On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 is a celebratory exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that explores the history of the academy, which is synonymous with that of British ballet. With syllabus resources, pointe shoes, costumes, choreography and more on display, there is something for everyone to connect with and be inspired by.
The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) is a world leader in dance education and training. Established in 1920 to raise the standard of dance teaching in the UK and reinvigorate ballet training, it has now been teaching the world to dance for more than 100 years. The organisation supports and unites a global community of around 400,000 dancers of all ages and abilities, in more than 80 countries, through an international network of dance teachers.
The RAD has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
My childhood ballet teacher, Kathleen Woollard (1929–2020), was an esteemed RAD registered teacher who was awarded life membership. She was a recipient of the prestigious President’s Award, which recognises an individual who has, over many years, dedicated themselves above and beyond the call of duty to the RAD in particular and to the art of dance in general. She gave me the name ‘Georgie’ (‘Miss Georgie’ to junior dance students). She taught me the essentials of technique, tenacity and virtuosity. And she earnestly supported my endeavours – in the studio, on the stage and beyond.
As a young dancer, I excelled in RAD ballet examinations and was selected to assist trainee teachers and demonstrate for prospective examiners. Now, as a qualified ballet teacher myself, I am proud to be a first class honours graduate and registered teacher of the RAD.
“This display is a celebration of everybody involved in 100 years of the Royal Academy of Dance.”
Dame Darcey Bussell DBE,
President of the Royal Academy of Dance
Royal Academy of Dance: Founders
The RAD came into being on 31 December 1920, as the ‘Association of Teachers of Operatic Dancing of Great Britain’. It was established following a meeting of dance professionals organised by Philip Richardson (1875–1963), co-founder and former editor of the Dancing Times magazine.
Although he was not a dancer himself, Richardson was immersed in the developing British ballet scene and recognised the need for teachers to work together to ensure a consistent standard. Consequently, he enlisted the support of international dance stars and teachers to set the standards by which ballet should be taught and examined.
Richardson brought together five renowned dance professionals, each of whom represented one of the great classical ballet traditions at the time, to form a founding committee:
- Edouard Espinosa (the French tradition)
- Adeline Genée (the Danish tradition)
- Tamara Karsavina (the Russian tradition)
- Lucia Cormani (the Italian tradition)
- Phyllis Bedells (the British tradition)
Edouard Espinosa (1871–1950) represented the French method of ballet training. He was born in Moscow, raised in Paris and acclaimed for his work in Britain.
Espinosa was trained by the great ballet masters of nineteenth-century Paris and Russia. He danced professionally and also worked as a producer and choreographer, arranging routines for more than 300 West End shows.
Espinosa was most influential as a teacher. He was ballet master for many venues, including the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and believed that it was only a lack of skilled teaching that prevented the emergence of perfect dancers. After opening his dance school in 1896, he started holding his own examinations in 1908. He went on to write numerous manuals on dance technique; his first, Technical Dictionary of Dancing, was published in 1913.
In 1930, due to differences of opinion, Espinosa resigned from the association (the RAD) and established the British Ballet Organisation (BBO Dance).
Adeline Genée (1878–1970) represented the Danish method of ballet training. She was born and raised in Denmark, where she started her career, and admired for her performances as prima ballerina at the Empire Theatre in London’s Leicester Square.
Genée was trained by her uncle, Alexander Genée. Most of her performing career was spent in music hall: a popular form of light theatrical entertainment that featured variety acts and culminated in a grand ballet. The Empire was a music hall that devoted a large proportion of its repertoire to ballet, for which it employed a permanent company. In 1897, Genée began a six-week contract at the Empire. It went so well that she enjoyed a ten-year reign as the star attraction at the venue, dancing under the direction of Katti Lanner.
Genée was chosen by her fellow founders as the first president of the RAD, a position she held until her retirement in 1954. She gave her name to the RAD’s flagship competition, first held in 1931, and remained on the founding committee until she died at the age of 92 in 1970.
Tamara Karsavina (1885–1978) represented the Russian method of ballet training. She was one of the Russian artists whose presence in London helped to revive interest in the British ballet scene. A simple oval plaque on the wall in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden affords her the highest status: ‘prima ballerina assoluta’.
Karsavina was trained at the Imperial Russian School and danced as a ballerina with the Imperial Russian Ballet and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She created major roles in most of Michel Fokine’s avant-garde ballets (including Firebird, Petrushka and Spectre de la Rose) and formed a legendary partnership with Vaslav Nijinsky.
Also a great teacher, Karsavina was the technical adviser for the RAD’s teacher training course and contributed a syllabus that is still used today. She was vice president of the RAD from 1920 until 1955.
Lucia Cormani (1854–1934) represented the Italian method of ballet training. She was an Italian dancer, choreographer and teacher.
