Learning new steps

When the times comes for dancers to stop dancing, they don't stand still for long, as Ausdance's Julie Dyson has proven, writes Julieanne Strachan

''What happens to dancers after their career?'' Julie Dyson wanted to know in the 1980s.

It's a good question and in her case, about 30 years later, it seems the answer is that work continues at a brisk pace.

National director of Ausdance Julie Dyson with QL2 dancers.
National director of Ausdance Julie Dyson with QL2 dancers. Photo: Graham Tidy

Dyson officially retired as the national director of Ausdance at the end of November but shows little sign of slowing down. She is a member of several dance boards and plans to travel next year to Munich, Paris and Dusseldorf in her on-going role with the World Dance Alliance.

Ausdance is the professional advocacy association for dancers whose ACT branch Dyson helped found in 1977 at the urging of luminaries of the dance world including Dame Peggy van Praagh, who was the founding artistic director of the Australian Ballet and Shirley McKechnie who founded the first tertiary dance course in Australia. During the 1960s there had been a great divide between contemporary dance and classical ballet which van Praagh and McKechnie wanted fixed.

National director of Ausdance Julie Dyson is retiring after 30 years in the job.
National director of Ausdance Julie Dyson is retiring after 30 years in the job. Photo: Colleen Petch

Dyson and her colleague Hillary Trotter started the ACT branch of the Australian Association for Dance Education together, later renamed Ausdance, and they knew from the start they wanted better outcomes for dancers who put their bodies on the line for their art but got little in return.

''Hillary and I were both appalled by the rate of injuries in dance,'' Dyson says.

''Hillary was a great researcher and she asked the British Medical Association if we could use the questionnaire they had produced in order to survey our dancers about injuries. She pushed for funding and we formed a committee of experts including medical experts and dancers and then we surveyed the profession.

''We found that 52 per cent of professional dancers had sustained a chronic injury by the age of 18.''

Dancers were being pushed to the limit from a young age, often incurring back, knee and ankle injuries that shortened their careers and gave them injuries to carry for a lifetime. Youngsters were over-training, neglecting to warm up and cool down properly and were sometimes asked to do things beyond their capabilities during their learning stages.

Dyson says that once Ausdance knew how widespread the injuries were it was able to take the crucial next step.

''The funding allowed us to produce a report and make recommendations and we employed Tony Geeves who was a retired dancer and we produced Safe Dance One.''

That document became the blueprint for the future of dance training around the globe.

''People were not cross-training back then, they were just training in dance technique,'' Dyson says.

''Geeves recommended doing pilates and swimming and yoga as well as dance and now that's what they all do. We wanted to improve the environment for dancers and dance teachers. Hillary decided to call it the Safe Dance project and those words are now a part of the dance lexicon internationally. It's in all the schools and tertiary courses and it's recognised. It has meant doing things such as dancing on sprung floors, safe teaching and not asking young people to do things that are beyond them.

''We re-surveyed 10 years later and found great improvement in the understanding of dancing safely. I feel really proud we did that and we did it together.''

In retiring from her role with Ausdance Dyson has ended a job that she has done in alternately voluntary and paid capacities since the organisation's inception and she has been showered in praise. The accolades have come from some of the highest levels, including the artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister.

''Her passion, generosity and diplomacy have made her one of the great mentors and elders in the dance community,'' McAllister says.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, also paid tribute to Dyson's career.

''Julie's tenure has been unparalled in terms of commitment, having been a key driving force in the development and growth of the Australian dance community,'' she said. Guests poured in from around the country to the Southern Cross Yacht Club on November 29 to celebrate Dyson's career and mark her retirement from Ausdance. It was recognition of how far she had come in the world of dance since she first attended a 1977 conference in Melbourne that acted as the catalyst for the Ausdance phenomenon.

Dyson was a part time teacher at the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet then and she also worked in Parliament for Hansard. ''That conference was a turning point,'' she says. ''At that time dance was at the bottom of the heap. It was not seen as important as other arts like theatre. Dancers did not have a voice. It was decided to set up an organisation so that dancers would have a voice.''

By 1985 there was enough funding, provided by the Australia Council, for Trotter and Dyson to leave their other jobs and work at Ausdance full time.

''Ausdance decided to study what happened to professional dancers when they retired from dance,'' Dyson says. ''And we found there was this huge grieving that they went through when they were forced to stop - often in their late 20s or early 30s.''

Ausdance wanted a better deal for the dancers and decided to look outside the dancing sphere for ideas. Dyson later discovered that the Australian Institute of Sport had developed a program to help its elite athletes plan for life after their sports careers.

''Our dancers did not have the same things - they were trained for a life on stage which sometimes ended in their 20s,'' Dyson says. ''If you were lucky you may go on until 40 - but then what? We realised that the sports people had a great scheme.

''We partnered with them to build access into the scheme and we had a pilot that the Australia Council funded which was called the Scope program. Then the funding expired and Ausdance is now in the process of lobbying government to show it that this program worked and it's a wonderful way to extend an artist's life. We are hoping it will eventually get funding because a career development program for dancers would be a very economically sensible thing to do to retain all that talent in the workforce.''

Dyson has handed over the reigns as national director of Ausdance to former Canberra Times dance reviewer Roslyn Dundas. ''I am really happy to be handing it over to Ros who is half my age who is inheriting this experienced young team and I have very high hopes for them,'' Dyson says.

Dyson's own reluctance to take up a full-time gardening hobby in retirement or embark on a caravan trek around Australia has been pointed out by others, notably her friend Professor David Williams, the former head of the School of Art at the Australian National University.

''He said 'It's not retiring it's refocussing,' '' Dyson says. ''But it is an end to the long days that I had been working.''