Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama 1947-1954 (Cheltenham: Rotunda and Playhouse)

Dancing barefoot and free, beneath the huge domed roof of the Rotunda must have been an exhilarating experience. During the previous one hundred years distinguished socialites had whirled around the ballroom, but from 1947–1954 the Ginner-Mawer students danced on the wooden floor with bare feet, bare legs and bare arms. Gone was the grand orchestra, having been replaced by Mr Harold Chipp or Miss Carthew on the piano, but the passion was no less intense.

The dancers were young students from the Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama, which was well known for its Classical Greek Dance and its innovative mime and movement instruction. The school originated in London shortly before the First World War (1914-18). The bombs of the Second World War (1939-45) forced them to evacuate to Boscastle in Cornwall. After the end of the Second World War the school finally settled at the Rotunda in the grand surroundings of Montpellier, Cheltenham where the dance lessons took place, and also at the Civic Playhouse (now The Playhouse) where the students made use of the theatre and its facilities.

Cheltenham became known as a ‘spa town’ when it grew in popularity and size during the 1800s with the fashion across Europe for ‘taking the waters’. Mineral-rich water from Cheltenham’s natural springs was believed by many to have curative powers, which led to the celebrities of the day, including royalty, visiting the town to bathe in the spas, or drink water from the wells and springs.

Irene Mawer (1893-1962) and Ruby Ginner (1886-1978), were co-founders of the Dance and Drama School. Professionally they were known by their maiden names, though when ‘off duty’ they used their married names of Irene Perugini (married to Mark) and Ruby Dyer (married to Alec). The two women met in the early years of the 20th century and soon began working together in rooms at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Ruby was awarded an MBE for her extraordinary work in developing Classical Greek Dance.

Perhaps the Ginner-Mawer barefoot students of ‘the Greek’ took some inspiration from the life-size figures which adorned the adjoining street, Montpellier Walk. These sculptures are known as caryatids and were based on those in the ancient Greek citadel of the Acropolis.

The Ginner-Mawer School’s dance lessons took place in the Rotunda, which was originally a wooden pump room built over a natural spring. Today’s fine building with its circular assembly room, was erected in 1817: a grand, porticoed affair, suitable for balls and gatherings. The impressive dome, with its outer skin of copper, was added a few years later by architect John Buonarotti Papworth, making the assembly room 56’ high and 54’ across. Continuing the classical theme, the dome was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome (temple of the gods) and its proportions are almost identical. The Greek connection returns with the Doric columns decorating the inner walls.

Late in the 19th century, ownership of the Rotunda passed from private to public hands, and all-comers could enjoy both Montpellier Spa and the adjacent Montpellier Gardens. These are the gardens that Irene Mawer would have walked through each day, as her house was just two minutes walk away – diagonally across the square.

Looking backwards through the telescope of time, it can sometimes seem that Irene Mawer chose to focus on supporting her friend’s work and willingly allowed her own importance to be overshadowed. During her day, she was highly regarded as a brilliant mime and was referred to as a ‘born mime’ before she even knew what mime was. Sadly, the Institute of Mime, which she founded, evaporated just a few short years after her death in 1962.

For Miss Mawer, the spoken word was as important, if not more important, even than movement. Her intention was to unite poetry and dance and much of her work involved dancing to the rhythm of words, without music. Irene Mawer’s work within the Ginner-Mawer School covered all aspects of theatre, voice and movement. The Irene Mawer Method of Mime was not intended to be used as a stand-alone art, rather it was expected that the students would bring the mime into all that they did – including voice work.

When not teaching from the Rotunda Miss Mawer also worked from the Civic Playhouse (now called the Playhouse) – a theatre on Bath Road. The theatre building was originally called the Montpellier Baths and was built for the distillation of spa salts, which were then sold all over the world. Customers took medicinal baths and this later became a public swimming pool and public bath house (in the days before people had indoor plumbing at home!).

Teaching in the auditorium and on the stage itself at the Civic Playhouse, Miss Mawer would cover all aspects of theatre, including diaphragmatic breathing; choral speaking; acting and of course mime. The students often wore their everyday street clothes for their mime lessons, or from time to time a black tunic similar to the coloured ones worn for Classical Greek dancing (there were not many male students, but those who did attend would have worn shorts and a t-shirt).