Cormani was trained at La Scala, Milan. She was a popular mime artist with a tall, muscular build. Consequently, when she moved to London in 1886 to dance at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, she often played roles en travestie (dressed as a man). She was the theatre’s choreographer and company teacher from about 1893 until 1911.
The RAD’s first examination sessions in 1921 were held at Cormani’s studio in Goodge Street. Cormani retired from the founding committee in 1924 and returned to Italy.
Phyllis Bedells (1893–1985) represented the British method of ballet training. She was born in Bristol and is regarded as the twentieth century’s first British ballerina.
Bedells was trained by, among others, Enrico Cecchetti, Anna Pavlova and Adeline Genée. She was a dancer at London’s Empire Theatre from 1907 and, in 1913, she became the first British dancer to hold the position of prima ballerina at the venue. She left the Empire in 1916 and started performing on the West End and in operas in Covent Garden. She continued performing until 1935.
Bedells was the youngest of the founding committee members. She had her own school but remained involved with the RAD until she died at the age of 92 in 1985.
Royal Academy of Dance: Identity
Merging the founders’ respective methods created a new style of ballet that was unique to the association.
The first syllabus – the Elementary Operatic Syllabus, based on Espinosa’s existing manuals – was agreed and the first examinations for teachers were held in 1921. The first children’s syllabus was published the following year. Although the initial objective was the improvement of training for teachers, the association quickly recognised the benefits of its ballet classes for health and happiness. Consequently, successive syllabi and graded examinations were established.
The association acquired its first patron, Queen Mary, in 1928. It became the ‘Royal Academy of Dancing’ (RAD) in 1936, after receiving its Royal Charter from King George V. A year later, the RAD was awarded its coat of arms with the motto ‘Salus et Felicitas’, which means ‘Health and Happiness’.
Eventually, on 13 December 2000, the academy became the ‘Royal Academy of Dance’. This change made the academy’s name consistent with other institutions and conservatoires by identifying ‘dance’ as a discipline worthy of study (rather than referring to the activity of dancing).
To date, the RAD has had four presidents:
- Adeline Genée (1878–1970) was the first president, serving from 1920 until 1954
- Margot Fonteyn (1919–1991) is the longest-serving president so far, she held the position from 1954 until 1991
- Antoinette Sibley (born 1939) was president from 1991 until 2012
- Darcey Bussell (born 1969) is the current president, she has held the position since 2012
The president’s role is to promote the work of the RAD, communicate with members and act as an ambassador for dance education and training at all levels. All four presidents have been famous ballerinas, which reflects the link between teaching, training and the profession that has always been central to the RAD’s mission and identity.
On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100
The On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 exhibition is spread across three rooms in the theatre and performance galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
Jane Pritchard (curator of dance for the V&A) and Eleanor Fitzpatrick (archives and records manager at the RAD) led the team challenged to create a single display that would appeal not only to visitors with a personal or specialist interest, but also to the general public. With a century of RAD history, which is inextricably intertwined with dance history, to distil, a considerable amount of editing was required. The process involved appraising the physical condition and narrative significance of potential artefacts, before selecting those most suitable for a centenary celebration.
Undoubtedly, the magic of visiting a museum is being able to see objects up close, pick and choose what to engage with and, ultimately, access history in a more meaningful way than simply reading about it. So, the items showcased must capture visitors’ interest as individual pieces and contribute effectively to the overall story being told.
The terpsichorean treasures that made the final cut achieve this ambitious balancing act. They include: costumes, shoes, paintings, drawings, sculptures, posters, letters, certificates, theatre programmes, teaching publications, syllabus resources, dance scores, photographs and film footage. There is plenty to look at and learn about! If you love dance you will be in your element. If you are intrigued by fashion, design, theatre, music or education – or wander into the display with no expectations at all – you will discover an institution with a rich history, which relates to many fascinating realms.
Although the items themselves are the main attraction, the design of the display plays a significant role in moving visitors through history. The story of the RAD is presented in a generally chronological way, starting with the founders and progressing to its influence today. Nonetheless, the entire exhibition experience weaves the past, present and future together.
Meandering through the space, sometimes turning back on yourself and sometimes waltzing ahead, is encouraged by the use of slender, wavy display tables. Positioned towards the centre of each room, these hold artefacts that can be viewed from all angles at will. This allows for a fluid and truly three-dimensional exploration – similar to the approach taken when teaching dance students in a studio.
Stunning costumes stand majestically in cabinets on the periphery of the rooms, while the walls are adorned with photographs and graphics. These lend themselves to reflective moments in which you can absorb material from a pre-determined perspective – similar to the proscenium arch view when watching dancers perform on stage. Archive and contemporary film footage, projected onto walls and displayed on screens, provides an opportunity to see dancers dancing, which adds movement and ambience.
