When a young Shirley Jones-Griffin started her first ballet school in 1960 in a scout hall in Pascoe Vale, Melbourne, no one could have predicted the outstanding contribution she would make to the dance world.
What started as a small school of 33 students has, over the years, made an impact on the lives of thousands of dancers and left an indelible mark on the local community and the dance world at large.
Shirley says that starting the school was an extension of her love of dance from her performing days. Back then there was not much money about and starting the school was not easy. Her family couldn’t even afford to pay for her dance classes when she was a girl, but eventually she wore her mother down. When it came to opening her own school, Shirley’s family, including her parents and sister, letter-boxed the community in the lead up to the first class.
The Shirlene School of Classical Ballet will celebrate its 60th birthday in February 2020. “We are now teaching the third generation of family members,” remarks Shirley. The school is a genuine family school, with many of the students she taught when they were three years old now returning with their own children or grandchildren. “Many have never left,” she says, with some students now in their 50s continuing their association by attending Pilates classes or watching their own children dance.
Shirley explains that she relocated the dance school to Anderson Street in Pascoe Vale South when she bought a shop and converted it into a dance studio, in 1962. Ten years later, when she’d paid off the first mortgage, the greengrocer shop next door to the studio went up for sale, so she bought that. Then history repeated itself when the property next along went up for sale a further 10 years later. She bought that and initially converted it into a residence.
Finally, 40 years after her first purchase in Anderson Street, she bought the last property in the row and created a fourth dance studio. In 2005 she converted one of the dance studios into a 100-seat theatre, where the school’s annual performances and concerts are held over several nights.
Shirley performed in the semi-professional National Theatre Company in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming a principal soloist and performing up to four seasons a year during the school holidays, with a daily matinee and night performance.
“We did all the beautiful big ballets including Coppelia and Swan Lake. Working with Valrene Tweedie was a real highlight.” Shirley had over 20 wonderful years dancing with her late on-stage partner William Carse, in shows and workshops. Shirley’s teaching timetable is still full, though she has senior dancers who help out with classes particularly she says “with the kinder kids and beginner children”. Her son Clifford McGuinness, shares the school’s teaching load.
She has received many accolades over her 63 year teaching career. The most recent is an Order of Australia awarded in 2018 for services to the performing arts, particularly ballet. In addition to her school, Shirley served on the Cecchetti Ballet Administrative Council Australia in various capacities including vice-chairperson, joint-secretary and senior examiner from 1960 to 1991.
She is a Fellow of Cecchetti International Classical Ballet and a life member and Fellow of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. She also received the James Esslemont Award in 2001 and a Bicentennial BHP Award in 1997.
Shirley’s advice to teachers is to be passionate about what they do: “Children can tell if you’re not!” She also advises teachers to teach every child – not just the most talented. “I know the name of every one of my students,” she notes. Her love of ballet is all about the movement and expression of dance, but “it is also about discipline and manners”.
So what reward is befitting a teacher whose own passion and dedication has delivered the joy of dance to countless aspiring dancers? It would seem the love, respect and
admiration of all those dancers and families, past and present, is the most enduring and truest form of reward for a teacher who has given so much.
Shirley has been a client of hmh since inception in 1977. We congratulate Shirley on her marvellous career!