Deirdre Tarrant says farewell to her dance studio of 50 years

By John Bristed
Photography by Josiah Nevall

Featured in Capital #86.
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The Queen of Cuba Street is being priced out. She talks to John Bristed about leaving “her building and her street.”

“I started teaching when I was 14 and never stopped.”
Deirdre Tarrant says “her” Barber’s building, home of the Tarrant Dance Studio and Footnote New Zealand Dance, was given by the Borren family to the Nikau Trust to administer as part of a bequest to Victoria University. The building is now being handled by a property management company. Deirdre Tarrant says sadly the rents they want have become unaffordable, and the studio is to close.

For nearly 50 years Tarrant-trained dancers have appeared in every imaginable dance chance in Wellington. There have been end-of-year performances, Christmas parades, Chinese New Year celebrations, Kids Magic, Artsplash, Cuba Dupa, carnivals, and innumerable openings, closings, and community celebrations. Many of her dancers have become internationally successful. Think Amit Noy, Lucy Marinkovich, Elizabeth Alpe, Oliver Connew, Joanne Kelly, among many.

Deirdre Tarrant began and managed Footnote Dance Company for 30 years, and says a key reason that company succeeded was that the Tarrant studio provided a home for it.
Her final effort for the Tarrant Dance Studio will be a series of films projected on the outside of their 125 Cuba St studios to celebrate and honour the vitality and energy the dancers have added to the street.

This year’s dance scholars will be filmed dancing at the Opera House, another performance space with many memories for Deirdre. She held her first show there in 1966. The film and others will run from December 8 to 14.

Don’t expect Deirdre to disappear, though: “I’ll be teaching dance somewhere,” she says.

The much awarded Deirdre Tarrant CNZOM fell in love with dance seventy-odd years ago when she had her first ballet classes as a seven-year-old. “My mother was a painter and on Thursday went to art classes, so she sent me to ballet.”

Dance became her major interest. She danced all the way through school whenever and wherever she could. She wasn’t at all discouraged by Jean Horne, her teacher, telling her aged 12: “You’ll never dance, you’re too tall.”

At 14, with her sisters, she taught her first ballet pupils in Upper Hutt.

For three years she found herself parts as an extra with the Royal NZ Ballet, which had only six or eight full-time dancers in those days. And at 15 she toured New Zealand with the troupe.

Deirdre was on her way, but her dad told her that if she wanted to be a dancer she had to get herself a university degree. So off she went to Dunedin to become a doctor – but in Dunedin, there were no ballet classes. So she promptly came back to Wellington, where she completed a BA, and was awarded a dance scholarship which she took to London.

As a 19-year-old in London she did “anything and everything” to survive, teaching, working, and studying. She learnt a lot as a demonstrator at summer courses with the remarkable Russian-trained classical ballet teacher Maria Fay, a teacher at the Royal Ballet School. Later Deirdre travelled on three-month teaching contracts in Canada and America.

That big overseas experience was seminal, in that she discovered with “huge excitement” that there were more kinds of dance than what she calls “valid” ballet, the ballet of “turned out and pointed toes”.

Robert Cohan started doing contemporary dance in London, his classes attracting “everybody” at a time when there was no contemporary dance scene in New Zealand.

This swung her away from ballet toward contemporary dance, and at the same time she became more interested in production and choreography.

She spent eight years mostly in London. There were lots of auditions, and many appearances as a dancer on stage and on TV in France, Scandinavia, London, Canada, and the United States.

Deirdre came home to be a teacher at the New
Zealand School of Ballet (now the NZ School of Dance) and started a family.

But she’d made amazing contacts, and she says now, “My avowed intent was not to spend the whole year living in New Zealand. Keeping contacts internationally was so important.” She went to Canada in the northern summer for 11 years to teach at the Banff Dance Academy.

In Cuba Street, the wonderful old Barber’s building at number 125 (which started out as a dye works and at one stage hosted the local Communist Party) first became a dance school nearly 100 years ago. First there was Kathleen O’Brien in the 1930s. She was followed by Dorothy Daniels, who was an examiner for the Royal Ballet, and then Valerie Bayley. Ballet paintings from those earlier times still hang on the walls.

Deirdre Tarrant took over in 1976, and with her special brand of enthusiasm has been teaching ever since. The polished wooden floors have felt the feet of many thousands of aspiring dancers of all ages. “There are grandmothers who came here, their daughters, and even their granddaughters. And now the mothers and grandmothers come and watch, and its lovely.” Deirdre particularly likes to teach young dancers.

A woman she didn’t recognise walked up the studio stairs recently. She explained that she used to dance there. And now she was 68. She said “I just want to see if it’s the same. I’m so glad to see that people are still dancing and the room is full of people.”

Deirdre Tarrant is sad that “the nature of Cuba Street is changing as buildings are being bought by corporations. Many of the buildings in the street have been owner-operated and people cooperated and the street had a real feel.”

“These studios have such a history. Leaving is going to be hard.”


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