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Helen and Fanny Birdsall: Dancers, teachers, choreographers

Helen Birdsall

June 11, 2012

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In this monthly column Lesley Brewer features Torontonians who have helped shape our city

Helen and Fanny Birdsall: Dancers, teachers, choreographers

There is no doubt in my mind that dance, in all its forms, is entertainment at its very best.

When I was considerably younger, I took a number of different dance classes, including modern dance and jazz. Now, whenever the opportunity presents itself to write about dance in any way, I jump at it!

Sisters born in Toronto, Helen and Fanny Birdsall shared a lifelong interest in dance and a passion for teaching young performers in their art. From 1923 to1983, they operated a “legendary” dance studio in Toronto; over the course of 60 years, they taught over 9,000 students. For most of that time, the school was located on Charles Street.

The core classes taught at the Birdsall School were in the Russian ballet technique, described in their brochure as being, “the foundation upon which all other steps are built” and having “the same relation to dancing as grammar does to language.” Other techniques taught included acrobatic, tap, modern jazz and interpretive.

Helen and Fanny Birdsall School of Dance

Helen and Fanny Birdsall School of Dance

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Helen was choreographer for the grandstand show at the Canadian National Exhibition. The 1931 CNE production featured a cast of 1,500. Also in 1931, Fanny was awarded a Diploma in Acrobatics and Helen one in tap from a top theatrical producer.

Throughout the years, recitals were an integral of the program, and were mainly held at Massey Hall and the Eaton Auditorium.





Fanny V. Birdsall School of Dance

Fanny V. Birdsall School of Dance

While many of the students of the Birdsall School found successful careers in dance and/or choreography, the sisters were especially warmed by the fact that they could help to change and mould young lives. An article published in the Globe and Mail in the early sixties entitled Dancing Aid to Handicapped highlighted the work Fanny and Helen did with children and teens who had minor physical disabilities as well as some with hearing impairments. Throughout, the sisters emphasized dance as being therapeutic in addition to being healthy and entertaining.

Helen and Fanny Birdsall — dancing sisters from Toronto’s colourful past.

(Note:  I would like to thank the helpful staff at Dance Collection Danse)

About the Author(s)

Lesley Brewer

Lesley Brewer is a freelance writer who is an active member of her housing co-op. She lives with her fabulous felines, loves all animals and nature.

3 Responses to "Helen and Fanny Birdsall: Dancers, teachers, choreographers"

  • [...] Helen and Fanny Birdsall: Dancers, teachers, choreographers [...]

  • Brenda Blake,Czirjak 05:01 PM 04/2/2013

    I was a student of The Fanny V. Birdsalll Dance Academy in the 1960′s . Today I came upon a picture and a programme from Annual The Eaton Auditorium dated Friday Evening, May 5th 1961….what blew me away the most is I was A Bathing Beauty Of 1975….this in the future is when I was graduating from high school. Just wanted to say that I did not take up dancing and went on to be a Registered Nursre….but I must say that I am a dam good dancer and have a good time doing it…..TY.

    Brenda Blake
    Bathing Beauty 1975

    • Eva Karpati 05:13 PM 04/2/2013

      Brenda, thank you sharing your involvement. We would love to see the photo. Can you share that as well?

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