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Ivy Conmee at the age of 15, was the first South African to bring back the Teachers Diploma of the Operatic Association which today is kown as the Royal Academy of Dancing.

After spending most of her childhood in London, South African born Ivy Conmee returned to Johannesburg to open a dance school which through the years created a tremendous interest in the Academy's work. Miss Conmee's name is invariably mentioned whenever reference is made to the Academy in South Africa.

She devoted many years of her life to the Academy's development and its training, being a founder member of the Royal Academy of Dancing in South Africa, a children's examiner and vice chairman of the South African Advisory Committee, and also a member of Grand Council.

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The Royal Academy of Dancing was established in South Africa in 1927 but interest in ‘fancy-dancing’ was prevalent in various parts of the country, particularly Cape Town and Johannesburg long before that.

In 1920 Madame Ravodna visited South Africa to perform at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg.  She stayed on and that was the beginning of the teaching of real technical ballet in South Africa.

Madame Ravodna held annual dancing displays to arouse interest among lovers of dancing.  To quote from the ‘Women’s Page’ of a Johannesburg newspaper, dated 23rd July, 1924 :

The cream of the show was of course, Madame Ravodne’s own dancing, unfortunately only seen in one solo, which showed examples of technique only attainable after years of study allied to a natural gift.  Her most admired achievement was her grand jete dessous en tournant which was performed with a correctness seldom seen in South Africa.  The poise of her body and her pointes were outstanding and as an example to the many young teachers and students both on stage and in the audience should have proved most valuable.

At this stage three names kept on coming to the fore – Poppy Frames, Marjorie Sturman and the Conmee sisters – Ivy and Mary, all of whom had traveled many times to London to undertake further training and examinations.  Ivy Conmee at the age of 15 was the first South African to bring back the teachers’ diploma of the Operatic Association (the Academy’s former name). 

In 1927 a great deal of press publicity is given in South Africa to Madame Adeline Genée, President of the Operatic Dancing Association of Great Britain and the fact that the Operatic Dancing Association had done an enormous amount in ‘putting the teaching of dancing on a sound footing and getting rid of the dangers of bad tuition’.

To quote Marjorie Sturman : “Poppy Frames, Ivy Conmee and I, together with several other teachers, were instrumental in arranging for Edouard Espinosa, brother of Ray Rovodna and founder of and examiner for the Operatic Association of Great Britain, to come to South Africa to examine candidates.  We sent Espinosa a telegram guaranteeing him £500.00 and not a penny f it did we have!  He accepted our invitation and we became frantically busy arranging cake sales, book sales, raffles, competitions, every possible thing we could think of, to raise that vast sum of money.  We did!”

Then with the financial backing of Miss Poppy Frames’ brother, the South African Branch of the Operatic Dancing Association was formed.  Thus South Africa became the first country to embrace the methods of the Association of Operatic Dancing in Great Britain, later to become the Royal Academy of Dancing.

Espinosa appointed Ivy Conmee, Poppy Frames and Marjorie Sturman as the first examiners of the Association in South Africa.

1926 was a year to be remembered in the history of dancing, Pavlova came to South Africa in January of that year.  With her she brought a ballet dancer’s magic to cast the spell of ballet over the country.  Ballet as we see it today can be traced back directly to that visit which lifted the curtain to the ballet dancer’s artistry.  Technical training and teaching was available but it was Pavlova who brought actual ballets to this country.  She had an everlasting, legendary quality which today still brings to her name an aura of majesty involving a feeling of awe and wonder. 

In 1937 Dame Adeline Genée visited South Africa during which time she presented a magnificient silver trophy which she had received in the United States from Alexis Kosloff in April 1911 inscribed “To the World’s Greatest Dancer’.  It was her express wish that this silver trophy be awarded each year to the candidate giving the best artistic interpretation of the dances in the Solo Seal examination.  The first winner in South Africa of this Trophy in 1937 was Florence Mary Read.  In 1985 it was decided that an Adeline Genée Competition be held, separating it from the Solo seal examination, since then this event has been held, the silver trophy now being presented to the most talented dancer coupled with sponsorship to send the winner to compete in the Genée Awards in London.

From 1937 through the war years, records of the South African Branch are hazy.  Minutes record the difficulty of UK examiners visiting South Africa during the war years, with the result that Major Examinations had to be postponed time and again. 

In 1940 a South African Advisory Committee was formed.  The committee undertook excellent work and gave guidance to teachers throughout the country.  In the later 1940’s the Advisory Committee appointed Local Organisers in five areas, namely – Cape Town; Durban; East London; Port Elizabeth and Southern Rhodesia.

The introduction of the ”Ballet in Education Syllabus” in 1948 was an important milestone in the history of the South African Branch.  Thereafter examination entries gained momentum. 

During the 1948 to 1957 period, South Africa was a popular country for prominent ballet dancers.  Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin danced in the 2nd Act of Giselle for the Johannesburg Festival Ballet Society.  Before leaving, Dolin taught the company the 1st Act of Giselle and for the first time, the full ballet could be staged.

