Peggy Watson can still outdance everyone
Sydney is stuck in a heat limbo. Even at twilight the hot air bakes the last straggle of homeward commuters. But among a network of back lanes near Central Station shared with panel beaters and spray painters is Miss Tweedie's Australian Academy of Ballet where delicate bodies limber up, oblivious to the heat.
Perfectly poised in their leotard skins the dancers mirror their teachers' liquid movements. Their feet stab and scrape the floor as rapidly as machine gun fire but their faces are expressionless. The strain is revealed in the rivers of sweat running down between their breasts. Ballet bodies are similar to weight lifters in that both shapes are moulded by massive amounts of exercise. The ballet look for women is backs as straight as boards, pole legs, highly arched insteps, no busts and no hips.
Miss Tweedie's Academy is in its 25th year. Of the 200 students enrolled this year 15 attend full time classes with the aim of becoming professional dancers. Some of these started learning ballet as young as five. They grew up attending classes after school and on weekends as they worked through their ballet exams. The school revolves around the founder and principal, Valrene Tweedie, and the jazz and tap teacher, Peggy Watson, who has been there for 21 years.
Last week we found Miss Tweedie instructing advanced classical ballet in the upstairs studio while Peggy Watson rat-a-tat-tated advanced tap downstairs. Peggy, wearing what resembled a bulky knitted sleeve with two legs yelled: "Rrrready GO. Come on and show me. Shuffle- ball-ball-heel-heel. You're lazy with the spring… Remember you should all dance as one."
Each routine grows faster and more complicated. After an hour the students grow into tapping whirlwinds with swaying Shirley Temple hand movements. "You go .. vo .. vo .. vo .. vavava. Now trenches." Trenches are complicated foot scraping tap- ping steps. Peggy calls: "You must learn to translate the Queen's English. Now the Queen's English says you should drag it on the side of the foot." She speeds on and shouts the beat. The taps sound like roaring thunder.
At a rehearsal with four girls who graduated from Miss Tweedie's full-time classes Peggy pushes them on and on. In a rented hall in the dilapidated Randwick Literary Club a group rehearses for a club show A Touch Of Paris. Peggy is up on a seat with her bum on the wall and her hands on her knees shouting: "You haven't got enough attack. lt's all too soft. It's too classical. Much TOO CLASSICAL. Absolutely no good. Pretend some-one is pushing you. Pushing you."
The act is a cabaret. The Hitachi blares out The Night They Invented Champagne and a can-can number: "Spring onto it. Spring onto it. Nothing Floating. Let's have balls. Let's have some meat behind it." She comes down off the seat and demonstrates. The dancers follow, their step is springier. "It's a demanding business. I have to push. Most of them learn to take it. Perhaps it is too strong but it's me."
When Peggy trained at the London Palladium during the war her teacher only told her something once. "He classed you -as an idiot if you couldn't do it."
The signs of dieting litter the rehearsal room: coffee cups, apple cores, an empty packet of chocolate biscuits and cigarettes. The girls rehearse with cigarettes in their hands. "I used to smoke. I'd literally be upside down with a cigarette. I got a husky throat and wheezy lungs. l really enjoyed smoking but l got a fright when the doctor said you've had your last cigarette," says Peggy.
Peggy's students regard her with great respect: "I reckon Peggy's the best in Sydney. She's so technical. Peggy can still outdance everyone." She spreads her romance with the theatre to her students. When Genevieve McCunn, I7, told Peggy about her part-time job packing tomatoes and potatoes in a fruit shop, Peggy told her how she used to work in a fruit shop and go to her father's office at lunch time to practise. "I went to rehearsals after work. I was just so happy to be in the studio dancing I'd miss the bus. I'd walk home and every night my mother would wait at the gate for me."
When the girls were discussing a dancer's decision to take up a normal job Peggy said: "Where is that girl's love of the theatre? All my life I dreamed of the theatre. I would have died if I'd gone into anything else. I never regretted a minute of it even if it's the dregs of the show I'd love it. She wants to push it aside after a year. I can't understand it."
Peggy was brought up in working class Glasgow. She remembers waking up and heating trains hooting in the middle of the night and all around there were large families crowded in tiny tenements living with bad plumbing: "The poverty was unbelievable but it's amazing what comes out of struggle. What comes out of it is just great. The comics were just great."
The Glasgow Citizens Theatre in the middle of the docks area was where she saw hilarious talent. She was taken to the musical theatre: "Always in the Gods when If-was a child. I never got any closer. It left more of a fantasy impression being so far away because you're so far away from reality. "Peggy went to Glasgow station to watch the acting companies leave. "They didn't look like normal people." She remembers one of her favourite stars sitting on a costume basket, in a fur coat, turban scarf and dark sunglasses.
She left Glasgow for London and worked with the New Russian Ballet and became ballet mistress at the Palladium. She settled in Australia with her mother, her Polish husband a chef, and son Zigmunt in I959 and was ballet mistress at the Tivoli. She taught at Bodenweiser Dance Studio which she found free and conversational but discovered the straight work she was used to at Miss Tweedie's.
Peggy teaches the Sydney Theatre Company, takes classes with Kinetic Energy Dance Company and does yoga. After the vigorous tap class she peeled off her woolly leotard and a layer of plastic which dancers use to sweat and therefore lose weight.
"I had no real talent. I had an average talent but I just wanted be in the business. You have to confess and know yourself if you have talent." "I think I'd die if I stopped." As long as l have my legs I'll try and do something."
She is learning ballroom dancing. Packing up, Peggy made sure she remembered her deer-soled ballroom shoes ("$56 for these and there's nothing to them") and an orange ballroom dancing mutual she describes as her Bible. It's full of a strange circle of steps which Peggy Watson can look at and visualise straight away.
Article written by Sue Hely - Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 1982.