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Samuel Gilkison (1908–1998)

by Charlie Fox

This article was published online in 2023

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Samuel Gilkison (1908–1998), dance teacher, was born on 9 July 1908 at Dundee, Scotland, son of Samuel Gilkison, soldier, and his wife Elizabeth McPherson, née Halket. Both parents valued music, dance, and performance and his father’s family was involved in the Salvation Army. After World War I the Gilkisons moved to Sheffield, England, where Sam was educated at Sheffield Grammar School. In 1925 he enlisted in the British Army, serving for three years in the Royal Horse Artillery. On trips to London, he discovered ballroom dancing. Prompted by England’s economic troubles, in 1929 he migrated to Australia. Arriving at Fremantle, Western Australia, in November, he found the place plunging into the Depression. An energetic and adventurous young man, he worked in a variety of farm and odd jobs, but was unhappy, and twice tried to stow away on ships bound for England.

Despite his gloom, Gilkison still enjoyed dancing. In 1931 he went into partnership with Winnie Wright, and they began teaching dance at a studio in Hay Street, Perth. With unemployment and poverty rampant, it was a bold move. Perth already had four or five studios and thirteen dance halls for, even in the Depression, dancing was a popular pastime, and a common form of fund-raising for unemployment relief. At first business was so slow that Gilkison had to work in a nearby restaurant. With other studio owners, he established the Western Australian Ballroom Teachers’ Association to promote ballroom dancing, to stage festivals, and to provide a common syllabus for technique and examinations.

By 1933, when the first signs of economic recovery appeared, Gilkison and Wright’s studio began to grow. In late 1934 they moved to new, more central, premises, and within a year were employing sixteen teachers. They opened a branch school specialising in old-time dancing in 1936. The pair became Perth’s best-known dancing couple, performing in competitions, balls, dances, exhibitions, and fund raisers. To the music of local bands, they taught both old-time dance, including the barn dance, Pride of Erin, and Boston Two-Step, and modern dance, including the waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep.

In 1934 Gilkison had met Veronica (Ronnie) Mary Sullivan at the studio; they married on 4 April 1936 at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, West Perth. She became his business and dancing partner, and by 1938 Wright had left to start her own studio. Gilkison enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces on 20 February 1942, began full-time duty in March, and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in July. He served in artillery units at Fremantle until his discharge on 14 January 1944. The dance studio continued to operate under his wife’s management, surviving wartime austerity and ultimately prospering.

As the war drew to a close, the crowds at dances, including soldiers from the United States of America, Britain, and New Zealand, became bigger and more raucous. New dances appeared with the arrival of new musical styles. From the Latin American rumba, samba, and cha-cha, and the Spanish paso doble, the category of Latin dance was born. In the 1950s rock‘n’roll music unleashed the jive, often portrayed as a ‘bodgie-widgie’ dance. Banned at first by dance studios on the ground that it was simply ‘sexy hooliganism’ (Mirror 1956, 3), the jive’s progress was irresistible, and it was incorporated into the new Latin category. Gilkison, though, would never tolerate ‘the creep,’ a sexy body-on-body glide around the dance floor, which he called ‘the type of thing done by sensation-seeking drug addicts in the low dives of London’ (Mirror 1953, 13). Nonetheless, old-time dancing gradually faded, and Australian ‘new vogue,’ comprising dances such as the Merrilyn, Carousel, and Barclay Blues, took its place.

By 1950 Gilkison and others had set up the Australian Institute of Dancing. Studios and their associations defended the territory of reputable dance by keeping out steps, dances, and people they believed would lower standards. Gilkison always had strong ideas about the virtues of dancing, firmly believing that it brought both private and public good. A dance was the ideal place, he claimed, for boys and girls to meet and learn manners, while dancing improved poise and deportment, and physical and mental health. Furthermore, it helped shy and socially awkward people to ‘forget about themselves’ (Daily News 1950, 11) and think of others.

In the 1950s Gilkison took his ideas to Perth schools. The initiative was a big success and an important move beyond the dance studio. He produced a ballroom pageant for the Festival of Perth (inaugurated in 1953), which took dancing into the realm of high culture. But it was the arrival of television in 1959 that did most to burnish the Gilkison name. Channel 7 invited him to prepare exhibitions, for example Invitation to the Dance (1963). He also televised dancing lessons for five years before he moved to Channel 9 for another two. His studio moved to more spacious premises in Murray Street, Perth, around 1970. He continued running his studio until 1985 when he retired and handed the reins to his children.

Gilkison was a relentlessly cheerful man. Innovative and enthusiastic, he was a hard worker in the interests of ballroom dance and an outstanding dancer. Appointed MBE in 1980, he became a member of the Australian Dancing Hall of Fame in 1988. He died at South Perth on 13 August 1998, survived by his wife and their two daughters and three sons, all of whom were enthusiastic and capable dancers. A grandson, Jason, later made his name as a ballroom dance champion and internationally renowned choreographer. Gilkison Dance Studio remained in operation in 2023.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Daily News (Perth). ‘You Can Dance to a Better Way of Life.’ 16 January 1950, 11
  • Fisher, Lynn. ‘Dancing Queen, A Story of Dance.’ In Farewell Cinderella: Creating Arts and Identity in Western Australia, edited by Richard Rossiter, Geoffrey Bolton, and Jan Ryan, 56–91. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Press, 2003
  • Fox, Charlie. ‘The Snake Pit.’ In Radical Perth, Militant Fremantle, edited by Charlie Fox, Lenore Layman, and Bobbie Oliver, 103–10. Perth: Black Swan Press, Curtin University, 2017
  • Gilkison, Samuel. Interview by James Gray, 18 September 1985. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Mirror (Perth). ‘“It’s Sexy Hooliganism in Jive Time.” They Won’t Teach Rock ‘n’ Roll in Perth.’ 30 June 1956, 3
  • Mirror (Perth). ‘This is One Dance We Don’t Want to See Here. Teachers Bar Sexy “Creep.”’ 14 November 1953, 13
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, Gilkison, Samuel
  • Sunday Times (Perth). ‘Last Waltz for Dance Pioneer.’ 23 August 1998, 48

Additional Resources

Citation details

Charlie Fox, 'Gilkison, Samuel (1908–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilkison-samuel-32524/text40364, published online 2023, accessed online 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

9 July, 1908
Dundee, Forfarshire, Scotland

Death

13 August, 1998 (aged 90)
South Perth, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

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Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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