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Betty Mildred Pounder (1921–1990)

by F. Van Straten

This article was published:

Betty Mildred Pounder (1921-1990), choreographer and dancer, was born on 8 August 1921 at Carlton, Melbourne, daughter of Ballarat-born parents Joseph Pounder, a labourer, and his wife Mildred, née Sainsbury. Aged 4 Betty started dance lessons, mainly to help cure shyness; by the age of 12 she was studying classical ballet with Eunice Weston. In 1938 she won a scholarship to study with Edouard Espinosa in London but, following the outbreak of World War II, she joined the Entertainments National Service Association. Her parents insisted she return home when they discovered that she was entertaining troops on the battlefields of France.

Joining the theatrical entrepreneurs J. C. Williamson’s Ltd, Pounder made her début in the 1941 revue Funny Side Up. While proud to be with ‘The Firm’, she found that life was not easy. ‘Everybody was strict’, she recalled, ‘but always polite. You always had to go into the theatre nicely dressed . . . which meant gloves and stockings’. She danced in a series of Gladys Moncrieff’s musical comedies and, with a quick memory for steps, soon became assistant to the ballet mistress, Hazel Meldrum. After eighteen months in New Zealand training locally recruited dancers, she returned to Melbourne to perform and assist in the production of Annie Get Your Gun (1947).

On 20 June 1949 at her home in East Preston, Pounder married with Congregational forms John Ellis Baines, a musician working in Williamson’s Melbourne orchestra. In the following years she provided choreographic advice to touring Italian opera companies, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, pantomimes and countless musicals. Kiss Me, Kate (1952) was her last show as a dancer. She was promoted to ballet mistress for Call Me Madam in 1953, and later was appointed dance director at Williamson’s.

In 1957 Sir Frank Tait sent Pounder on the first of many trips to New York. Her brief was to study the choreography of The Pajama Game, which she documented, using her self-devised notation, for a local production that featured—at her suggestion—an all-Australian cast. A respected expert in the styles of the great Broadway choreographers, she was given the opportunity to create original sequences, most prominently in Camelot (1963), Funny Girl (1966) and Half a Sixpence (1967). Her reputation led to an invitation to supervise the production of Sweet Charity in Amsterdam in 1967.

Keen to support new works, Pounder choreographed several Australian musicals, including The Sentimental Bloke (1962) and Peter Scriven’s Nex’ Town (1973). In 1964 she created the Australian Ballet’s first truly modern dance piece, Jazz Spectrum, with music by Les Patching, designs by John Truscott, and Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch as principals. She delighted in teaching the Australian Ballet’s classically trained dancers the intricacies of jazz dance. A zesty blend of bright colours and dazzling movement, this piece remained in the repertoire until the 1966-67 season, when it was remounted as Jazz Suite.

After thirty-five years with Williamson’s, Pounder was promoted to director for Salad Days (1973), the second season of Godspell (1976) and The Wiz (1976)—-the last musical staged by the company. With the end of JCW, she worked as a freelance director for its successor J. C. Williamson Productions Ltd, and for the Victoria State Opera’s productions of La Belle Hélène (1977) and Orpheus in the Underworld (1978). In 1979 she directed and choreographed Frank Hatherley’s The Ripper Show, a new small-scale Australian musical, for the Playbox Theatre in Melbourne.

Vibrant, still supple, with cropped fair hair and blue eyes, Pounder—as she was affectionately known—moved into a new career as television casting director for Crawford Productions Pty Ltd. She then joined the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, arranging summer concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, organising various community dance events and taking school groups on backstage tours of Melbourne theatres. Later still she produced the Victorian Arts Centre’s Morning Melodies shows for senior citizens. Appointed AM in 1983, she received a Footlighters award and, in 1987, a lifetime achievement award from the Green Room Awards Association. Her last major choreographic commission was the 1988 revival of My Fair Lady directed by Rodney Fisher, which toured nationally.

Survived by her husband, Betty Pounder died of breast cancer on 7 December 1990 at Elsternwick and was cremated. She had no children. The GRAA’s annual award for original choreography was named in her honour. As a dancer, choreographer, director, teacher, producer, casting director and much loved show business mentor, she had always followed her own advice: ‘life is a performance, not a rehearsal, so make the most of it’.

Select Bibliography

  • Dance Australia, no 31, Aug-Sept 1987, p 26
  • B. Courtis, ‘The Cleverly Choreographed World of Betty Pounder’, in Man of La Mancha, theatre program for Dec 1988 production at State Theatre, Vic Arts Centre (copy held in ADB file)
  • Pounder papers (Performing Arts Collection, The Arts Centre, Melbourne)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. Van Straten, 'Pounder, Betty Mildred (1921–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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