Isobel Anderson, a lifetime of dance

For a dancer’s parents, all that watching and waiting is like a long haul flight. Nothing happens and nothing happens and then suddenly everything happens. And there she is, or he is, on stage, or there are the exam results, or “silence, please”, someone’s about to announce the competition winners, or the letter arrives from the serious school in London or Melbourne or Hamburg saying yes or no to your darling.

This rainy Sunday in Sydney was another long day in their lives at the Science Theatre on the campus of the University of New South Wales, the setting for so many early morning arrivals, so many rituals, so many vignettes, scents, sounds – the legs stretched on the stair rail, the smell of hairspray, the earmarked and pencilled competition program, the ting-ting of the adjudicators’ bell, and the Christmas concerts, with their grey leotard mice, rustling flowers, goldfish, baby bees, little lambs, goblins, taffeta wrapped fairies, mermaids, and the ‘big girls’ (what, 12, 13 years old?) in their tutus and tiaras and mum’s bright red lipstick.

Yes, here they were again, this time for the finals of the Isobel Anderson Awards, an annual competition held by the New South Wales Regional Advisory Panel of the Royal Academy of Dance. At the end, all 38 competitors posed on stage awaiting the verdict. To one side, sat Isobel Anderson herself, now in her 90s. As the winners accepted their prizes, some kissed her cheek and some curtseyed. She smiled. I wondered just how many of the dancers knew anything of her past.

The Isobel Anderson Awards began in 1987, the year she retired after a lifetime devoted to dance. She began her training aged 12 at the Osborn School of Dance in Sydney and by 18 completed her RAD exams at the Frances Scully ballet school. Delving back into ancient newspaper pages, I found a report of Isobel dancing at Sydney’s Theatre Royal in December 1939 at a charity matinee staged by Miss Scully.

Together with Tamara Tchinarova, Valentin Zeglovsky, and Audrae Swayne, Isobel danced a principal role in a performance of Les Sylphides staged by Helene Kirsova, who had settled in Sydney after dancing with the first Australian tour of Col. de Basil’s Ballets Russes. The performance was the culmination of a busy year for Isobel who not only passed her RAD advanced teaching exam in 1939 but also married and began working as an assistant teacher at the Scully school. She ran her own ballet school from 1946 until 1967 and examined RAD students from the early 1950s.

Something else caught my eye in that old newspaper report – a description of Miss Scully’s students aged 3 to 5 who had performed, before Les Sylphides, in a ballet called Bo Peep.

“There has been great excitement in the rehearsal rooms”, wrote the unnamed reporter, “with the sheep and the lambs frolicking round in their little real sheepskin togs and caring not one jot about the soaring mercury. Certainly there is not much of them, for they are the very briefest in length… and even their tails are detachable, for they are fastened on with paper clips! Little black ears, little black gloves, and small dancing black feet complete these attractive costumes. And what a job it was for the organisers to find enough real sheepskins to make the dancing sheep. Woolbuyers and even the Wool Commission rallied to the rescue and the finished results are very fetching”.

Nothing about the parents, though, the stalwarts who made sure the gloves and ears, shoes and paper clips were all present and correct. Yet we know, don’t we, that the paper clips would fail and some of those tails would fall off on stage. Never mind, the mums and dads would whisper, “you were beautiful, you were the best”.