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Danaher, Phyllis May (1908–1991)

by Joanne Scott

This article was published online in 2014

Phyllis May Danaher (1908-1991), ballet teacher and examiner, was born on 27 July 1908 at Bulimba, Brisbane, eldest of four children and only daughter of Queensland-born parents William Patrick Danaher, clerk and later prominent bookmaker, and his wife Ivy May, née Bagnall. Educated at St Margaret’s Church of England Girls’ School, Ascot, Phyllis began her dance training in the early 1920s with Margaret St Ledger, who taught fancy and ballroom dancing, and deportment. From 1927 she studied with, and (initially without pay) taught for, Marjorie Hollinshed, who had taken over St Ledger’s school. She also studied dance with Frances Scully in Sydney.

Danaher was an extra in the Brisbane performances of the Pavlova company during its 1929 tour and she appeared in J. C. Williamson’s musicals in Brisbane in the 1930s. She co-owned Hollinshed’s school from 1930. After Hollinshed’s retirement, she became principal of the school, at first in partnership with Judith Avery (1933), then with Clare O’Bryen (1934-47); subsequently, she was sole owner of the Phyllis Danaher School of Ballet. In 1935 she gained her elementary certificate in the first Royal Academy of Dancing (RAD) examinations held in Australia, and two years later secured the RAD advanced teacher’s certificate.

In 1937 Danaher became the first deputy organiser for Queensland of the advisory committee to the RAD, as well as founding president of the Queensland branch of the Australasian Society of Operatic Dancing, later the Queensland Ballet Society. In 1953 the society established the Brisbane Ballet Theatre to provide local students with professional-standard performance opportunities. From 1956 Danaher was recognised as its regisseur (stage director). She choreographed the company’s first original work, The Wasps performed in 1956 at Brisbane City Hall, followed by Variations Symphoniques (first performed 1957), The Legend of Roksanda (1959), and The Willow Pattern (1962). The company was renamed Ballet Theatre of Queensland (BTQ) in 1963 with Danaher as its director; that year she choreographed Pinocchio and Italienne Fantasia. Danaher produced and directed ballets for BTQ from the 1960s to the early 1980s, and also designed costumes for the company. She produced Graduation Ball in 1970 for the North Queensland Ballet’s opening season.

Danaher had become a children’s examiner for the RAD in 1957, a role she maintained until her retirement from teaching in 1982. Two years later she stepped down as BTQ’s director. She was appointed MBE (1969) for services to dance and made a fellow of the RAD (1983) in recognition of her service to the academy.

One of Queensland’s most important ballet teachers, Danaher was a pioneer in the professionalisation of ballet learning and teaching in the State. Her students included Garth Welch and Lucette Aldous, later principal artists with the Australian Ballet. She played a major role in helping talented students realise their potential, a legacy that continues through the BTQ. Hollinshed, who described Danaher as ‘one of Australia’s greatest dancing teachers,’ concluded that ‘Phyl has devoted her life’ to ballet. Recalling ‘a grace and softness about her movements,’ Hollinshed remembered that as a young teacher she had spoken in ‘almost a whisper,’ not ‘at all like the later Miss Phyllis Danaher, M.B.E., F.R.A.D.’ (Hollinshed 1987, 39, 55, 114). Danaher overcame her early shyness, with her students remembering her as a strict disciplinarian and a ‘no-nonsense’ teacher (Koch, 34). Unmarried, she died on 31 May 1991 at Clayfield, Brisbane, and was buried at Lutwyche cemetery with Catholic rites. The Phyllis Danaher memorial scholarship is awarded annually to a BTQ dancer.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Ballet and dance-Ballet Theatre of Queensland, formerly Queensland Ballet Society: ephemera material collected by the State Library of Queensland
  • Brissenden, Alan, and Keith Glennon. Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945-1965. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2010
  • Hollinshed, Marjorie. Some Professional Dancers of, or from, Queensland and Some Teachers of the Past and Present. Brisbane: W. R. Smith & Paterson Pty Ltd, 1963
  • Hollinshed, Marjorie. In Search of Ballet. Caloundra, Qld: Boolarong Publications, 1987
  • Koch, Peta. ‘Brisbane’s No-Nonsense Teacher.’ Dance Australia 33 (December 1987—January 1988): 34
  • Pask, Edward H. Ballet in Australia: The Second Act 1940-1980. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Joanne Scott, 'Danaher, Phyllis May (1908–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/danaher-phyllis-may-15204/text26400, published online 2014, accessed online 8 March 2021.

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