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Marie Walton Mahon’s Personal Best

This episode is sponsored by @ecodancers

On episode four of Talking Pointes, we speak with a woman many of you will know, Marie Walton Mahon. Marie, or Miss Marie, as many still call her, has taught and trained literally thousands of dancers here in Australia and around the globe. A dance prodigy in her own right, she was selected as a teenager to train in France with the great Rosella Hightower, and then danced professionally in Marseille, under the artistic directorship of the late, great, Roland Petit.

However, her career was unexpectedly cut short and she returned home to Australia. With no career to fall back on she started a tiny dance school with just six students in Newcastle, Australia. Marie went on to create the National College of Dance, training students to the highest level, to enter ballet and contemporary dance schools and companies worldwide. In this beautifully candid interview, Marie talks about her own career, her journey to becoming a teacher, her family, and how she co-founded and grew the global phenomenon that is Progressing Ballet Technique.

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Transcript

Claudia Lawson: I guess I wanted to start today by asking, when did you start dancing? When did your love of dance start? Because, I don’t think I know that story.

Marie Walton Mahon: Oh wow. Okay. My mum was one of 11 and they couldn’t afford dancing, and she loved dancing. So, as soon as I was three, she took me to Betty Bennett who had a little studio in her home in Rutherford. And Betty, who I’m still in touch with, in her 90s, gave me a love of dance.

CL : Wow.

MWM: And then by six, Betty said, “I think Marie should take this more seriously.” So, that’s when we started to travel from Rutherford down to Newcastle to Tessa Maunder.

CL: Okay. So, you trained under Tessa Maunder, I didn’t know that.

MWM: Yep, I did, until I was 16. And then, I was awarded a scholarship to study on the Riviera, which was hard to take, which I left here just under 18.

CL: So, that’s in France?

MWM: In France, to train with Rosella Hightower. That was unbelievable. It opened my eyes to so many styles. I loved every minute. I was able to, on the scholarship, take classes from eight in the morning till eight in the evening if I wanted to. And I studied flamenco, I studied everything I could get my hands on. I just loved to move. Then I was really, really fortunate because there was often people watching class, and this day, Roland Petit was watching a class and he went to Rosella Hightower and said, “I’d like that fiery, little, dark person that’s got a lot of energy and spirit.” And offered me a contract. And I never had to audition. It was just a dream come true. So, I left Cannes in France and moved to Marseille, got myself a little apartment.

CL: So, what were you, 18, 19?

MWM: Then, I was just under 19.

CL: Wow. So young.

MWM: So young and so naive, but I absolutely loved every minute. And we toured, it was wonderful. And then, my world came a bit crushing down because in those days, Claudia, it was three weeks to get an aerogram, it was months to get my Vegemite.

CL: So, you can’t call your mom every day?

MWM: No, there was no Skype.

CL: There’s no FaceTime.

MWM: There’s no FaceTime. And then my dad, he had a massive coronary, my world came crashing down. And I’m the eldest, I was really needed at home. And my plan, I’ve always worked, as I’ve taught, with goals.

CL: Oh, yes.

MWM: Goal setting is a big deal with me, to motivate goals. So, always had that I’d dance professionally, open a school. And that was my dream.

CL: I did wonder that, I’d often wondered, had teaching always been what you wanted to pursue?

MWM: Eventually, it was on-

CL: It was on the goal list.

MWM: Prematurely, it was bought forward. But hey, it was on that list. And I’d already had teaching experience because kindly, my dad had a bad accident when I was 11, nearly 12, and ballet was the thing that had to be cut. And my teacher, Tessa Maunder, said, “Would I like to help out with teaching little ones?” So, before and after school, I went, I did odd jobs. I’d clean up, and I taught. I mean—

CL: So, you taught for Tessa?

MWM: I did. I did, till I went away. So, in those little technical lesson classes, I had such people as Liz Toohey, Lisa Pavane, in those little classes that I taught. And I loved teaching right back then. So, it was definitely on the radar.

CL: And so, when you came back prematurely, are you having a, not a crisis, but a lot of people experience that, whether it’s through injury, whether it’s homesickness, you come back to your hometown, is it disappointing? How did you deal with that at the time?

MWM: It was really hard. First of all, I went back to teach for Tessa Maunder, at the beginning, I just felt I didn’t have enough confidence to go on my own. And it was a little frustrating because I felt I’d learnt so much overseas and I wanted to explore more options. For instance, if you’re teaching someone, you go to the bookcase and told to teach number 86 dance out of a book. And I just thought, “Why can’t I create? Why can’t I use all those tools that I learned and create dances for the individual instead of something that someone else did to suit them?” So, I was a little bit like, “Oh, I want to do it my way now.” So, I had to build that confidence to open the school in 1974, with six students and a big dream. I must say, for the first, quite a few years, I would class myself as not a good teacher.

