When Lindsay Ellman-Brown moved from Harare in Zimbabwe to begin a new life teaching ballet in Sydney, Australia there were certain things she’d say that would cause her students great confusion: ‘When I was choreographing with little ones I’d tell them to stop as if they were at the red robot,’ was one. Vikki Allport’s new teaching career in Acapulco, Mexico followed an upbringing in northern England that meant becoming accustomed to the stifling 36-degree heat in her Mexican ballet studio and regular bouts of ‘Montezuma’s revenge’ from the spicy food. When Shae Mowen first came to Sydney from her home in Papua New Guinea she needed to acquaint herself with buses for the first time. And after growing up in a little fishing village in Iceland, Bryndís Einarsdóttir was delighted to discover the reverence Americans in her new hometown of Los Angeles held for classical ballet, a style of dance that didn’t even exist in her Icelandic village.
Moving to a new home can be exciting, a time of fresh beginnings and new surrounds. But it can also be daunting, and when the move involves migrating to a country and a job teaching in a culture and language that is completely foreign, it adds an extra layer of complexity. (‘Robot’, for the uninitiated, is a common South African name for traffic lights).
When Shae Mowen’s parents moved from Australia to the small New Guinean town of Madang for work the infrastructure was basic. ‘They lived on a little island and went by canoe with kerosene lamps. I spoke pidgin English because that’s what the local people spoke,’ recalls Mowen, who was born there. When she was five a local policeman moved to the area with his wife, a dancer, so Mowen and her younger sister began to learn ballet. After moving to Port Moresby she learnt from an Australian RAD-trained teacher. ‘We were dancing in the high school hall which had no walls, completely open air, how fabulous is that!’ As a teen Mowen was flown to Sydney for ballet exams. It was an eye-opener. ‘It was somewhat daunting having grown up in Port Moresby,’ she says, ‘I’d never even caught a bus.’ Nevertheless, she would go on to become an RAD teacher herself, resulting in a milestone 65 year-affiliation with the organisation.
Vikki Allport’s move from northern England to Mexico was similarly revelatory. ‘Think Billy Elliot and coal miners – then I suddenly found myself in the land of jetsetters and Hollywood, working as an extra in movies, choreographing for Mexican popstars and appearing in pop videos,’ she says. ‘I also met Nureyev in Acapulco – I offered my studios for his rehearsals and got to chat to him backstage on his final tour.’
Allport had been dancing in Spain and accompanied her dance captain to Mexico where she planned to go for three months. She ended up staying 25 years, marrying a local, starting a family and opening a youth ballet school after completing her RAD teaching diploma via distance education. While aspects of her teaching life were comfortingly familiar, others took some getting used to. ‘Teaching was much the same as in the UK except I had to learn all the words for parts of the body in Spanish,’ she says [today she tutors for the RAD in Spanish]. ‘The studios had no aircon, just big ceiling fans and it was so hot, usually between 33 and 36 degrees centigrade. By the time the students had warmed up their leotards were soaking in sweat. On Saturdays we’d all end up in the swimming pool after class.’
No matter which direction you move – small town to international city or vice versa – there will always be adjustments to make in a new home. For Lindsay Ellman-Brown, much of her new life in Australia was a relief after the political and social upheaval in Zimbabwe. ‘I loved Sydney. It was very different. Zimbabwe was struggling politically and economically and in Australia it was safe, you could turn on the tap and get clean drinking water and you could get everything you needed,’ she says. But she was homesick, and the move to Australia to be closer to her mother meant leaving friends, family and a familiar lifestyle. ‘It wasn’t easy. Although we all speak English the culture was very different and I knew nothing about the political history. In Harare you knew somebody everywhere you went. Suddenly you lose all those relationships and networking, even down to needing a new doctor or dentist. All of that is tricky.’
Ellman-Brown took comfort in her young students, who were outgoing, enthusiastic and not afraid to ask questions. But even teaching felt foreign at times. ‘The parents were different, much more engaged with their students’ learning and would question things that in Zimbabwe parents would just accept,’ she says. ‘We didn’t have full-time programmes in Zimbabwe so that in itself was a different experience. Even the sense of humour is different so I had to be careful not to say something that might be offensive here.’
