How It All Began

31 December 2020 marked 100 years since the founding of the Royal Academy of Dance. This was an event which significantly impacted the development of British ballet and which came about largely through the influential editorial of the Dancing Times magazine, founded some ten years previously by Philip Richardson (1875-1963).

As editor, Richardson transformed the former ‘house magazine’ into a national monthly publication that covered all forms of dance internationally. His passion was for ballroom dance, but he immersed himself in the developing British ballet scene, which at this time was being revived by the presence of Russian artists such as Lydia Kyasht, Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company.

The Dancing Times was first published in 1894 as the house magazine of the Cavendish Rooms, a ballroom dancing establishment in London.

In December 1912, Richardson met Edouard Espinosa at the Arabian Nights Ball in Covent Garden, where Espinosa was responsible for the highlight of the evening’s entertainment – La Farandole – a Provencal peasant dance which garnered faint praise from Richardson in the following month’s Dancing Times. Struggling to find anything to say in its favour, he described the scene as a “mad hurrying scramble – a scramble, however, that was always orderly and always showed evidences of the careful drilling that the participants had been put through by Mr. Espinosa.”

Son of the prodigious dancer and choreographer Léon, Espinosa was exposed to his father’s technical expertise from an early age but did not begin training himself until his late teens. He made his debut at the Old London Aquarium in 1889 and was particularly successful with his arrangements for West End musical productions and pantomimes during the 1890s. It was as a teacher, however, that Espinosa would have the greatest influence and it was in this capacity that his friendship with Richardson would flourish. Espinosa had opened his first school in 1896 and in 1908 established the ‘British Normal School of Dancing’ – the first to hold examinations and issue certificates.

Espinosa invited Richardson to observe his daily classes and the two men found common purpose in campaigning to improve the state of dance and dance teaching in Britain. In 1913 the Dancing Times published the first edition of Espinosa’s Technical Dictionary of Dancing subtitled ‘What the teacher must know, what the dancer should know’, and regular articles and discussions on the subject began to appear in the monthly magazine.

Matters were brought to a head in 1916 when Richardson, writing as ‘The Sitter Out’, devoted his entire column/editorial? to Espinosa’s cause, publishing his syllabus under the title: ‘What every teacher of operatic dancing ought to know and be able to teach’. In addition to this “a small tribunal” was proposed “consisting of three or four ladies and gentlemen who were absolutely impartial, who thoroughly understood dancing, and who knew what a person should know to be qualified to teach. This tribunal should issue certificates to those whom they considered qualified, in their operatic dancing, to those adopting a professional career and to those who, not having studied so thoroughly, were nevertheless qualified, in their opinion, to teach it in its simpler forms to amateur children.”

The article elicited supportive responses from several well-known dance artists and teachers, including Adeline Genée, Phyllis Bedells and Lucia Cormani. But despite the considerable interest, the time was not yet ripe for a cooperative tribunal.

Genée was one of the first to “congratulate the Dancing Times and Espinosa on drawing attention to the fact that there are to-day a number of people posing as teachers of dancing who are totally unqualified to do so and for stating that the time had come when this state of affairs must be altered.”

In 1920, after a period of working overseas, Espinosa returned to Britain and resumed discussions on the tribunal with Richardson. In the July edition of the Dancing Times, a series of monthly dinners was proposed at which dancers and teachers could ‘meet together, get to know one another, and discuss the different phases of their art.’ The inaugural dinner was held on Sunday 18 July at the Trocadero and attended by around fifty dancers and teachers. Genée was unanimously elected as President of the ‘Circle’, and speeches were given by Karsavina and Espinosa, among others. Richardson ‘referred to the necessity of teachers forming an Association which would raise the standard of teaching and help to prevent people setting up as teachers who were not properly qualified.’

A second dinner on 17 October attracted an even greater number of supporters and a provisional committee was formed to take the steps deemed necessary to establish an “association which would make it its duty to see that all teachers taught correctly.” The committee consisted of Genée (chair), Espinosa and Karsavina alongside British ballerina Phyllis Bedells and the Italian dancer Lucia Cormani. Richardson was also elected to serve as Honorary Treasurer and Secretary. The committee immediately set to work on agreeing a syllabus and after a “good deal of ‘give and take’ the first Elementary syllabus was produced and presented  to a crowded meeting of teachers and dancers at the Grafton Galleries, London on 31 December 1920, when The Association of Teachers of Operatic Dancing of Great Britain came into being as an official body.”

“I believe in ballet as the basis of all dancing, the technique of which must be thoroughly and properly taught… The best thing that could happen to England would be the foundation of a National School of Dancing, where only the most expert teachers were engaged to train pupils. We have all the material and temperament in this country to found a school which shall rank with the Russian and other famous State schools.” (Bedells, 1916)

“I am quite in agreement as regards the great harm that is done to the art of dancing through the inefficient teaching which carried on on such a large scale. The best of dancers very often are unable to teach, as the art of teaching is a gift, and it is only by long experience that one is able to impart this learning to others.” (Cormani, 1916)

There are many milestones that have been passed in the 100 years since the RAD was founded and many anniversaries celebrated. Genée’s successor as President in 1954 was the internationally celebrated ballerina Margot Fonteyn, and in her speech given at the Diamond Jubilee dinner in 1981, she observed:

“There have been many ups and downs. There have been many great moments and heartaches; there have been marvellous working associations and bitter differences – like a true marriage the RAD has seen for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer; and in sickness and in health. Like a true marriage the RAD has survived all and it has children, grand-children and great-grand-children spread all over the world. Its influence which could never now be totally eradicated, is becoming more and more profound, more and more appreciated by the teaching profession.”

Her reflections are perhaps even more relevant today as they were then. And, if we are to recognise the extent and success of the growing RAD progeny, then we do need to acknowledge also the part played by its extended family at the Dancing Times.

A version of this article appeared in the December issue of the Dancing Times.