Grace Macdonald is remembered as a dance teacher, choreographer and
inspiration to young performers in Vancouver. She holds a special place
in the history of musical theatre in this city with her contributions
to MUSSOC (Musical Society of the University of British Columbia),
Theatre Under the Stars, Vancouver Opera and the B.C. Lions
Cheerleaders. Not only did she teach and encourage students who went on
to have successful careers in dance, theatre, television and movies,
but dancers who learned from her can still be found throughout the
Lower Mainland teaching or dancing for recreation. Richard Ouzounian's
comment on Grace's importance was:
That's why we all learned so much
from her. She knew what to do, and how to do it, and she did it with
equal portions of love and determination. I feel sorry for any young
person in Vancouver who will have to go into the business without
knowing what it was like to work with Grace Macdonald. (Ouzounian,
If you walk down Granville Mall you will see her star on the
Entertainment Walk of Fame, but who was this wonderful woman and how
did she get her start?
On November 12, 1916 Grace Macdonald was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Her parents, John Macdonald and Margaret Campbell were born in Glasgow
and they married there in 1897. Grace's brother William and her sisters
Margaret and Elizabeth were born in Glasgow. Her brother John and
sister Jeanne were born in Winnipeg. In her interview with Karen
Greenhough for Dance in Vancouver, Grace talked about the beginning of
her career in dance:
My mother thought when I was two and a half that I
was the world's next ballerina and took me to classes and when I was
five I was demonstrating physical exercises for the school board to
show that physical exercise is good for anyone any age. They took me
around the schools to demonstrate that when they first started PT
(Physical Training) they called it there. Then after that I went to a
person by the name of Geraldine Foley who was called the Zeigfield of
Canada. She was a very lovely lady who came from London, a marvelous
teacher! And while I was with her I became one of the Winnipeg Kiddies
(a children's vaudeville show that used to travel around Canada and the
United States.) Winnipeg was a hotbed of art and talent at the time.
Leon Leonidoff and Florence Roggey used to come every year from Radio
City Music Hall in New York to give classes and put on a big pantomime.
I was in the pantomime as a little boy or you know Puck or I was
somebody running around doing jumps and leaps as I was quite excitable
as a child. They came every year and it was a big thing in Winnipeg.(Macdonald, 1979)
Until she was about eleven or twelve years old Grace performed with the
Winnipeg Kiddies. Then her teacher, Miss Foley, left town and her new
teachers Gertie Stadelman and Sarah Baker took her to Chicago with
them. For the next three or four years she studied in Chicago taking
tap with Tommy Hyde and Charlie Chapman ( dance partner for Bill
Robinson ), character with Walter Cameron and ballet with Adolph Bolm.
She also went to New York to study ballet with Ulefta and Ivan
Then Grace's family moved to
Vancouver where her father took a job as the baker for Woodwards.
I moved out here I was only fourteen at that time and I couldn't even find a
teacher to teach me what I already knew so I started to teach. I was
teaching in Vancouver when I was fifteen. There were several studios here.
They may have been marvelous dancers but they were not good teachers. I
couldn't find anything like I had (in Winnipeg). I waited around six
months and then my mother said, "That's silly! Why not start your
own?" So I did and I taught and went and studied three or four months
of every year in New York or Chicago. (Macdonald, 1979)
Grace opened her studio above the Broadway Academy at the corner of
Broadway and Alma. She organized everything by herself, teaching tap,
ballet, musical comedy, character, acrobatics and Scottish dancing. She
had always had a good sense of timing and rhythm so she was especially
good at tap. She was probably the first to teach musical theatre in
I taught everything because I had been trained in
everything, acrobatic, ballet, character. I went to Chicago and New
York to learn and taught what I learned. Confident? I wasn't really
confident. I used to be in tears every day because people would come in
and say, "Would you get the teacher for me dear?" You know because I
would look so young. So I had long hair at the time and the solution
was to put it up and I think everybody in Vancouver knows me by my
picture which has my hair up. I wore my hair like that for twenty-five years.
When asked what inspired her first choreography Grace replied:
inspired! I came to Vancouver as I told you when I was quite young and
a couple of years after I was here my brother-in-law Andy Mansen,
(father of Razzmatap's Grace Inglis) who is a marvelous person, was
here and he came to me and said the Kiwanis Club put on musicals and
they needed a choreographer. I had never done it. He said, "I'm sure
you can do it." He said something I've remembered all my life, "If you
don't know what it is, learn it. Say yes, then go and look it up
somewhere and learn it." I did, truly. I went to see Karl Hoff the
director of Kiwanis. I was sixteen years old. He asked if I was sure I could
do it. I said, I'm sure. (Macdonald, 1979)
Grace Macdonald and Grace Inglis
She soon realized that choreography was something she could do quite
well. In the Winnipeg Kiddies she was expected to learn routines in the
afternoon and perform them that night. She knew about three hundred
routines so she could draw on what she knew for her choreography.
At the age of twenty-two, Grace retired from teaching dance to get
married and raise her family. On September 9, 1939 she married James
"Jimmy" Gillan who worked for Canadian National Steamships. He was a
man who was full of fun and went everywhere with her. They had two
children, Donald Gillan and Lynne, who is now Mrs. Norman Schneider. But
Grace couldn't stay away from dance for long.