Despite the culture shock, language difficulties and teaching discrepancies, all those teachers I spoke with agreed on one thing that ultimately helped them settle in: the RAD family, which knows no cultural or geographic boundaries.
‘I have been really lucky, moving from Iceland to Los Angeles, then the UK, Iceland and now the UK again,’ says Einarsdóttir, who performed with the Isadora Duncan Dance Group before turning to teaching. ‘It’s truly amazing you can move from country to country and yet keep teaching the RAD syllabus.’
Mowen had migrated to Australia in 1974 after Papua New Guinea’s independence resulted in political uncertainty, ultimately settling in Sydney in 1980. She established her own RAD-affiliated dance school but admits to feeling apprehensive.
‘I felt like a very small fish in a very big sea, it was quite different and I was nervous about meeting a worldwide organisation. But when I did the registration and seminars, the RAD teachers I associated with were extremely helpful and I realised RAD in Port Moresby wasn’t that different from RAD in Sydney. I think that’s amazing, that you can move from one country to another and you’re still learning the same work and the same values.’
‘You can move from one country to another and you’re still learning the same work and the same values’– Shae Mowen
Allport created her own little RAD family in Acapulco, initially shipping out RAD uniforms until a talented parent learnt how to make them. ‘What I loved is that my students were learning the same RAD work as others around the world. We’d all go on courses together, parents too, we were a very big dance family and I brought students over to the UK for RAD summer schools.’ After 25 years it’s little wonder it took three attempts for Allport to move back to the UK with her children. ‘Mexico definitely became home,’ she says. ‘It took several years for me to stop comparing certain things with the UK but with my family – and the family that were my students and their parents – supporting me I was well and truly accepted,’ she says, noting she received a government award for ‘immigrants providing a rich cultural contribution to Mexico.’
Ellman-Brown is forever thankful for the friendly teachers who took her under their wing and helped her navigate her new life and career. ‘Zimbabwe will always feel like home, it’s where my roots are but I’m very settled in Australia,’ she says. ‘I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been easy, but I have some amazing Australian colleagues who I’ll always be very grateful to for their help and kindness.’
There are a number of support services the RAD offers its members when moving countries, such as access to the international staff based in the RAD’s 36 member countries, advertising job openings and providing resources and information to members through events and connecting them with other members worldwide, from Aruba to the Maldives.
What advice would our teachers give others looking to move internationally? ‘Be aware that things will be different and find a mentor who can guide you through those cultural differences, within a teaching context, and help navigate the teaching fraternity,’ says Ellman-Brown.
‘Never give up, follow your heart and your dream. Make it happen’– Bryndís Einarsdóttir
Allport’s advice is both practical and life-affirming. ‘It can be daunting but life is about experiences and moving forward,’ she says. ‘If you don’t like it you can always move back, but some amazing opportunities happen by moving out of our comfort zone. Take the chance but make sure you have a good contract with a return ticket at the end.’
For Einarsdóttir, home is the family you create when setting up a dance school and welcoming students within it. ‘It always feels like home when you’ve had students for a term or two,’ says Einarsdóttir. ‘My advice to fellow dance teachers is never give up, follow your heart and your dream. Make it happen and enjoy to the fullest being in a new place with new students and people around you. Life is to be lived and teaching others about the love of dance is being home!’
Jane Albert, an author and journalist specialising in the arts, writes for the Weekend Australian, Australian Financial Review and others.
Mandy Mackenzie Ng is a visual designer based in London. mandymackenzieng.com
Register of Teachers
It is now easier to find out if a teacher is RAD qualified, wherever they are in the world. The RAD wants to make sure that whenever anyone joins a dance class, they learn with the best qualified teacher possible. (A recent survey conducted by YouGov revealed that 89% of UK adults were not aware that there are no current legal requirements for teachers to have a dance teaching qualification to lead a class or a school.) The RAD recently launched a new global Register of Teachers where employers, students, and parents and guardians can find qualified teachers with confidence. Only teachers who hold ‘RAD Registered Teacher’ status are included in the register, which highlights their expert credentials as having undergone stringent dance education training. The register is updated twice a day, and there is also a handy checklist to help parents and guardians make an informed decision when choosing a qualified dance teacher.