By: Rita Hayes
My father, Canice Hayes, was an Irish step-dance champion. Dancing was important to my parents as evidenced by their naming me Rita, after Rita Hayworth, arguably Fred Astaire’s best dancing partner. I was unable to fulfil this hope or expectation as I contracted polio one month prior to my third birthday in 1949. I was told that I had sunstroke and I remember my mother bathing my prostrated body head to toe, to try and bring my temperature down, after which I didn’t move. I was eventually seen at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital by a Mr. Higgins. My mother was instructed to passively exercise my legs, but when she did, it was so painful that I screamed the place down, so my parents came up with the idea of putting me on a tricycle with my feet strapped to the pedals, and pushing me everywhere. I was very proud of my bright red tricycle, and I tolerated this process despite the pain, until eventually the legs became capable of voluntary but still painful movement. Walking was a greater challenge, but by the time I started school I could pass as ‘normal’ except in the playground. I couldn’t stand from sitting cross-legged on the ground, without using my arms. No one mentioned polio to me. I was told that I was too heavy for my legs. I grew up to a litany of ‘don’t drag your feet’, ‘don’t drop into chairs, sit down properly’, ‘don’t slump’. I always felt accused of not pulling my weight.
Over 20 years later doing anthropological fieldwork in the rain forest of the Waskuk Hills of the Middle Sepik in New Guinea in conditions as bad as the Kokoda trail but without a trail, I found my legs could no longer cope with the demands I put upon them. Reluctantly, I returned to London. I saw an orthopaedic surgeon who sent me for neurological tests. I had to wait a year to find out if the problem was an old polio or motor neurone disease. If an old polio, then the nerve conductivity would not get worse during the course of the year. An old polio it was, or to be precise ‘pes cavus amd nerve conduction lesions consistent with early polio’. The neurologist at the Maudsley told me that because I’d been so young when I contracted polio, I had trained my afferent nerves to do the work of my compromised efferent nerves, so I could walk but I would always have pain in moving my limbs. When I told this to my mother, she said ‘yes the doctor said you had polio, but we didn’t like the diagnosis, so we changed the doctor’! Perhaps there was a stigma attached or maybe they just wanted to prevent me being hospitalised. Other children in the street who had been hospitalised had never returned.
My father’s compatriot Edris Stannus, born in County Wicklow in 1898, discovered her love of dance when Kate, the family’s cook, taught her an Irish jig, which she practiced on the stone floor of the kitchen before performing it at a party. At the age of 6 she moved to England and lived with her grandmother in Kent. She started ballet lessons at the age of 10. In her early teens she undertook more serious training at the Lila Field Academy for Children and changed her name to Ninette de Valois. She became a child star. In 1919, at the age of 21, de Valois was made a principal dancer for the Beecham Opera, which was the resident company at the Royal Opera House at the time. In 1923 she went on to dance with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which was at the forefront of theatrical dance, music, and design. While there she formed a bond with Bronislava Nijinska. Both were from countries with strong traditional dance cultures and were interested in how classical technique could be applied to folk dance. She withdrew from regular intense dancing in 1924 after doctors found she was suffering from a previously undiagnosed case of childhood polio. She said that had she known that the pain she experienced was not felt by everyone she would have stopped sooner. Thereafter, she focussed her career on choreography and teaching. In 1926 she founded the Academy of Choreographic Arts for girls in London, and a sister school in Dublin. She understood the importance of the link between school and ballet company from her own training, and with the dogged determination so characteristic of polio survivors, she set about developing a British Ballet which became the Sadlers Wells Ballet and ultimately the Royal Ballet. She died in 2001 at the age of 102.
Cyd Charisse was another filly out of the Ballets Russes and Nijinska stable. Pun intended, as a famous racehorse was named after Nijinska’s brother the ballet dancer Nijinsky. Cyd was born in Texas, in 1921. Her nickname ‘Sid’ came about because her brother had problems enunciating ‘Sis’. When she went into films the studio changed the spelling to ‘Cyd’. As a young child she had contracted and survived the deadly polio virus, and at age six started dancing lessons as a form of physical therapy to build up her muscle mass and strength. At twelve, she studied ballet in Los Angeles with Adolph Bolm and Bronislava Nijinska, and at fourteen, she auditioned for and subsequently danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as “Felia Siderova” and, later, “Maria Istomina”. During a European tour she married Nico Charisse a young dancer she had studied with in Los Angeles. The outbreak of World War II led to the ballet company being disbanded and she returned to the USA. Initially she had some uncredited parts in films then her career really took off when Gene Kelly chose her, instead of leading lady Debbie Reynolds, who was not a trained dancer, to partner him in the ‘Broadway Melody’ ballet finale from “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). Her entrance in the film involved slowly passing Gene Kelly his hat with her leg after he drops it. A gangster’s moll in a green flapper dress, puffing on a long cigarette holder, and provocatively wrapping her long legs around Kelly, she was the ultimate vamp. She also partnered him as a chaste dancer in a white tutu whose long scarf floats in the air. She insured her legs for $5 million, making them the most valuable in the world. After her breakthrough in her silent role in “Singin’ in the Rain”, her reputation as a dancer was consolidated in 1953 with her first lead role opposite Astaire in Minnelli’s “Band Wagon” and then again in “Silk Stockings” (1957). Fred Astaire once described her as “beautiful dynamite”. Sarah Kauffman of The Washington Post (cited by Smith 2022) said her ballet training gave her “a whole different way of carrying herself, pulled up and light, her legs stroking forward like a cat’s. Charisse was in fact nearly tone deaf, and in all her musicals her singing was dubbed. After the decline of the Hollywood musical in the late 1950s, Charisse retired from dancing but continued to appear in film and TV productions. She produced the exercise video Easy Energy Shape Up, for active senior citizens. Like so many polio survivors she played the experience down saying it was polio but “not enough to cripple me although I still have an atrophy on the right side of my back”. She died in 2008 age 86.
