TORONTO DANCE TEACHERS
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by Mary Jane Warner


... Assembly balls were arranged to celebrate birthdays, saints' days and the opening of Parliament. The public was admitted upon payment of a small fee. Subscription balls were held, for which community members paid a fee for the entire season. Leading families would also host private balls to mark special family occasions. Most of the dances performed in the early 1800s, such as Jupon Rouge, Money Musk and Tars of the Victory, were country reels performed in two columns of four with partners facing opposite each other. The head couple gradually moved down the line of dancers performing a weaving pattern among the other couples until they arrived at the bottom of the line, and then the next head couple would do the same until everyone had a turn. Often members of the regimental band, stationed at the garrison, provided music played on wind instruments and a few violins. In January 1817, a ball was even held on board a ship in the harbour. The dancing began at eight o'clock when Mrs. Gore, wife of the current Lieutenant-Governor "led off The Tars of the Victory" and was followed by twenty couple[s] who kept up the dance with great spirit, 'til one o'clock, when they were summoned to the Supper Tables."

At first settlers performed dances that they had brought with them, but as news of the latest dances reached them in letters and newspapers from home, they wanted to learn these new dances also. Some residents such as Mrs. Jarvis, wife of the Provincial Secretary William Jarvis, urged their English relatives to send them "some Country Dance Books - you will get them for a shilling a Piece - let them be the Newest & Pretty," so they could keep up with the current dances. Youngsters needed dance instruction, and members of the lower and middle classes wanted lessons to help them advance socially. In the settlement's first years, a family member would teach the children or, in some instances, a woman might instruct several neighbouring children in the basics of social dance. Adults who wanted to learn dancing might find a friend to teach them, or they could attend the assembly balls and learn by watching or participating in the simpler dances.

Mrs. Cockburn was one of the first teachers to include dancing in her school's curriculum. On May 23, 1822, she placed an ad in the Upper Canada Gazette notifying the public that she was succeeding Mrs. Goodman as the director of a school for young ladies, and that the basic education in her school consisted of English, history, geography, needlework, writing, French, drawing and painting. Music, dancing, flower and card-work were also taught for a small additional fee.

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In 1878 The Modern Dance Tutor; or, Society Dancing, written by Toronto dancing master John Freeman Davis, appeared in local bookstores. The book sold well and secured Davis' reputation as Toronto's leading dance teacher throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

John Freeman Davis was born circa 1835 in the small village of Oakville, situated between Toronto and Hamilton. His father was the first shoemaker in the district and later owned the Halton House Inn and Tavern. His mother, Eliza Freeman, who came from a musical family, died when he was two years old. When his father remarried, John was sent to the Gore District Grammar School to obtain a liberal education. The school gave him a solid academic background and the social graces that, in later years, allowed him to move effortlessly in society. In the early 1850s, feeling out of place in the family home with many half-siblings and an alcoholic father, Davis fled to Toronto to pursue a career in music.

A charming lad, he soon became known at parties as a skilled dancer. Before he reached the age of twenty, people were asking him to show them the latest dances, since he had a natural gift for teaching, and Toronto was bereft of dance instructors following the recent departure of the Hill family. Several years later, Noverre and Andrews arrived on the scene in the mid 1850s, and they likely provided the novice teacher with some formal training. In 1860 Davis married his first wife Ruth. It was difficult to survive as an artist, so he took on various jobs as fruit dealer, oyster seller and tobacconist to supplement his income as a musician. In 1863 his first son, Charles Freeman, was born and four other children followed in quick succession.

In the fall of 1872 Davis embarked officially on his career as a dancing master by advertising in the Globe that he would be giving dancing classes in the Grammar School building. At first, lessons were limited to weekly two-hour classes for adults, and twice weekly for juveniles. Clearly he was testing the waters to see if he could make a living from his dancing skills. The following year he was sufficiently optimistic to expand his offerings to include separate classes for gentlemen and ladies, as well as an advanced class for couples. In addition he opened the Musical Hall store at 177 Yonge Street, where he sold a variety of musical instruments, music books and sheet music. An aspiring composer, he also began selling some of his own musical compositions through the store. His first piece, the Great Pacific Lancers, recognized the addition of British Columbia to the Confederation of provinces. His second piece of sheet music, the Eureka Quadrille, accompanied one of his own most popular dances of that name and included written dance instructions, an innovative practice at the time.

