June 11, 2012
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.
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.
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)