APATA – The Australian Performing Arts Teachers Association

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My Teacher – Mrs M!

Posted by Yolande (Lou) Smith | Jul 21, 2019

With the anniversary of her passing in December 2018, this piece pays tribute to my much-loved teacher – Mrs. Meskell.

As a young student, I couldn’t wait to get to class after school. I’d suggest my approach was in tune with today’s youth scampering to check socials – I just couldn’t get enough. I was so keen to escape everything else round me for dance class – I absolutely loved it!

In fact, if for some reason I couldn’t go (which I hardly remember missing a class) I’d literally break down in tears. This is no exaggeration. I remember fronting up to class with a busted ankle from the playground – didn’t care! Arguing why a birthday party on the weekend wasn’t the priority if it clashed with practice with my father who really couldn’t understand the passion inside me. I was so dedicated. I have the fondest memory of Mrs. M explaining to me that a scheduled tech and dress rehearsal day for an eisteddfod piece wasn’t as important as my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. Not convinced she promised I wouldn’t be missing anything I didn’t already know. I agreed and while thoroughly enjoying my much-loved grandparent’s anniversary with family and friends, if social media existed back then I would have been all over it checking in with buddies for news on how rehearsal was going. Yeap, I had it bad but by gosh it was a fantastic ride, which today I fondly remember and cherish.

This is where my obsession with performing arts started – dance class in the local Guide Hall. Recently I was home visiting family over the Easter break and drove pass the old timber hot box. Still standing strong, full of memories that brings a smile and warm feeling every time I drive pass. It seems small to what I remember as a child, although I can quickly remember the stifling heat, sweaty brow and dripping back which comes with a central Queensland summer with high humidity. No air-conditioning back then with the only option to throw open all the windows and hope to catch a breeze.

So, what did Mrs M teach me? Well there were the skills of dance moving through the grades, learning the steps and achieving the challenges of asking your body to do the exact opposite to how it was naturally built by working on my turn-out and landing like a gazelle instead of a baby elephant. There’s also the great joy of developing the duck walk as well as a particular running style that as soon as you see someone dance skip across the road regardless of age you know they’ve been lucky enough to have dance classes in their life. My partner calls this the ‘dance prance’ or a ‘bun head moment’.

Of course, there were the challenges of choreography and technique, but Mrs M offered so much more. She taught me music appreciation, how to read the sheets and count rhythm. There were lessons in teamwork, respect and discipline. She channelled my energy, taught me patience, built self-esteem and improved my confidence. Naturally dance exercise improved my physical health and coordination, plus socialisation skills with friends were all positive experiences. But most of all she passed on the performance bug whether practicing or performing for myself, watching others or attending shows – it was all magic!

Mrs M was a tough but fair taskmaster and yes, there was discipline. Lordy lordy whatever you did don’t make the mistake of ‘eye rolling’ at a request or out to the kitchen you’d be banished quick smart. The culture of our studio was also a fun and loving environment combined with healthy competition. We were a school, a community, a family.

I didn’t come from a wealthy family and often the circumstances at home were volatile. Looking back now, I’d suggest Mrs M knew what was going on at home and supported with actions, never saying a word but taking the pressure off mum by allowing us to pay off the term fees when cash was short and hooking us up with a few of the sewing ladies to help out when I needed costumes. I’m forever indebted and grateful for this quiet kindness and care.

Mrs Meskell was the one that made the difference for me, offering a place of freedom, challenge, discovery and escape. Such was the impact of her guidance and expectations, I danced not only for myself but for her as well and never did I want to disappoint. I was never going to be the professional dancer on stage, but I was certainly one of the lucky ones. I’d found a place where I hungered for more and truly loved every sweaty second in the local Guide Hall…nothing else mattered. In fact, I’d found my happy place, a place to forge ahead and build a career working in the arts, events and entertainment industry.

Without realising it at the time Mrs M was my first mentor. Like most kids I moved on with my life goals and ambitions into adulthood and missed the opportunity to say thank you for the life lessons, teaching and experiences. As adults we know and recognise that there are many teachers in our past who have given their hearts, minds and souls to nurturing in us the things they saw as vital to our character, success and importantly for our future.

Mrs M was highly regarded and will always be remembered as a talented performer, dance teacher and theatre veteran. Her dancing career began as a young kid to go onto producing her own worldwide shows before returning to Mackay to not only share her knowledge and expertise but to impart a passion for the stage with old school perfectionist standards.

I don’t think at the time we fully appreciated who we had in town prospering leadership in the performing arts and nurturing talent. Mrs Meskell continued her stage prowess producing shows such as The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio in South East Queensland, achieving sold out seasons. How grateful I was to experience one of the productions. A fantastic journey full of personal challenges and self-fulfilment!

I owe my own career in the arts, events and entertainment industry as a producer to this incredible woman, forever grateful for every experience with a deep respect that still today another hasn’t matched. She touched many lives with her love of dance and theatre, and I’ll carry her legacy, teachings and perfectionist attitude with me forever in my work!

Still today when I walk on stage during tech and dress sessions a smile is brought to my lips with a flood of happy memories – being stuck out in front of the closed house curtain at the end of a routine and being used as an example of what not to do; practising lighting fast quick changes side stage and only to re-enter stage missing a piece of costume looking like a ragga muffin; not paying attention to the footlights and stepping right up to the orchestra pit edge with everyone holding their breathe; and taking the short cut across back of stage instead of walking around correctly only to trip on a piece of scenery that landed with an almighty crash during a show – roasted and rightly so.

Because of Mrs Meskell when starting out as a young impressionable girl, on a mission to conquer the world, it was her voice, teachings and values that she installed and practiced daily at her studio that carried me through while building my career. Mrs Meskell was a marvellous teacher who equipped me with the tools to ‘jete’ through the challenges and strive to be the best I can be. I’m forever grateful Mrs Meskell…thank you!

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