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Eleanor Charlotte (Nora) Stewart (1879–1966)

by Jack Royans

This article was published:

Eleanor Charlotte (Nora) Stewart (1879-1966), dancing teacher, was born on 1 May 1879 at Port Pirie, South Australia, eldest of three children of Robert Walter Stewart, surgeon, and his wife Gertrude Theodora Fydell, née Lindsay, whose forebear Arthur Fydell Lindsay arrived on the Buffalo in 1836 and became a member of the House of Assembly in 1857. Nora and her sister Geraldine enjoyed riding and swimming during their childhood; the family moved to Adelaide in 1908 and Dr Stewart later took them to London where Nora studied ballet.

In 1914 they returned home. Suddenly 'required to turn some talent to account', Nora took over Isobel Young's dancing classes. Tall, slender and graceful, Nora had the intelligence and brisk, carrying voice to galvanize and awe her pupils. The visiting dance teacher to most of Adelaide's private colleges, to the Police Force of South Australia and to the Adelaide Hunt Club, she also taught games and callisthenics and schooled debutantes in decorum. She used school premises and hired halls for her own classes: the Trades Hall in the city, the North Adelaide Institute and the Blind Institute in King William Road. Classes often comprised several hundred pupils. Among them were the pianist prodigy Philip Hargraves; Henry Legerton, who was to join Sadler's Wells Ballet Co.; Elizabeth Cameron Wilson, founder and artistic director of the Australian Dance Theatre; Morna Dobbie (Smeaton), a brilliant teacher of the Margaret Morris method of barefoot dancing; Dorothy Slane, another future ballet teacher; and (Sir) Robert Helpmann who said of Nora, 'she taught me to appreciate classical music and to understand what dance meant'.

Miss Stewart's discipline—boys wore white gloves—and her mannerisms made her a loved and legendary figure; 'Going to Nora's' was a catchphrase in Adelaide for nearly fifty years. She proved a shrewd businesswoman. In her prime she employed four pianists and twelve assistants: they commenced the classes; Nora arrived by public transport, took over, then left for another class. She rarely danced herself, but instructed, walked the steps and demonstrated through her assistants. After her father's death, she and her sister supported their mother; the three lived together, with Nora's dogs.

Every second year the elegant Miss Stewart visited London, Paris and the Riviera to buy French hats and underwear, and to keep up with the latest dances (Charleston, quickstep and tango) and teaching techniques; she also assessed such new approaches as Dalcroze eurhythmics which she disliked. She worked with Mrs Wordsworth, Madame Vacani, and Edouard and Judith Espinosa. In Adelaide she regularly choreographed ballets about gypsies; to Elizabeth Cameron Wilson, 'she had the gypsy soul—unconventional, romantic, daring and somewhat mysterious'. As Nora aged, she grew wiry, her facial bones becoming more prominent.

Stewart also trained dancers for fund-raising performances in aid of charities like the Fighting Forces Comfort Fund and the Australian Red Cross Society. She taught ballet until she was 79, after which she continued her ballroom classes. She died at her home in Molesworth Street, North Adelaide, on 6 October 1966 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Laube, Settlers Around the Bay (Adel, 1985)
  • M. Page (ed), Greater Than Their Knowing (Adel, 1986)
  • Woman's World, 1 Aug 1925
  • Observer (Adelaide), 19 Apr 1924
  • News (Adelaide), 30 June, 16 Dec 1958
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 Oct 1966
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jack Royans, 'Stewart, Eleanor Charlotte (Nora) (1879–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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