“Temperamental, darling,” Veronica Tennant recalls Betty Oliphant frequently admonishing frustrated dancers, “that’s half temper and half mental.” The formidable Miss 0, as students called the National Ballet School’s long-time principal-no one ever put “divine” in front of her name-had plenty of temperament of her own. But in the wake of her death last week, a month shy of her 86th birthday, Tennant and the rest of the dance world preferred to remember Oliphant’s unparalleled role in making her school one of the world’s best. “She was a fabulous teacher,” said Celia Franca, who founded the National Ballet in 1951, “and her legacy is that she taught many other people to be very good teachers. The school was her legacy and it has done her proud.”
As one associate noted, Oliphant took “her own life experience and tried to find a way around it in the school.” Her autobiography records a hard personal life, including depression and suicide attempts. She had to fight her middle-class British family for ballet lessons, and then, at age 20, found herself-at five foot seven and, at times, 190 Ib.-far too large for classic dance. When the Second World War was over, “I found myself married, with two children, one of whom had TB of the spine. I had married this Canadian who had been billeted in our house. I came to Canada with him, at which point he ran off. And there I was. In Toronto, with two children. Without a bean.”
In a particularly fruitful example of thosewho-can’t, Oliphant began teaching everything from keep-fit classes to ballroom dancing. When the National opportunity arose, she leapt at it. She combined a keen eye for talent with a ferocious willingness to battle anyone in the school’s interest. Oliphant insisted on high academic as well as artistic achievement, and incorporated psychological counselling into the school’s high-pressure atmosphere. But in the end, it was all about meeting the highest possible dance standards, a demand for excellence that shaped her renowned students-Tennant, Karen Kain, Frank Augustyn, Rex Harrington and James Kudelka among them. “She was so much more than just a truly great teacher,” says Tennant, “she also infused us with principles and standards that took us to the greatest heights in dance.” [?il
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.