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Priest, Joanna (Joanne) (1910–1997)

by Alison Painter

This article was published online in 2022

Joanna Priest, by Philip Martin, 1988

Joanna Priest, by Philip Martin, 1988

National Library of Australia, 25181985

Joanna Priest (1910–1997), dance teacher and choreographer, was born on 27 September 1910 at Henley Beach, South Australia, youngest of three children of English-born parents Fred Priest, Congregational minister, and his wife Sophie Muriel, née Jefferis. Fred's calling took the family to Marrickville, Sydney, in 1911 and then to Perth in 1921. A popular cleric, he became chairman of the Congregational Union of Western Australia in 1923. Joan (later known as Joanne or Joanna) attended Perth College and was noted for her athletic abilities and her skills in elocution.

Although Priest had been interested in dance from an early age, it was only after her father’s death in 1925 that she enrolled at Linley Wilson’s school of dancing. A scholarship allowed her to continue her studies in return for cleaning and cooking at the studio. Wilson considered that Priest showed great promise and took her to England in 1930 to receive tuition from the well-known ballet teacher Marie Rambert. There she passed exams in ballroom dancing and operatic dancing. In 1931 she returned briefly to Perth before relocating to Adelaide. She established a studio on North Terrace, where she began teaching ballet and ballroom dancing.

Soon after arriving in South Australia Priest met Norman Alfred Robert (Rob) Wilson, an engineer and brother of Linley Wilson. On 29 December 1936, while visiting Sydney, the couple married at St Philip’s Church of England. She formed the belief that ballet was ‘so mixed up with the arts,’ that it was necessary ‘to develop the artistic instincts in conjunction with the dancing’ (Mail 1936, 17). In 1939 she was assisted by friends to form the South Australian Ballet (and Arts) Club, to encourage children to learn and appreciate the music, drama, and art, important to ballet. She qualified for the Royal Academy of Dancing’s advanced teaching diploma (1937) and also worked part time as an instructor in physical education (from 1940) at the University of Adelaide. By 1944 her studio was so popular that it had outgrown its premises and moved to ‘The Blue Door’ in nearby Porters Lane.

Priest (as she was known professionally) combined her career with caring for her daughter who in 1942 had been born blind and deaf from the effects of rubella during pregnancy. Determined to help similarly disabled children, she organised fundraising performances by the club, including her own choreographed Ballerina at the Tivoli Theatre in December 1945. She continued her charitable work after her daughter’s death from pneumonia in 1946. Working with the Oral Pre-School Movement, she ran innovative sessions in rhythm and movement with children born deaf. Later she organised dance classes to aid the rehabilitation of children who had been afflicted with polio.

During the decade Priest’s reputation as a choreographer and producer grew. In 1949 one of her best ballets, The Listeners, first performed at the Tivoli by the South Australian Ballet Club in November 1948, became part of the National Theatre Ballet Company’s repertoire. She also undertook study tours to the United States of America and England to learn more about presentation of ballet and theatrical productions. By the early 1950s her studio had five hundred pupils enrolled and she taught every day as well as three evenings a week. In late 1953 she and her friend Marjorie Cornell purchased a former Lutheran church in North Adelaide. Renamed the Studio Theatre, the redeveloped premises encompassed an auditorium seating some four hundred people. They held classes at the theatre and branches were established in several country centres. A ‘dynamic artistic force’ (Brissenden 1997, 17) in the State, she combined her enthusiasm with a determined approach that had no time for anything that did not meet the high standard she expected.

With the coming of television to Adelaide in 1959 Channel NWS9 appointed Priest director of children’s programs. Her series, Southern Stars, was telecast on Sunday afternoons for more than four years. Each show began with a talk by Priest followed by eight to ten segments that ranged across the arts, as well as science and natural history. She also showcased European and Aboriginal heritage through stories, dance, and music, and experimented with set designs that combined Indigenous art with European lettering. Although concentrating on what she could achieve through television, she continued to produce ballet and dance performances. In 1960, for Adelaide’s first Festival of Arts, she co-produced with Keith Thomson Folk Festival of Song and Dance held in Elder Park on 14 March. She was appointed OBE in 1970. Her last major professional production was Salome in 1979 for the Australian Opera in Sydney.

During the 1980s Priest moderated her work and assistants undertook the day-to-day operations of her school. Her husband supported all of her endeavours in ballet and stage production, relieving her of much domestic work and taking on roles behind the scenes. In declining health from the late 1970s, he spent his final years in the Helping Hand Centre, North Adelaide, where he died in 1988. Priest moved into the centre a year later; she died there on 10 July 1997 and was cremated. Her enduring legacy was the many ‘dancers, actors, choreographers, directors, and artists whom she had taught and nurtured,’ who continued ‘to enrich Australia’s cultural life’ (Brissenden 1997, 17).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bassett, Murray M., and Christopher B. Thompson. Les Ballets Contemporains, Studio Theatre, North Adelaide. North Adelaide: Studio Theatre, 1987
  • Brissenden, Alan. ‘Dynamo of Dance Nurtured Young Talent.’ Australian, 29 July 1997, 17
  • Denton, Margaret Abbie. Joanna Priest: Her Place in Adelaide’s Dance History. North Adelaide: Joanna Priest, 1993
  • Mail (Adelaide). ‘Revival of the Ballet: Miss Priest Tells of Trend. Returns from Abroad.’ 25 April 1936, 17
  • News (Adelaide). ‘A Dancer Came Home.’ 17 October 1953, 6

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alison Painter, 'Priest, Joanna (Joanne) (1910–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/priest-joanna-joanne-32456/text40257, published online 2022, accessed online 1 December 2022.

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