In August 1952, South African born dancers, Nadia Nerina and Alexis Rasine, visited Johannesburg and Pretoria, joining the company in the full length version of Swan Lake – the first time this ballet was produced in its entirety in South Africa.  Incidentally, when Rasine performed Spectre de la Rose in this country, it was Miss Sturman who taught him the role.

In 1956 Margot Fornteyn and Michael Somes danced in the 2nd Act of Swan Lake  at His Majesty’s Theatre.  They also gave an open-air performance at the Zoo Lake where the City Council had built a special stage on the lake.  White swans gliding effortlessly on the water gave a fairytale quality to this incredibly beautiful performance.  The only ‘damper’ was that it poured with rain but it remained a never to be forgotten experience with thousands of people watching, spellbound and drenched to the skin.

In January 1952, Ivy Conmee, Poppy Frames and Marjorie Sturman were honoured by being elected to the Grand Council of the Royal Academy of Dancing in England.  In 1075 Marjorie Sturman was made a Fellow of the Academy, whilst this honour was bestowed on Poppy Frames and Ivy Conmee in 1980.

In 1974 Poppy Frames and Ivy Conmee represented South Africa at the official opening of the Academy’s headquarters in London and were presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

David Poole who was instrumental in bringing the Academy’s method into the University of Cape Town Ballet School was the first South African to be made a Vice-President of the Academy.  His contribution to ballet in South Africa is enormous.

From 1963 a new future opened for  Royal Academy trained dancers with the establishment of two South African ballet companies.   PACT Ballet, which had been known as Ballet Transvaal, was founded under the control of the newly established performing arts council of the Transvaal.  The artistic direction of the company was in the capable hands of Faith de Villiers from 1963 to 1968; Lorna Haupt 1979 to 1983 and most recently, Dawn Weller.  In the mid-1990’s PACT Ballet became The State Theatre Ballet and in June 2000 the State Theatre and the companies ‘housed’ there closed. 

In the same year CAPAB Ballet was founded when it received a small but heartening assistance from the state.  Dulcie Howes was the first artistic director until 1969 when she handed over the reins to David Poole, who on the formation of CAPAB, had been appointed ballet master.  Today the company operates under the name Cape Town City Ballet and the artistic director is Veronica Paeper. 

Whilst the success of the South African branch is due to the influence and dedication of Conmee, Frames and Sturman the contribution by the late Mr Cecil Savoury must not be forgotten.  He was the first secretary of the South African branch from 1941 to 1969.  From the beginning a firm of accountants acted as secretary of the Royal Academy of Dancing .  He held the reins of the Academy’s affairs in very firm and capable hands. Many stories are told of how teachers respected him and were that little bit frightened to approach Mr Savoury because they knew he kept strictly to the rules.   He gave twenty years of dedicated service to the Academy and the Advisory Committee in particular.  He trained Joyce Whittaker who worked for him, undertaking the scheduling of examinations untiringly.   It was eventually necessary to ask another of his employees, Mrs Daniels to assist with the work of the Academy.  Eventually the Academy acquired its own offices and staff.  It was without hesitation on Cecil Savoury’s retirement in 1969 that Joyce Whittaker was appointed general secretary.

In 1982 Yvonne Keeble was appointed to head the South African Branch, the title being changed to that of South African Administrator.  At that time the Academy’s accent was the establishment of Regional Advisory Panels in five regions.  The South African Advisory Committee which had done such sterling work and gave support to the administration was dissolved much to the disappointment of manyu, but the success of the regional panels put their fears to rest.  The regional panels now numbering seven, namely – Border; Eastern Cape; Central Gauteng; Northern Gauteng; Western Cape; Kwa-Zulu Natal and Northern Province have proved that teachers can work together for the good of themselves and their students at a local level, furthering their interest in dance and particularly in furthering the aims and ambitions of the Royal Academy of Dancing.  Each year since then pre-examination major and grade classes, courses, workshops, bursary, social and fund raising events have been organized by these panels with much satisfaction and success.  By this time in addition to the administrator a full staff complement of  five were allocated.

In May 1992 Olivia Lume, who had joined the Academy staff in 1983, took over the reins as national administrator, implementing more courses, workshops and intensive seasonal schools thus progressing the syllabus from beginner to advanced level. 

In 1995, co-inciding  with the Academy’s 75th Anniversary, the dream of having South African headquarters with offices and a studio became a reality.  The Academy’s new home was officially opened in Bramely, Johannesburg on 5th March 1996 by the Major of Johannesburg, Councillor Isaac Mogase. 

The whole scenario of those interested in learning to dance is changing and the Academy has had to adjust accordingly.  A great new future liest ahead.  The objectives and ideals of the Academy in South Africa remain as it did in 1927 – to pass on  the teaching method of the Royal Academy of Dancing, to uphold the standard of ballet, of which all in the Academy are justly proud.