CL: Really?

MWM: I was a bit of a screamer. I had to get-

CL: But you also had grown up under that Tessa Maunder model.

MWM: Exactly.

CL: Which for those dancers out there who learned under her, she was known as, how would you describe it? Teaching via . . .

MWM: Well, we danced, we loved it, but there was a lot of pressure to excel. There was a lot of old-school fear, some shame, comparison, things that I really advocate not to use in today’s society. We should dance for love, freedom, the beauty of music, the beauty of movement, and personal best. For me, it’s all about safe dance and personal best. So, that’s what motivates me. And those early days, I had to find myself, I had to, in those first lot of concerts I put on, I danced.

CL: Did you?

MWM: I did. I couldn’t quite let go. You know? In fact, in one of those really early performances, I remember. Because I taught ballet to Dein Perry, you know, Tap dogs? I did a tap dance with Dein, a duo.

CL: What, at the Christmas concert?

MWM: Yeah. Yeah.

CL: Well, you had the skills.

MWM: And I just felt, well, I’ve got to let some of that steam off. And Kim, my sister, who taught with me because we opened the school as M&K originally.

CL: I remember that now.

MWM: Yeah. And we had a club act as well.

CL: Did you?

MWM: Yeah. And I did a lot of TV work, a lot of promotional work, in those early days. Yes. I mean, you have to survive too. And the school, as I said, I started with six students and this big dream. So, you had to take these other little jobs.

CL: So, you said, which surprises me, to say that you were a screaming type of teacher—

MWM: At the beginning.

CL: . . . because, I suppose, I entered the scene under your tuition and coaching much later, but you always seemed to have such poise, such grace. I mean, you had authority, there was no way we were going to muck up when you were teaching. And so, how did that evolve? How did you learn those skills?

MWM: Okay. The change came probably about eight to 10 years in, and I started to, A, read what I can about the dancer’s body, go to whatever courses I could, read some psychology books—

CL: Interesting.

MWM: … calm down. And then, so exciting, that first primary went right through and turned professional. And I sat there and thought, “I can do this.” I suddenly got the confidence that, “Hey, I can do this.”

CL: Who was that first dancer?

MWM: That was Kelly Comerford, who is a teacher in Victoria now. And I thought, “Wow.” And then, I started to really start to believe. And to me, to believe is to achieve.

CL: I guess I’ve often wondered where it turned from that classic Australian, well-known ballet school, in a local school hall, they’re around the world everywhere, to what was a powerhouse studio that really was producing some of the most well-known dancers around the world, which was the Marie Mahon Dance Academy, which then became the National College of Dance, when does that transition happen?

MWM: Okay. I believe in a lot of fate and things happening. So, I guess, we turned a lot more professional and had to, after the Newcastle earthquake, because I lost the premises entirely. And that forced me—I was married to Paddy for a long time at that time, but I sobbed and cried. And he said to me, these famous words, “Well, darling, my business can support you. Maybe this is a sign that, leave your hobby. Leave your hobby.”

CL: I would not have wanted to be a fly on that wall.

MWM: [after not] speaking for a little while and being very distraught, because Claudia, I’m not and I’ve never professed to be a business person—

CL: Which fascinates me, for you to say that, because—

MWM: Not at all. I had a ledger and people would say they’d paid, and I’d go, oh, okay, tick.

CL: Because you, from the outside, you come across as the ultimate business woman.

MWM: Oh, no.

CL: Really?

MWM: No, no, no, no, no. I need my Paddy. Because usually I sulk, I cry, and then I get my own way. And so, he said, “Okay, darling, how about I help you to put it on computer and invoice people and turn it into a business, and then find a premises?” Because at that stage, I’d paid rent for years, years, and years. And I was such a soft touch, I had one teacher who never drove, but she was a very good jazz teacher. I paid her taxi fare from Warner’s Bay to the studio, because I wanted the students to have this teacher. So, I was always borrowing.

CL: Okay. So, there was no system?

MWM: No.

CL: You were just teaching.

MWM: I loved to teach. And I was always borrowing. So, then we were able to get a loan, a rehabilitation loan, and we bought Jessie Brownlie’s studio. She’d passed away. So, we bought her studio in Lambton. So, it’s the first time we had a mortgage. So, I needed my manager, which was my husband too. And after six months, he could not believe how much money I was actually losing through my little ledger. And just, okay.

CL: Hang on.

