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History of Modern Theatre Dance

In the 1920s, America was widely recognised as the home of the modern stage musical. The British dance pioneer Zelia Raye visited the country to gain first hand experience of its dance scene .

The Stage branch was launched in 1931 and the first committee was established a year later. The main aims of the Stage Branch were to bring members in touch with the theatrical profession, assist them in obtaining professional engagements and develop and maintain a high standard of modern stage dancing. Zelia Raye was a wonderful inspiration to all the young teachers who came in contact with her and she was always alert to new developments.

With Raye at the helm, a syllabus was devised for the Branch. This was divided into four sections: Musical Comedy, Tap, Modern Ballet and Acrobatic Dance. No one in the 1930s would have anticipated the subsequent growth of the Branch. Winifred Lack organised children’s classes as a speciality for Congress in 1934. In December of that year the requirements for the children’s examination were published.

“We were completely unaware that a faculty was being born that would change the face of dance for thousands of children and students.”

Murielle Ashcroft, 100 Years of Dance

In 1975 the boys’ work was introduced into the syllabi and became compulsory from 1977. Alison Willett established the course work for boys with Sheila Tozer, who had long experience of acrobatics and it was exercises from this work that were slotted into the grades. Alison Willett continued to develop the boys’ work; she was an inspirational lecturer who passed on her passion and pedagogic skills to both teachers and examiners. 

Murielle Ashcroft, or ‘Mrs A’ as she was affectionately known, was the Chair of the Faculty from 1974–1998. She was an inspirational and innovative person and under her care the Faculty was nurtured and developed most successfully. She said that during the many years she was on the Committee and in the position of Chair, she “never ceased to believe in, and be in love with, the creative freedom inspired by this work, with its early American influence and elements of other classical and theatrical dance styles”.

The Imperial Award was given to Zelia Raye in 1957 and to Murielle Ashcroft in 1979. To date there have been many other notable recipients of this Award from the Modern Theatre Dance Faculty, such as Daphne Peterson in 1984 and Patricia Crail in 1993. Miss Crail had travelled extensively throughout the world and along with a team of examiners was a most effective ambassador for the Society. By the mid 1970s interest in the work was shown in many overseas countries and this continues to grow globally.

In 1970 the Modern Stage Faculty became The Modern Dance Branch and in 2002 it divided and became two separate faculties: the Modern Theatre Dance Faculty and Tap Dance Faculty. 

The Modern Theatre Faculty today

As the changing nomenclature above reflects, the Modern Theatre Faculty Committee, keep in touch with the needs of the broader theatrical profession. Its syllabi, rooted in the dances of American film and stage musicals, include jazz and contemporary styles. The Faculty sustains its heritage by upholding the legacy it has inherited from a number of inspirational figures and by being as forward thinking as possible. It aims to both meet and anticipate the demands of the vibrant world of the modern theatre and to support and develop our membership at home and internationally.