Dancing involves connecting. With your own mind and body, as well as with music, teachers, other dancers and an audience. Fittingly, connections between teaching, training and performing are communicated via quotes and infographics on the walls. One graphic depicts the links between the founders of the RAD and other famous faces from dancing history. Another maps out the worldwide influence of RAD registered teachers.
Teaching is at the heart of what the RAD does. It teaches teachers to teach, who then teach dancers to dance – some of whom then learn to teach. It teaches the world to enjoy dance – whether that means participating in dance activities or learning more about the art form to further appreciate a performance. To share the joy of dance practice and spectatorship with visitors, On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 includes a studio-themed area for trying some ballet steps and a theatre-themed area for watching film footage of professionals.
“It is easy to say, ‘If I am not good enough to dance I will teach’, but the people who say it probably have not stopped to consider whether they might be good enough to teach; or even that it might be just as difficult, in a different way, to teach well as it is to be a good dancer.”
Dame Margot Fonteyn DBE (1919–1991),
Longest-serving President of the Royal Academy of Dance (1954–1991)
Highlights of On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100
The first room introduces the founders and the context in which the RAD came into being. There is a welcome video from current president Darcey Bussell and the contents of the first ever syllabus are listed on the turquoise feature wall. Costumes from three founder ballerinas are included in this room: a simple draped dress, decorated with oak leaves, worn by founding president Adeline Genée in The Dryad (1915); a royal blue, military style tunic, paired with pinkish-orange pantaloons, worn by Tamara Karsavina in her marching solo from Les Cantinières (1926); and a pretty, lace-trimmed Victorian dress, with matching bonnet, worn by Phyllis Bedells in The Debutante (1933).
The second room focuses on the introduction of the teacher training course and syllabus development over the years. This is the period of Margot Fonteyn’s presidency, so you can pore over memorabilia from the RAD fundraising galas she invited Rudolf Nureyev to dance at (his first performance in Britain was at the 1961 gala) and gaze dreamily at the delicate costume she wore for the ballet Les Sylphides in the 1960s. You can also watch recently discovered film footage of Margot Fonteyn presenting the children’s syllabus she helped to created (filmed in 1972, by her brother, Felix).
The studio-themed area in this second room is an interactive and Instagram worthy spot for participating and posing. Complete with ballet barres, full-length mirrors and a proper dance floor, this area invites visitors to try some movements for themselves. Videos of exercises from the RAD’s current graded examinations in dance (Grades 2, 3 and 4) and Discovering Repertoire (Level 4) syllabi are played on nearby screens so you can follow along.
Pirouette past the barre, into the third room, and you find yourself in a theatre-themed area. Here, a large screen, dressed with luxurious red stage curtains and flanked by elaborate gold columns, plays archive footage of performances by three of the RAD’s four presidents (Fonteyn, Sibley and Bussell).
There are also sketches of tutus, examples of dance notation and more costumes to admire. You can marvel at: Antoinette Sibley’s ‘Princess Aurora’ tutu from The Sleeping Beauty (1968); Rudolf Nureyev’s figure-hugging ‘Prince Siegfried’ tunic from Swan Lake (1963); and Darcey Bussell’s ‘Belle Rose’ costume from The Prince of the Pagodas (1989). The shoes worn by Bussell at her farewell performance with the Royal Ballet, on 8 June 2007, also feature.
In this final room, space is devoted to looking at the current and future RAD. Photographs illustrate the transformational power of dance in action across RAD initiatives: Silver Swans for older adults, Project B for boys, RADiate for children with special educational needs and disabilities, Step into Dance for secondary school students. Also of note is the artists’ impression of the new RAD global headquarters, which opened in March 2022. A pleasing reminder of the RAD’s commitment to shaping and influencing the next 100 years of dance.
On Point: To the point
On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 is well worth a visit. Delve into dance history and perhaps take a trip down memory lane. Be enthralled by costumes and entertained by film footage. Put your best foot forward at the ballet barre. Get excited about dancing into the future – whether that means qualifying as a ballet teacher, pursuing further training and performing opportunities, returning to ballet after a break or taking your very first dance class.
“Dance is a full-body workout and aerobic. It provides an appreciation of rhythm and teaches musicality. It is another form of expression. It engages the imagination. It is social, completely inclusive and, best of all, great fun.”
Dame Darcey Bussell DBE,
President of the Royal Academy of Dance
Dancing Times (1920) The elementary operatic syllabus.
Derek Parker (1995) Royal Academy of Dancing: the first 75 years.
Royal Academy of Dance (2021) History.
Royal Academy of Dance (2021) The Royal Academy of Dance at 100.
Victoria and Albert Museum (2016) Dance in popular theatre.
Victoria and Albert Museum (2022) Music hall and variety theatre.
On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 continues at the Victoria and Albert Museum until Monday 29 August. Entry is free of charge.
*Photography by Georgina Butler.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.