I happened to meet
Jeanette Armstrong and she said,"We're badly in need of a tap and
musical comedy teacher at our school". (Kay, Jeanette's sister, was
director of the BC School of Dance). I said, " I'll come and have a
little look see." (Macdonald, 1979)
In three or four years at the B.C. School of Dance she had three or
four hundred in the musical comedy department alone.
The jazz style
was beginning and tap was coming back again. People were really getting
quite interested in that. It's something they can go to once or twice
weekly and enjoy. With tap you can use a lot of
When Kay Armstrong decided to open her
own studio on Granville Street, Grace became the principal of the B.C.
School of Dance. She brought in Rosemary Deveson, Heino Heiden and
Madame Karpova and continued as the principal for ten or twelve years.
Since the school was run by a directorate,
Grace was frustrated by the fact that she was never completely in
charge. The load was heavy, so she decided to open her own school again
and moved toTwelfth and Yew. There she had three or four studios and
about six hundred students.
Dance Educators of America
and the National Association of Dance Artists asked Grace, the only
Canadian to be hired, to join their faculties for summer conventions.
She would travel to New York, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San
Francisco and Chicago meeting many well-known teachers whom she would
invite to guest teach in her school. Barbara Parkins, a student of
Grace's went with her to Los Angeles as a demonstrator for Dance
Educators and decided to stay. That was the beginning of Barbara's
career as an actress.
Grace's involvement with community theatre in the
Lower Mainland included Vancouver Community College, Dunbar Musical
Theatre, Skystage, as well as many years with Theatre Under the Stars.
In 1974 she performed for the first time in seventeen years, as Sue Smith in
the Theatre Under the Stars production of No No Nanette.
She also worked with well known artists such as the Irish
Rovers and Shari Lewis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She
choreographed for the Vancouver Opera Association for a number of
productions and was best known for her work with MUSSOC.
first became involved with the university in 1952 when she
choreographed MUSSOC's production of The Red Mill. This show heralded a
new age of Broadway style musical theatre on campus. During the next thirty-three
years she choreographed almost all of Mussoc's productions, including
such hits as The Boyfriend, Half a Sixpence, Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and
Dolls, West Side Story, Oklahoma and the 1966 production of Fiddler on
the Roof which was her last MUSSOC show. (UBC Reports, 1987)
Director Ray Michal recalled working with Grace at UBC as, "A great
privilege- she was a lovely person, totally supportive, full of
enthusiasm and ideas." (Wyman, 1987)
In 1954 Grace was approached by B.C. Lions Football Club to work with
their cheerleaders. At the time there were six boys and one girl. Under
her direction the cheerleaders learned new cheers and performed
routines at halftime. Their numbers steadily increased and when they
went to Toronto for the Grey Cup in 1964 there were sixty girls. Her
committment to the cheerleaders lasted until 1972 when the adverse
conditions became too much for her. The outdoor practice sessions three
times a week for two and a half hours, often in the rain, took a toll
on Grace's health.
Many students who were successful in theatre got their start with Grace
McDonald. Notable alumnae include Ruth Nicol, Valerie Easton, Jane
Mortifee, Patrick Rose, Ann Mortifee, Margot Kidder, Brent Carver and
Jeff Hyslop, a student of mine was in A Chorus Line and
Jesus Christ Superstar. He's such a going concern and he's such a
marvelous dancer. He inspires other kids. When they see him they say,"
Well I can do it too because I was as good as him when I was taking
classes with him."( Macdonald, 1979)
Her students remember her fondly
as someone who made the most of every minute in class and was always
kind. Their admiration for her is obvious. Jeff Hyslop tells how the
lady came to a dress rehearsal with third degree burns covering her
legs after an accident involving a pan of bacon grease.
would have gone into a hospital. Not Grace. Her kids were waiting for
her at rehearsal and so that is where she had to be.(Ouzounian, 11
"She was a classic," remembers singer-comedienne Ruth
Nichol. "She could teach anything. She made it important. She made us
believe in who we are." (Wyman, 1987)
Grace Macdonald was a professional at the age of ten. She expected her
pupils to do the same. She believed in working to the best of your
ability and doing things properly, even if it was just for fun. She
told her students to take pride in being the best they could be and not
to settle for anything less. She believed that it was important to
continue to learn and keep up with the times. She did not think that
dance companies should expect government funding. If they were good
enough, audiences would come. As a dance adjudicator she would often
tell dancers they were not ready to perform. She encouraged them to
listen to criticism and try again next year. She told students they
wouldn't be good if they stopped working for one moment and they had to
show the audience that they loved what they were doing. " We all want
to sort of live in a little wonderland of Singin' in the Rain. Tip tap
your way through adversity if you want." (Macdonald, 1979)
Grace Macdonald died on April 4, 1987 at the age of 71.
Inglis, Grace. Personal Interview. 11 April, 2008.
"In Memoriam Grace Macdonald". UBC Reports 30 April, 1987.
Interview with Karen Greenhough. Karen Greenhough
Dance in Vancouver Collection. 1979.
Ouzounian, Richard. "Grace Macdonald: Grand Lady of Theatre".
Vancouver Sun, 11 April, 1987, page E3.
Wyman, Max. "Double Loss For Dance". Province 8 April, 1987, page 46.
© 2007 Razzmatap