Mary Clarke, Emeritus Editor, The Dancing Times wrote this article for the 80th anniversary of the Sunshine Dancing Competition:
The Sunshine Dancing Competition – how it all began
The All England Sunshine Dancing Competitions grew out of the “Sunshine Matinées” which preceded them by some five years. The matinées which played a distinct part in laying the foundations of British Ballet as we know it today, were started in 1919 by Mrs Dorothy Claremont, Organizer for the Sunshine Homes of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and Philip J. S. Richardson, founder, and editor for nearly fifty years, of the Dancing Times. The first one took place at the Queens Theatre on November 25, 1919, in the presence of the Queen of Spain and was an instant success. Richardson’s aim, which he pursued for the next ten years, was to show each year how dancing was progressing in this country and what a wealth of native talent existed. Thanks to the generosity and co-operation of the professional dancers and the support of all the leading teachers, a very fair overall picture was presented. The programme was in three sections: the first showed youngsters who during the preceding twelve months had won some important competition; the second showed the principal dancers of the day, resident in this country; the third section introduced to the British public for the first time some prominent continental dancers – among them Mary Wigman, Ulla Poulsen of the Royal Danish Ballet, Paul Haakon, Camille Bos and Yvonne Daunt. Among “home dancers” who frequently appeared were Phillis Bedells, Ruth French, Ninette de Valois, Tamara Karsavina, Serafina Astafieva, Harold Turner, Errol Addison and Anton Dolin. As an example of choreographic talent present in this country, Frederick Ashton’s early ballet Leda and the Swan was danced by The Marie Rambert Dancers and conducted by Constant Lambert.
It was Lillie Cone, a children’s examiner of the Royal Academy of Dancing and a founder of what is today the Arts Educational Schools, who suggested that the standard of achievement in dancing schools could probably be considerably improved and assessed by the organisation of a big, nationwide competition, representing the various types of dancing, open to all, and with proceeds, as with the matinées, going to the Sunshine Fund of the RNIB. Richardson took up the idea with enthusiasm and as early as October 1922 was able to write in his magazine: “I am able to give preliminary details of a big dancing competition which it is hoped to organize during the first four months of next year in aid of the “Sunshine Homes” for Blind Babies and the “Greater London Fund for the Blind”. Teachers were asked to send suggestions about the form it should take to Mrs Claremont, Blind Babies Homes, 38 Bolsover Street, W1. Announced first as “our solo competition”, by the issue of December 1922 the name had become the Sunshine Solo Competition and it had been decided that it would be an absolutely open one, no distinction between amateurs and professionals with preliminary heats in “provincial” towns and finals in London.
The first group of classes were: A up to 7 years; B 7 –11 years; C 11-15 years; and D 15-21 years. The styles were described as Classical (meaning Greek), Character, and Operatic (meaning Ballet). The Dancing Times of February 1923 gave precise details of “How to Enter” and in the April issue the two London semi-finals were announced to take place at Armitage Hall, National Institute for the Blind, Great Portland Street. The judges were Judith Espinosa and Philip Richardson for the two days, joined by Miss Smurthwaite and Miss Purcell for the second. It was made clear that “These three ladies have practically no pupils entered for the competition”.
The following month Richardson was able to state that despite sessions of four or five hours at a time for the judges “these were two of the most interesting afternoons I have ever spent”. The winners of the four classes, and the runners-up, at the semi-finals in London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Southsea, Brighton and Bristol were listed, together with the names of their teachers. In the London semi-final, Class A was won by Wendy Toye (Miss Boyle).
The final was held on May 15 at the Kingsway Theatre and in the June 1923 issue The Dancing Times could report “a most successful experiment” – there had been 3,000 entries – but conceded that there was “much to be learned”. The judges were Judith Espinosa, Jeanie Smurthwaite, Florence Purcell, Ninette de Valois, and Ruth French, with Philip Richardson as Chairman. “On the few occasions when a pupil of one of these judges appeared, that judge stood down”. Full results were given and on this occasion Wendy Toye won Class A Character. Cups donated by the Daily Mirror newspaper went to Bice Bellairs (Miss Ginner) Class C, and Edith Verdune (Miss MacLaren) Class D.
The Sunshine Matinées came to an end in 1931 for by then the Ballet Club (from which grew the Ballet Rambert, and the Vic-Wells Ballet (from which grew The Royal Ballet)) had been established and the Camargo Society had been formed to show their work in the West End. There was no need to trumpet the fact that Britain had dancers of world class. But the Sunshine Competitions continued to be held each year, growing enormously in the number and variety of different classes. The association with The Dancing Times continued, for Richardson served as Chairman of the organising committee until his retirement. He was succeeded as Chairman and also as Editor of the magazine by Arthur Franks, who served until his untimely death in 1963. The magazine continued to publish the full results. (There was one dramatic year when a fire at the printers destroyed half of the issue which traditionally had published those results I shall never forget the wails of anguish from proud parents: “I MUST have a copy, my daughter’s name is in it, why don’t you reprint?”)
The competitions have been sustained over the years by the adjudicators, who gave so generously of their time, by teachers who supported them with ever increasing entries, and by the officers of the RNIB. But although only expenses were charged against the organising of the Competition, rising costs of travel, accommodation outside London, hire of premises, etc., escalated so enormously that eventually a situation was reached when the whole, complex operation was raising barely enough money to sustain one child at a Sunshine Home and, reluctantly, the Sunshine came to an end.
However, in order that the All England title and scope of the enterprise should continue, Malcolm Hickling and Joanne Marsden-Blackwell, with the support of teachers, re-organised and set up the present All England Dance Competition in 1983, under the Chairmanship of Travis Kemp, with Dame Alicia Markova as its illustrious President.
HOW TO BEAT THE BLACKOUT!
From The Dancing Times December 1940
SUNSHINE COMPETITON, 1941
It is hoped that as soon as the days begin to lengthen in the early spring it may be possible to hold, in certain areas, “Substitute Sunshine Stage Dancing Competitions” on the lines of those held early in the present year.
Each one of such compeititon will be “self-contained”, that is to say it will not lead up to a semi-final and a final but wach event will begin and finish on the same day. They wil only be held in daylight hours and in centres which are consididered reasonably “safe” during those hours.
Efforts to organise such “substitute competitions” will be made only in tose districts from phich postcards are received – so if you want a competition write at once before you forget.