Grace Macdonald

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. "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, 1987) If you walk down Granville Mall you will see her star on the
Entertainment Walk of Fame, but who was this talented woman and how did she get her start?  1
( Star on the B.C. Entertainment Walk of FAme)

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 Tarasoff.
2 (Picture of Grace as a young dancer ) Then her family moved to Vancouver where her father took a job as the
baker for Woodwards. "When 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 Vancouver. "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-five25 years." ( Macdonald, 1979)

When asked what inspired her first choreography Grace replied,"I wasn’t 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 Manson, (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 16 years-old. He asked if I was
sure I  could do it.  I said,'I’m sure.'" 4 Grace Macdonald and her neice, 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 personality."(Macdonald, 1979) 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 Devison, Heino Heiden and Madame Karpova and continued as the
principal for ten or twelve years. 3 ( B.C. School of Dancing ) 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 to Twelfth and Yew.  There she had
three or four studios and about  six hundred students. 5 ( Grace Macdonald School of Dance Recital
Program)6 Grace Macdonald School of Dancing  

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-know 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.  7 ( Picture of Sue Smith )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. "Miss Macdonald 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.  By the time they went to Toronto for the Grey Cup in 1964 there
were 60 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. "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. Anyone else 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 April ,1987) "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 10.  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 seventy-one.
 

Bibliography

Inglis, Grace. Personal Interview.  11 April, 2008.

" In Memoriam Grace Macdonald".  UBC Reports  30 April, 1987.

Macdonald, Grace.  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.




 

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