Born in 1946 in Melbourne, Gailene Stock was drawn to dance from an early age. Her mother Sylvia taught theatre dance. A dancer from the age of four. At the age of eight she contracted polio and spent over 18 months in hospital where she lay immobilised on her back strapped neck to toe in a full- body-length metal frame (not an iron lung). It was the boredom and frustration of it all that she found hardest. She was told she would never walk again. Sent home still imprisoned in the frame, which she called Percy, she was determined to walk again. Through painstaking rehabilitation exercises administered by her mother, beginning with painful stretching of atrophied limbs, then progressing to walking on all fours, and eventually standing she not only walked but was dancing again four years later at the age of 12. This recovery alone was remarkable enough. Two years later she had a further major setback, suffering serious injuries when a collision between a cement lorry and her father’s car left her with a fractured skull and jaw and in a coma for three days, three months before she was to take her Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) intermediate exam. Showing great determination she pulled through and passed her exam with a commendation. In 1962, aged 16, Stock was awarded a RAD scholarship to London’s Royal Ballet School. At the same time, Dame Peggy van Praagh chose her to be the youngest foundation member of the newly established Australian Ballet, so Stock deferred her scholarship to join the company. The following year she took up her scholarship in London. Nine months into her scholarship she told Dame Ninette de Valois that she was leaving. De Valois told her that if she stayed, she’d be offered a place with the Royal Ballet. She chose instead to spend some months dancing in Europe before returning to Australian Ballet, where she spent the next seven years, touring the world and rising to Principal Dancer under Director Robert Helpmann. A highlight of her career was a cameo in Rudolf Nureyev’s film of Don Quixote (1973). She also made frequent media appearances,
Stock spent three years in Canada as Principal Artist with the National Ballet of Canada, and with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, before returning with her husband, the principal and ballet master Gary Norman, to resume their careers with Australian Ballet in 1977. With the birth of their daughter Lisa the following year, Stock retired from dancing and moved into teaching and management. She was soon appointed Director of the National Theatre Ballet School in Melbourne. After six successful years, in 1990 she became Director of the Australian Ballet School and then in 1999 she was head-hunted to take over from Merle Park as Director of the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden. She accepted the post on condition that her husband taught the boys at the School, making the most of the upsurge in interest created by the film, ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000).
When she moved to The Royal Ballet School in 1999, she immediately set to work changing the curriculum in order to make the student dancers more employment-ready upon graduation. When she joined, employment rates were around 48% and steadily rose to over 98% during her 15-year tenure. She oversaw the move of the Royal Ballet School’s senior section from suburban Chiswick premises to an award-winning conversion linked by bridge to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and the upgrading of the accommodation of the junior section in White Lodge, Richmond Park.
She transformed the institution, which had become somewhat insular and old-fashioned, into a more inclusive and internationally welcoming establishment which is now widely recognised as one of the world’s leading classical dance training centres. When interviewed by Bryce Corbett she said “I learned at an early age to be quite stubborn about what I wanted in life, and I learned that you have to be uncompromising in your pursuit of it”. In 2014, age 68, she died in hospital, where she was being treated for cancer after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Here am I, aged 76, having just joined a ballet for Seniors class at my local community centre. Some of us have danced before, some like me, never have. We sport a variety of physical limitations. Our tutor has just turned 80 and is recovering from a knee replacement. So in the interest of longevity, fitness, and fun, shall we dance?
(1997 words excluding references)
Corbett, B. (2006) To The Pointe, The Weekend Australian Magazine, 7-8 January 2006
Smith, C. (2022) Cyd Charisse health: Dancer was ‘frail’ as she battled polio – ‘Needed to build muscle’, Express 10:10, Sat, Apr 30, 2022 https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/1603119/cyd-charisse-health-dancer-polio-fred-astaire-the-band-wagon-bbc-two-spt (last accessed 25 04 2023).