MWM: And scholarships, I mean, left, right, and center, the scholarships. And I’ve always helped those that I’ve felt needed it, but it got around, so more and more people were needing help. So, he could not believe it. So, he sold his business because he hated his work, to just run the ballet school. And then, five years later, we then built, where the National College of Dance is, we built seven studios.

CL: Life changing.

MWM: And I owe all that, that side of it. Sure. I can create, I can choreograph and I can give scholarships, and loved this art. I just love it. From three to 67, I love this art, but I need that other part.

CL: So, that skillset comes from [Ian 00:15:31], comes from Paddy.

MWM: Yep.

CL: And you provide the creative.

MWM: Exactly.

CL: The vision, the dreams.

MWM: Exactly. And also, proud of Paddy pulling the reins in to control it. Yeah. He still didn’t know all about all of the scholarships, but it was in control then.

CL: I love that he still doesn’t know.

MWM: It was in control.

CL: How do you instil into people, diversity, when you’re teaching, so that if the ballet career doesn’t work out, what are you going to do?

MWM: Okay. This is such an important, and it didn’t sit well with me for a long time that students leave school and they do distance education. And I was very aware that this is a responsibility. I was also aware that I knew that some of the parents were actually doing some assignments for the students. So, it was really, in a lot of cases, I knew they were fudging education and that’s not right. So, I got the idea back in 2005, to try to have a course written that involved the arts, but it was fully accredited, and the studio become an RTO, Registered Training Organization. Do it all officially.

CL: My recollection of that time was, unless you were prepared to go overseas at 15, 16, the Australian Ballet was almost the only avenue. There wasn’t that Sydney Dance Company Pre-Professional. A lot of the other contemporary companies didn’t exist in that training form.

MWM: Exactly.

CL: And so, unless you had that ascetic at that time, options were limited, you could have trained to the highest level and then all of a sudden, well, what do you do with those skills?

MWM: That’s right. Then we’ve got to think of the mental illness that can come from devastation, if they haven’t got a backup. They can’t just put all their eggs in one basket. So, I did a lot of research and then I literally, for a whole year, got up at four in the morning, set my alarm at four in the morning, to start writing courses and have it then written in education terms. So, I had to write it from my heart and soul, then paid a consultant to put it in their terms.

CL: To put it in the Department of Education’s-

MWM: Department of Education. Yeah. Then I had to unveil the course in front of the academics and talk to them about the need. That day, I’ll never forget that day, have them throw all the academic side at me and have all the answers off the cuff.

CL: So, you’re giving those students the grounding, so that if they don’t make it into the company, they have the opportunity to go to university, to go to TAFE, and they’re not starting from essentially what was a year nine education, if their parents let them fall out of the distance education system.

MWM: That’s right. Exactly. Yeah. I mean, a certificate three, a certificate four, and a diploma course.

CL: Wow.

MWM: Which gives them university entrance and up to 10 years to use it.

CL: Wow.

MWM: And probably, the greatest reward from that came last week, actually, when I found out that Daniel Roberge, he matriculated from National College of Dance and he was able to use those to enter university in Washington to do a business degree. So, he’s got that backup. And even last week, his mother contacted me and said, thank you for the insight. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. So many companies may not be sustainable after Covid. So, he can still dance if possible, but he’s got that university degree.

CL: He’s got something else to fall back on.

MWM: Yeah.

CL: And it’s interesting because you’re right, now that there’s Covid, many of these arts organizations are already existing without Covid, on a shoestring.

MWM: Exactly. And I think that’s why during Covid, we’ve had so many professional dancers do their certification with Progressing Ballet Technique, as then they can teach that through Zoom to give them some income while trying to work out what is happening.

CL: So, you’re running the National College of Dance. You’ve implemented essentially, an educational system, which allows dancers to have more than their classical ballet training. How do you walk away from that?

MWM: Oh, Claudia, that final speech, oh, that was the hardest thing. The hardest thing. However, I was doing a massive amount of work, running the college, the assessments, overseeing what was involved with an RTO, the policies, the procedures. And of course, I’d opened up this network that students came from all over Australia and New Zealand to train at the National College of Dance. So, there was homestay to work out before we had the boarding system in place. So, there was homestay and sometimes I’d get a phone call at an ungodly hour that this child needed to go to hospital. I’d opened up, and I was still running at that stage, Marie Walton Mohan Dance Academy as well.

CL: Wow.

MWM: So, then my husband running the business and we’d have to talk about business things after hours. And we’re getting older, and I still had this other little goal in the back of my mind, which was PBT down the track. I’m not getting any younger, something had to give. And the marriage means a lot to me as well, and the family unit, and things were starting to really go amiss.

