboratories of a large plastics company. His job was to get samples of all materials entering the plant for analysis. Much of the sampled material was unused during the testing, and he obtained permission to bring home any spare materials. And so, at a very early age, I acquired a chemistry set that you would not believe. These chemicals were great toys, and I got to know them all well.

Then I went to school and found it rather dull. I had one report after several terms of Latin and French, that said:

"He can neither read nor write his own nor any other language".

Then at Secondary School, we started Chemistry. I was back among my familiar toys again. Chemistry was a breeze and a joy, and I felt really at home. I did well at Chemistry. I won an Open Scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. I remember one of the 3 hour entrance exams which required us to analyse and report on an unknown chemical which was supplied to us. I took one look, and saw immediately that it was Lithium Hydride. It only took about a quarter of an hour to riffle through the analytical procedures to prove it, and I spent the rest of the exam dropping small pieces into concentrated nitric acid, in which it made very satisfying little explosions. So I read Chemistry at Oxford, gaining 1st class honours, and later a Doctorate. And so I became a scientist, and my dancing was all left far behind.

After these Chemistry degrees, I took a Fellowship in a Satellite Communications section at a government research establishment, designing microwave antennas, and I later emigrated to Australia to take another Fellowship in the Astronomy Department at Sydney University, studying double stars with an interferometer.

Living in Sydney, I was enthralled by the variety of caterpillars in the garden. I tried taking one to the Australian Museum, but they laughed, and said most of the the taxonomy of Australian Lepidoptera was done in the British Musuem on specimens sent back by Banks et al., so no-one had much idea what the caterpillars were like. One of my friends from Oxford, Stella Crossley, got a job at Monash University in Melbourne at about the same time, and she also was intrigued by the caterpillars in her garden. So we started rearing them to see what they turned into, photographing each stage, and in due course we wrote a book "100 common Australian Caterpillars", which we touted around the local publishers. But they each sat on it for a few months, then returned it saying basically "Ugh: who wants a book on caterpillars?". So that manuscript shelved.

When that Fellowship ran out, after all the computing I had been doing with the Antennas and Astronomy, the Computer Science Department at Sydney University seemed pleased to take me on as a Lecturer in Numerical Analysis.

When the World-Wide-Web appeared, we lecturers were encouraged to write a webpage about ourselves, to introduce ourselves to our students. In mine, I wrote of my interest in caterpillars. Soon I stated getting emails with photos of caterpillars enquiring what they were. So Stella and I decided we were not going to make our fortunes with the book, so we put it on the web. As people sent us more photos it grew, and now has expanded to cover over 4,000 species, each with individual webpages for each species, but sadly less than a 1,000 have associated caterpillar pictures.

At that time, the Head of my new Department (Prof. John Bennett) wanted to start a new course on "Computer Graphics". Being the new boy, I was given the task. It went well, and I started trying to draw some graphic art by computer myself, but got bored with the abstract and geometric forms that dominated "Computer Art" at that time, so became interested in trying to draw people, and computer animation.

Early in 1973, a Sydney Choreographer, Phillipa Cullen, came to the Computer Science Department and talking to Prof. Bennett, she asked a question about a dance notation called 'Labanotation' (Hutchinson, 1954) . She had a book in which were described many interesting dances, but they were listed in Labanotation (Arbeau, 1589) which she did not know. She asked the simple question : "Could a computer program be written to take the notation, and produce animated images of a synthetic figure doing the dance, for then she could copy the movements of the figure and so learn the dance?" Prof. Bennett brought her round to see me, as I was at least trying to draw human figures by computer.

I read some books on the Labanotation and other dance notations, and I could barely understand what they were talking about. The only thing to do seemed to be to go and take some Ballet classes. So there I was, a 40+ male with no flexibility or coordination in with classes of beautiful teenage young ladies who could do a quadruple pirouette and kick their leg up to their ear. Quite an experience.

After many years of teaching Computer Science, I started getting tenosynovitis in my fingers from all the keyboard work, and had to take 2 years off from the University. What could I do all day? Daytime television has limits to its appeal. Then it dawned on me that I could use this time to extend my dancing skills. So I enrolled in a fulltime dance diploma course. Besides Ballet, Jazz, Tap, and Modern, it also included some Ballroom dancing as part of the curriculum, and that was finally like coming home.

After returning to work, I took some sabbatical leave in Canada to study dance notation with Rhonda Ryman at the University of Waterloo. There I met the enthusiastic and lovely Anne Minas, and together we caught the Dancesport Competition bug. We had a great time tripping around Canada to various dance competitions. When I returned to Australia, I advertised for a partner in the Australian Dance Review magazine, and soon found an elegant, patient and talented lady Anna Piper, willing to dance seriously with me. We danced together and went on a wonderful dancing journey in competition ballroom dancing (dancesport) for over 20 years, dancing in competitons in USA and Russia as well as all over Australia. Sadly she died in 2010. Later I started to study for and obtained coaching qualifications of Dancesport Australia.

Now I am retired, but still continue with my hobbies of dancing and caterpillars, and pondering on why gravity goes negative beyond 10 giga-light-years.

(updated 11 November 2018, 28 July 2021)