Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilson, Norma Linley (1898–1990)

by Lynn M. Fisher and G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Norma Linley Wilson (1898-1990), dancing entrepreneur, was born on 28 October 1898 in East Perth, eighth of nine children of English-born parents Frank Wilson, merchant, and his wife Annie, née Phillips.  An accomplished pianist, Linley left the Girls’ High School, Claremont, at 15 and worked in a Perth music shop.  Late in 1921 she went to London intending to become a concert pianist.  Instead she qualified as a teacher of ballroom dancing with the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, and of country dancing with the English Folk Dance Society.  Returning to Perth in 1926 she was the State’s only accredited teacher of ballet and ballroom dancing.  She established a studio which, although charging high fees, was soon successful and employed additional staff, attracting a middle-class clientele.  From 1929 she promoted annual concerts, which became select social occasions; her students performed to raise funds for influential community organisations.

A pioneer in applying modern educational approaches to dance, Wilson gave classes at several independent girls’ schools.  From 1933 she was guest lecturer to diploma of education students at the University of Western Australia.  In 1932 she had been founding president of the Western Australian Dance Teachers Society, and was also inaugural president of the Ballroom Dancing Teachers Association.  She travelled extensively to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, promoting the value of an examination system for the teaching of ballet, and she maintained her professional contacts by extended visits overseas.  To her students and their parents she was a model of respectable femininity, and a sophisticated one by the standards of Perth in the 1930s. Living alone in a modern flat she had lovers and homosexual friends, wore Italian shoes, drove a smart car, smoked, studied 'that most modern of all sciences, psychology', and never learned to cook.  Her unconventional ways did not prevent her networking successfully in influential circles of Perth’s professional and academic world.

In 1939-40 Wilson established Western Australia’s first ballet company, the Australian Caravan Ballet, which performed in Perth and Bunbury; it could be seen as the forerunner of the professional West Australian Ballet Company, founded in 1953.  Further development was impeded by the coming of World War II.  Her marriage to Keith Merlin George on 22 June 1942 at the district registrar’s office, Cannington, Western Australia, alienated some supporters.  The son of a conservative father, William George, Keith had qualified as a lawyer but during the 1930s produced and directed theatre at the radical Workers’ Art Guild.  After their marriage he helped to manage her growing ballet school; students remembered him boiling a billy and showing them how to make tea bush-style, and holding up his trousers with a necktie.

Wilson continued to teach following George’s death in 1972, but soon after sold her school to Trevor Dodd.  In 1974 she was elected to the grand council of the Royal Academy of Dancing in London, on the nomination of Dame Margot Fonteyn.  Wilson was appointed AM in 1978.  Her attempts to endow the University of Western Australia with a chair of ballet did not succeed.  She trained dozens of professional dancers and dance teachers of note including Alison Lee, Joanna Priest and Robin Haig.  Childless, she died on 9 April 1990 at Nedlands and was cremated.  Her estate was modest; she had employed full-time private nurses to care, firstly, for her ailing husband and then for herself.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Fisher, 'Dancing Queen: A Story of Dance', in G. Bolton et al (eds), Farewell Cinderella (2003)
  • West Australian, 19 February 1972, p 10
  • West Australian, 30 April 1974, p 11
  • L. Wilson archives (His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth)
  • L. Wilson papers and photographs (State Library of Western Australia)
  • P. Buxton (1986), A. James (1986), G. Cruickshank (1989), taped interviews with L. Wilson (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lynn M. Fisher and G. C. Bolton, 'Wilson, Norma Linley (1898–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-norma-linley-15798/text26997, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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