CL: Besides all of this, you also had two children, as well as running these huge businesses. How did you juggle that?

MWM: Oh, look, with Paddy’s help. I guess, I was lucky with good children as well. Veronica shared my passion, so she was very easy to be at the studio a lot. In fact, she learned to do plies, sadly, at the studio at two, hanging on to a play pen. Laurie, we tried to keep, with Paddy’s help, of taking him to his sport things and tried to keep a balance. And he was a very good runner, so we’d take him on Sundays around, because he was a state runner, to different things. And you’re a parent too, it’s hard, it’s juggling, and sleep deprived for a long time, and then putting the college in place. And you think, “Gosh, got to draw the line.” I’m proud of what I did, but I’m also proud that I was able to walk away and hand picked the right person to take over.

CL: And so, things on the home front were just tensions, too much?

MWM: Too much. Yeah. I started also to get some chest pains. One day on the way home from work, I had to pull over and get Paddy to come and get me. And stress can … You have to take a little bit of a step back and think, “Okay, I’ve ticked that box. I’ve ticked that box.” And think, “Okay, even though I’ve done all these things, the family unit have to come first.” So, I bought a bottle of Moet and took it home and said to Paddy, “You’re redundant. You’re redundant.”

CL: And so, you left and you started PBT.

MWM: Well, not at first.

CL: Okay.

MWM: It was in the back of my mind. I’d always been dabbling in safe dance training and I was very passionate to explore the use of fit balls a long time ago, with a small group of students. In fact, one of those is Alyssa Kelty, who’s in Queensland Ballet.

CL: Okay.

MWM: I really noticed because the ball is moving all the time, so if they do a bridge with their legs on the ball and their hips are not square, the ball is moving all over the place. To sit on the ball and move the weight and lift one leg, they have to understand which muscles in the opposite side of the body have to elongate, to keep the balance. Their posture improved, their alignment improved, their understanding of their bodies really improved. And then, I did a course with Valerie Grieg who wrote the book Inside Your Technique.

MWM: So, when I became an examiner and a tutor, if I was tutoring a course, I’d always have my fit ball with me. And I said to Paddy, “This idea I’ve had, there’s a need out there. There is a need because not everyone can afford to send the students or the students can afford to go to Pilates, and do extra things that twigged the feelings before the form. And that’s what it’s about, feelings. I’d like to cut a DVD and see how it goes.” He went, “Oh, here we go. Here we go.”

CL: I can just imagine.

MWM: “Can’t you ever be satisfied?” I said, “Well, let’s give it a go.” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what,” Laurie, our son, who’s techie, who now runs the office in Sydney, “he’s going to make this website, just this little home website and okay, you can have 500 DVDs. We’ll just see how that goes.” So, I got Grant Kennedy, my friend, to compose the music. And I worked with students for free to make this first DVD in 2012. Wow, those 500 just flew from this website and next we were ordering 10,000. And Paddy was like, “Okay.”

CL: The hobby. The hobby’s back.

MWM: The hobby’s back. Here we go. And I made him CEO of the company and put him back to work, he’s not redundant anymore because I need that business advice.

CL: The golf clubs are hanging back up in the garage.

MWM: Yeah. The golf was on the back burner. And it went word of mouth, it went absolutely ballistic. But if someone had told me that in 2012, it would be on the curriculum today in over 4,600 schools worldwide, I would have laughed at them. Seriously, I’m humbled, but I would have seriously laughed at them. And that I’d have official tutors now in South Africa, in the latest one is for United Arab Emirates, Israel, Canada, USA, Mexico, all through South America. And with the help of Laurie, who is the tech giant and the brains behind the online section, because I’m just arty. I’ll create.

CL: So, that’s that social media that’s spreading the word.

MWM: Well, he has now eight employed in the office. He’s now scarily, very much like me. He has visions, he has goals. And Veronica, she assesses for us.

CL: Wow.

MWM: Yeah. It’s mind-boggling. It’s very humbling.

CL: A lot of us only know the graceful, incredible teacher that you are, and is that how you are at home? Is that the Marie behind the scenes as well?

MWM: No. I’m just me.

CL: Just you.

MWM: Yeah. I mean family is really, really important and that time away from the work and being . . . I think, the greatest thing that’s happened is having this grandchild.

CL: So, that’s Veronica’s first son?

MWM: Yeah. Our first grandchild.

CL: Congratulations.

MWM: I mean, that means the world. I mean, hugging that child is so . . . And hugging, just hugging generally, is so important. And so, at home, I try to cut off where I work and where I stop, and we have family time, and to try not to be 24/7 work, sometimes I’m put in my place. In fact, when the children were young, around the dinner table there was a fine jar if ballet was bought up around the dinner table.