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... A 1917 recital at Massey Hall further demonstrates the increasing complexity of Amy Sternberg's productions. This programme, like many others that she would present in later years, lasted for several hours. Using over eighty dancers, the evening opened with
The Enchanted Princess, loosely based on the famous ballet The Sleeping Beauty and featuring students from beginner to advanced, plus numerous soloists. The lead role of the enchanted princess was played by the talented Helen Codd. It is likely that Sternberg had seen the ballet in 1916 at the New York Hippodrome during one of her trips to New York when the ballet was presented, for the first time outside Europe, in an abridged version starring Anna Pavlova. The next section in Sternberg's 1917 recital, called "Classical Interlude," featured nature dances about sunrise, the babbling brook, butterflies and sunset. These dances paid homage to Sternberg's background in physical culture. The third segment included a highland fling and sword dance, always a traditional part of her programmes. The fourth part contained an interpretive dance called The Moth and the Flame and a dance done on pointe called The Golden Butterfly. Section five consisted of ten divertissements, including a Spanish "castanet dance" and a Russian mazurka. This section was followed by Sternberg's interpretation of the ballet Les Sylphides, clearly influenced by Pavlova's version. The programme closed with her rendition of The Spectre de la Rose. Since there were few boys in the school, male roles were played by senior female students. Sternberg, who had a flair for drawing, often designed the costumes, providing a basic pattern. The parents or students were expected to pay for the fabric and to sew the costumes.

Sternberg visited New York regularly to study at the popular Vestoff-Serova School. Sonia Serova, who had trained at the Wordsworth School in London, England, was an exponent of modern dance as it was evolving in Europe at that time. Her husband, Veronine Vestoff, was a graduate of the Russian Imperial Academy of Arts in Moscow and former ballet master to Anna Pavlova. The marriage of the modern and ballet techniques at the Vestoff-Serova School gave rise to a unique curriculum. Students had the opportunity to study classic, interpretive, folk, character, oriental, nature dancing and ballet.

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Another dancer who brought the Russian ballet style to Toronto was Dimitri Von Prebsting-Cesarevsky. Born into an aristocratic family in 1896, he trained at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, and then toured Europe for four years under the stage name of Dimitri Vladimiroff. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vladimiroff, an ardent monarchist, rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Don Cossack Army, but he was forced to flee the country in the aftermath of the Revolution.

Dimitri Vladimiroff and his pianist wife Leontina immigrated to Toronto in 1921, sponsored by professors at the University of Toronto. At that time new immigrants were required to work for a short period in rural areas, so the Vladimiroffs ended up on a farm in Chatham, Ontario. But the owner of the farm, recognizing that they were both sophisticated artists, let the two go and urged them to find work in the big city. Vladimiroff soon began teaching Russian ballet technique, his wife providing musical accompaniment, at a studio on Yonge Street, just north of King Street. Their first major Toronto performance took place in 1927, when they joined forces with Hiram Mosher to stage a show at Massey Hall. The combined programme contained a mixture of styles, ranging from apache dancing to ballet. Edna Liggitt was featured in several numbers, including Pierrot and Pierrette, a duet for herself and Vladimiroff.

Soon after, "Pop," as his students called him, moved to Montreal to teach, taking with him two of his most talented dancers, Liggitt and Rosalind Dilworth. A highlight of this venture was a cabaret performance produced by S.N. Nadejdin, formerly of the Imperial Russian Ballet, on February 20, 1928, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, in aid of Russian refugees. One of the main features on the programme was an Oriental Ballet to music of Rimsky-Korsakoff, which "with its colorful, plastic scenes and sensuous charm, was pretty throughout. Miss Liggitt's solo dancing had a flowing grace with easy finish and a light debonair touch. Miss Dilworth was also the most delightful soloist, whose dancing had pretty piquancy." Another performance, at the Palais d'Or, featured his dancers in the ballet Raymonda.

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