A fine sight towards the end of April 1950 would have been the public park at Montpellier Gardens strewn with brightly coloured theatrical costumes, gently steaming in the sun. The theatre had burned down and the students rallied to rescue what they could of The Studio Players belongings. The costumes had been stored under the auditorium, in the cavity that was originally the swimming pool and although they weren’t burned, the clothes had been soaked from the water used to put out the fire. The Echo newspaper reports on 27th April that there were literally hundreds of costumes of many different types which had to be taken away in two lorry loads. The 25 dance and drama students had only returned from holidays the previous day and were split into two shifts to sort out the mess. The Echo goes on to state that the timing was particularly unfortunate in that the following week was to be the School’s annual drama festival which was due to be adjudicated by Mr Leslie French – a well known actor and long-time supported of the Ginner-Mawers.

Irene Mawer was not phased by the events (she had already seen the same costumes bombed during the blitz of the 1940s, when at that time everything had to be dug out of the rubble of a destroyed London storehouse). In a manner which I would expect to be typical of Miss Mawer, the newspaper reports that the drama classes would henceforth be held in the Rotunda and Miss Mawer saying emphatically “the whole curriculum is going on just the same”.

The school piano, however, suffered a different fate and was burned to a crisp. It wasn’t insured, but a generous offer from the Town Council to pay half the cost of a new one meant that a replacement was soon found. The new piano cost 50 guineas and the Ginner-Mawer School allowed shared use of it, for other purposes connected with the Playhouse. From the ashes came the phoenix – and the Ginner-Mawer’s referred to themselves as the Phoenix Theatre as their pet name.

Curriculum items during the school lessons covered everything imaginable in order to enable a pupil to become either a performer or a teacher – or both! For example: History of Ancient Greece; Greek Mythology; Greek gods and goddesses; History of Dance; History of Theatre; History of Mime; Classical Greek dance; national dance; ballet dance; ballroom dancing, voice control, breathing, choral speaking, etc. When the students gave performances, they also did all of their own backstage work, including lighting, direction, music and publicity. As well as local performances, the students occasionally played in national theatres, including the Royal Albert Hall in 1953.

Saturdays would see the local children attending dance classes under the instruction of Miss Nancy Sherwood who had trained with the school as a young girl, and stayed with them as a teacher, right until closure in 1954. And the whole was co-ordinated by another long-standing member of staff, Miss Gibbs.

Full-time students signed up for a three year course, with the minimum age being 16; for some students the choice was between ‘A’ levels or dancing. Each term was about 10 weeks long and the school year began in October. By living in ‘digs’, they found accommodation around the local area in boarding houses, hotels, or as lodgers in people’s private homes.

Nowadays, the Montpellier area is one of the most expensive areas of Cheltenham, but in the 1940s and 1950s it was still possible for a young student to take lodgings (room plus breakfast and evening meal) for approximately 3 guineas (3 pound and 3 shillings) a week, sometimes sharing a room to bring down the cost.

An alternative to a packed lunch would be to eat out, and The Cake Basket café provided a three course meal for a very small cost and was popular with the students. Miss Mawer also ate regularly at The Cake Basket – she made her way up the small staircase to the quieter room, while the girls would stay downstairs amid the hustle and bustle.

After seven years the school closed (on the retirement of Miss Ginner). The number of students was quite low – the pull of London was too enticing and drew students there instead. Cheltenham was not exciting enough and the school lacked momentum to keep going.

Irene Mawer continued to work, moving to Birmingham where she was Senior Tutor and Lecturer at the Birmingham School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire).

Lloyd’s Bank is probably the best known of all the inhabitants of the Rotunda and owned the building for many years, donating a substantial amount of money for its renovation and upkeep. Today (2020), the prestigious Ivy Restaurant has done a fine job of keeping the Grade I listed building beautifully maintained.

Many thanks for the information in this article go to three of the Ginner-Mawer students Pamela Evans, Susan Mitchell-Smith (nee Ellis), and Rita Trigger (nee Wooldridge).

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Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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