Remembering Margaret Walker, OAM (1920 – 1996)
for International Womens’ Day
(All photos from Margaret’s book, ‘Opening the Door to Dance’)
This International Women’s Day it seems appropriate to honour one of my teachers, Margaret Walker. Margaret was ahead of her time. She had a vision for peace and spent her life and any money she made on connecting peoples from all cultural backgrounds through dance. For her dance was ‘the dance of the peoples’.
I must have first come into contact with her in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. I can no longer remember how I heard of her. I do remember Saturday afternoon drives to the other side of Sydney to learn dances from many cultures, followed by improvisation with ‘Uncle Barry’ on the piano.
Even before moving to Sydney Margaret’s particular vision was strong. Although she had trained as a chemist it was not to last long. In Melbourne, after seven years of training in Classical Ballet, she realised that the specialised form was “not accessible to all”; Instead she focussed on the Character dances that were part of ballet training and formed Unity Dance Group which took these dances to workplaces and factories as well as taught and established groups for other organisations.
In 1951 she was an Australian delegate to the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and later a delegate to the USSR, extending this opportunity to include several other European countries. The contacts and links she made through the USSR and Europe opened up many opportunities for Ethnologists, Folk Dance specialists and companies to visit Australia in the following years. During her visits she also collected dances and resources from which she developed her programs.
On moving to Sydney in 1952 she wasted no time setting up the Association of Australian Dances with branches in each state, and spreading her love of cultural dance through her school, Roseville Dance Centre as well as through invitations that came her way, such as being invited to establish a Childrens’ Arts Club (dance, theatre, art, film) for the Waterside Workers’ Federation.
Her philosophy spread to her family which consisted of four children from four cultural backgrounds whom she had adopted. As I do not know how to find them to request permission I will not include any details here.
Dance Concert, of which I became a member, was established in 1967/68 and I can’t remember whether I was already doing classes with Margaret before then. Looking back at what she was able to accomplish, it was pretty amazing, especially on very limited funding. We had teachers from all over the world. I remember classes with Csaba Palfi from Budapest, workshops with the Moiseyev Dance Company (Russia) when they were on tour here, an Israeli dance specialist, traditional Philippine dance from Lucy Jumuwan and there must have been many others I no longer remember.
From one of Dance Concert’s newsletters
“Dance Concert is building a unique repertoire of dances and ballets many arranged by choreographers of the world’s leading folk dance ensembles. These include:
Yuri Mironov – Osipov Ensemble
Witold Zapala – Polish Mazowse Ensemble
Igor Moiseyev – & teachers Nelli Samsonova & Anatole Fedorov
Libertad Fajardo – Filipino Bayaniban Company
Csaba Palfi – from Budapest”
Margaret would also co-work with dancers from local cultural groups and invite them to perform with Dance Concert and we’d perform in traditional costume anywhere we were asked. At the same time Margaret was running and teaching folk dance in schools and I taught with her and for her on many occasions. She developed a program for schools called ‘Folk Dance is Fun’.
Eventually Dance Concert began to receive funding from the Australia Council to support her work. That was when trouble began. As I understand it, because it was compulsory to have a company with a Board of Directors to receive funding, and the Board, who now owned the name ‘Dance Concert’, and Margaret were not agreeing, they dismissed her in 1977. I could not believe they would do that – take her life work and vision – so easily and supplant her with another.
At the end of that same year Margaret set up the ‘Margaret Walker Folk Dance Centre’ and continued teaching under her own name in schools and in the community, as well as organising performances for festivals and other events. During this period, although I had my own work, I was still in contact and teaching for her in schools, some of which was festival preparation for events like the Blacktown City Games which involved 500 children from fourteen local schools. As well we would meet up at events run by NSW branch of the Australian Association for Dance Education.
During this period Margaret had made contact with members in the Aboriginal community in Australia and I suspect was the first person to bring a Traditional Knowledge holder and dancer from the Northern Territory to Sydney to share his culture and dance in schools. The dances Magungun taught were performed by children as part of the program for the Blacktown City Games. It was a brilliant experience. She also at some stage worked with the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre in Sydney/Warrane.
In 1982 Margaret was invited to choreograph a folkloric sequence as part of the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and later was officially recognised for her lifetime of work in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list with a Medal of the Order of Australia. She continued to work almost to the end of her life and in 1992 published ‘a method for teaching International folk dance’, Opening the Door to Dance.
On page viii she writes –
“Folk dance provides a bridge, an enjoyable introduction to other cultures and customs. It can become part of a thematic approach to studying other countries. Participants need to be made aware of the meaning or purpose of a dance and a teacher should try to teach it in a way that is respectful to that culture. An introduction to folk dance can open doors in a person’s life leading to appreciation and tolerance for the ways of others.”
In the copy I have Margaret has written,
Her legacy for me, I think, fostered a lifelong love of the broadness of dance and yet the uniqueness of each culture’s expression, and the thought that ‘if we could just dance together we would be friends.’ Perhaps many have had similar thoughts. I was also very fond of her and I hope she also considered we were friends.
 Walker, M. (in collaboration with Nicki Lo Bianco), Opening the Door to Dance, v.
 Dec. 16 – 69 to Mar 21 – 70. A few characters have disappeared due to the age of this document. Apologies for any misspelling.