THE 1920s

THE 1930s




Sutcliffe43BIn the closing-of-the-season party at Hart House, Sutcliffe made a sensation with her work Two Lovers. An anonymous reviewer writes, "Her costume, which, by the way, she had only made yesterday morning, comprised, on one side, a man's coat and trousers, and on the other a frilly frock ... and it was not for several minutes after the curtain rose, that the audience realized only one person, instead of a man and a girl, was putting on the act."

The record after the end of the 1936/37 season is less detailed than previous years. Where she spent the summer of 1937 is unclear but she did resume teaching classes for the Conservatory in the fall in two locations: the usual one on Spadina Road and a second in Forest Hill. With the heated political scene in Europe, she may not have wanted to travel overseas. The Spanish Civil War was a year old by the summer of 1937 and the fascist governments in Italy and Germany, where her inspired teacher Wigman was based, may have affected her summer plans.

She did organize a recital of her pupils in May of 1938 and the following month gave a joint recital with pianist Elsie Bennett at the Arts and Letters Club, which featured Sutcliffe's dance students and Bennett's piano students. Those who had been training with Sutcliffe throughout the 1930s performed including Bettina Byers, Helen Richardson, Violet Andras, Margaret Craigie, Helen Gardiner and Mary Ellen Rumball, among others. Between these two events, she had travelled to Detroit, Michigan, to attend a symposium of high school dance students. She was no doubt intrigued by the fact that dance was taught in Detroit schools from the elementary level right through to university. From Detroit, she travelled to Chicago to survey children's dance work in private schools and settlement houses. After the June concert with Elsie Bennett, Sutcliffe went to New York where she visited her former pupil Estelle Cohen (now at the American Ballet School and going by the name Senta Dobjinskaya) and took courses at Columbia University with composer John Colman. She also studied at Bennington College in Vermont with modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm.

Sutcliffe35BShe must have been inspired by what she saw being done at schools in Detroit and Chicago because she applied to teach dance at the Whitney School in Toronto, but was turned down as the committee thought her classes at two branches of the Conservatory would interfere with her schedule. She jotted some hand-written notes inside this rejection letter from the Whitney School possibly drafting a response; in her notes, she writes, "It has been in my mind for a couple of years. I want to see dancing in every public school in Toronto." These thoughts were very timely because she received a letter in early November from the Canadian Physical Education Association (CPEA). Founded in 1933 by Dr. Arthur S. Lamb of McGill University, CPEA is the organization that is now known as the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (CAHPERD). The letter asks Sutcliffe to write an article about dance in physical education for CPEA's upcoming bulletin and even suggests a couple of titles: "Folk Dancing Should Receive Greater Emphasis in Canada than the Modern Dance [meaning social dances]", "The Dance is to the Girl's program what the inter-school athletics are to the Boy's program", "An Outline of Dance Work for Students beginning in the Kindergarten through to College Level". Early in 1939, she sent an article titled, "Advocating Dancing in Schools". In the article, she begins by describing how dance has penetrated the education system in the United States from the elementary level right into university. She brings up her earlier visit to Detroit and what she saw there: "... I witnessed a most interesting dance symposium of the High School students. Problems were given and those who liked the problems raised their hands, gathered in a group to work them out then and there. Their results were splendid. By problem we mean movement in regard to space - floor pattern - depth - focus, etc." She then talked about how physical education methods are using dance more and more and that themes have changed from the "zoological and horticultural" (such as swans, butterflies, California poppies and roses) to more meaningful themes such as politics, history, civilization and humanity. Pointing out that these new themes are not innately feminine she writes, "Now I ask the boys why should you not take part in working out such dances. With subjects such as these dancing can be rich in content and there is no reason why a man's experience and understanding should not have a place in the dance." She then proceeds to outline a possible program for creative dance from kindergarten to university levels. For kindergarten students, she recommends emphasis on improvisation after giving them some vocabulary to work with such as walking, running and skipping. Imitative movement, activities with props such as balls, and singing games and nursery rhymes can also be incorporated. For the juniorSutcliffe421A grades she suggests the incorporation of folk dancing, spontaneous improvisation to records, rhythmic activity such as percussion and incorporating elements such as poems and stories. For the next level, Sutcliffe suggests the teaching of national dances such as polkas, waltzes and jigs as well as pre-classic dance forms including the minuet, pavanne and gavotte. In the later elementary grades, she suggests the "continuation of Folk Dances" plus the use of "elementary movements to arrange study of dimensions - space, focus, rhythm, etc." For the beginning of high school, Sutcliffe believed that relaxation techniques should be incorporated into the teaching to get students to feel the tension in muscles and then see what it feels like to release that tension; ballroom technique should also be taught. She suggests dance clubs, discussion groups, reviewing dance books, attending concerts and arranging to bring artists into the schools as valuable for the latter high school grades. Performing groups, anatomy and history, including ethnological, sociological and philosophical discussions, should be taught at the university level.

Sutcliffe soon had another forum for her ideas on education. She was invited to participate in a panel to discuss the arts in Canada at an Allied Arts Council event on January 26, 1939. The Allied Arts Council (AAC) was created in 1938 and, according to an information sheet, worked on behalf of all the arts "to bring about solutions to the serious problems facing the arts in Canada"; among the problems cited was the inability of so many Canadian artists to make a living in Canada through their art form and, consequently, it campaigned for government funding for the arts. Other goals included:

  • To seek the cooperation of the Canadian National Exhibition to display at the C.N.E. this year, an exhibition of all the Canadian arts.
  • To hold regular discussion forums on problems facing the various arts and those engaged in them.
  • To conduct research into these problems.
  • To assist in the strengthening of organizations by bringing them the suppport of other organizations.
  • To keep the public advised of the problems and progress of the arts in Canada by press and radio publicity.
  • To seek legislation designed to assist those engaged in the arts and those talented artists who are without employment in the arts for which they have been trained.
  • To seek the establishment of community cultural centres in cities and rural areas, making use of equipment already available in schools, libraries and other public buildings.

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2008, Dance Collection Danse
Alison Sutcliffe Exhibition Curator: Amy Bowring
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Alison Sutcliffe's students dancing on a Toronto rooftop


To read Alison Sutcliffe's speech from the Allied Arts Council panel on January 26, 1939, click on photo above.


Alison Sutcliffe teaching, 1930s










1930 - 1931


1932 - 1933


1933 - 1935


1935 - 1936


1936 - 1937


1937 - 1939