CL: Really?

MWM: Yeah. You know who instigated that.

CL: Paddy.

MWM: It’s important though—

CL: It is.

MWM: . . . to have that balance, especially when Veronica was so intense about her career paths, and she had a great career, but I’m sure she feels the same when I go and hug her after this, that her greatest achievement is this beautiful child, not dancing a leading role with the Australian Ballet.

CL: It’s so true, isn’t it?

MWM: It’s so true. You’ve put everything in perspective. Yeah.

CL: Yeah. And especially, I think COVID has done that even more so.

MWM: Oh, absolutely.

CL: That importance of touch and physical contact.

MWM: Touch. Yeah. Yeah. But thank goodness for technology and my son being patient with me, getting me into technology, because without Zoom, we wouldn’t have been able to keep everyone employed. My big passion though, besides all of that, is to also look into how it can help those with some disabilities. So, I’ve been working with a young woman in U.K. at the moment, who became certified by being lifted from the wheelchair down to the mat, and helping—

CL: Sorry, certified in PBT?

MWM: Yep. And she’s doing it just to help those with disabilities. And there are pockets around the world who I know are using it for Parkinson’s, for different areas, down syndrome. So, this is now in the back of my mind, before I’m too much older, to investigate how a simplified version can help this, because it’s the tactile feeling of the ball that hits the senses. So, if it can help in any way, I feel I’ve got a duty of care to explore those areas.

CL: That’s just incredible. I mean, it’s mind blowing to think if that woman can become PBT certified and help with her mobility, what the possibilities are.

MWM: That’s right. I mean, it was quite amazing. She has danced previously, but had been in a wheelchair since 14.

CL: Wow.

MWM: And seeing her, I cried right through the assessment, when she gave her introduction first in a wheelchair and how it took her 12 months to be certified. And now, she’s giving back, she’s opened her own little school to help others.

CL: That makes me feel quite emotional hearing that.

MWM: Yeah. So, if I can delve in that area now. And to do that, we are going to open later this year, a PBT center, which is—

CL: In Sydney?

MWM: In Sydney, in the heart of Sydney. It will be like a whole wellness center. It will have the Progressing Ballet technique. For anyone to come in. There’ll be classes for adults. There’ll be classes for all ages, all abilities, and the contemporary. You know Adam Blanch, of course.

CL: A very good friend of mine.

MWM: A very, very clever young man. So, he’s developed the contemporary side of my program.

CL: So, that’s Progressing Contemporary Technique?

MWM: Yeah, which he’s just had the first live workshop.

CL: Amazing.

MWM: And Annabel will be running-

CL: That’s Annabel Knight?

MWM: Annabel Knight. Yeah. Who you know as well. Who was in Sydney Dance Company. So, it will be a safe place for people to feel they can come, there’ll be no competition. It will be all about personal best. Our motto is, the body’s forever, and it’s not about perfection, it’s about progression. And so, this will be opening later this year, beautiful, all sprung floors. We’re hoping to have a physiotherapist, some yoga classes. So, we’d have three studios. So, we’ve got the whole wellness center.

CL: Wow. The legacy you will leave is just mind blowing. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. It’s been an absolute honor and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

MWM: Oh, Claudia, may I say just finally, I’m so proud of you.

CL: Oh, thank you.

MWM: You have used all your tools of dance in so many areas and you are an inspiration.

CL: Well, thank you. I must say, I carry it with me everywhere, all that training. And I do believe that, I think so many dance students don’t believe the skills that are so transferable into law, medicine, wherever you want to go, the arts.

MWM: Sky’s the limit.

CL: The sky is the limit. Thank you.

MWM: Thank you.

CL: Thank you. Just after we spoke, Marie received the ultimate recognition for her immense contribution to the dance world. She was awarded the Order of Australia Medal by the Governor General. Marie continues to teach and choreograph for the rising stars of the ballet world, all while continuing to grow and develop PBT. To sign up to any of the worldwide PBT or PCT courses, you can find them on their Facebook page or on Insta @progressingballettechnique. Marie and I met in Sydney before lockdown to record our interview, on the land of the Gadigal people, of the Eora Nation, to which we pay our greatest respects.

On the next episode, you’ll hear from the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, Li Cunxin. Your host and producer is me, Claudia Lawson. Additional production by Penelope Ford. With editing and sound production by Martin Peralta. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.

Marie Walton Mahon with exercises from Progressing Ballet Technique demonstrated by students from the Sunshine Coast Conservatory. Photographs by Rebecca Mugridge.