Farewell to the Dancing Queen

Shirley Sweeney lived by the motto ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’ and affected hundreds of people with her enthusiasm for dance.

Shirley was born on November 17, 1927, and attended primary school in Lismore, then went on to Lismore High School, where she excelled at hockey and dance.

After leaving school she joined Bonfields as a legal clerk then went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dance in Sydney.

During the war she was involved in organising charity concerts for the war effort and in 1946 she was crowned Miss Far North Coast Charity Queen.

Two years later she married Bob Sweeney and they had two sons, Robert, who was born in 1954, and Tim, who was born in 1963.

The story goes that while Robert was at Lismore High doing a school musical production in the early 1970s she said to a teacher, Kevin Unicomb, “Is that all the movement you are going to do on stage?”

Kevin’s response was “Well, put your money where your mouth is...” and from then until 1991 Shirley was the musical choreographer at Lismore High. Over 21 years she choreographed 36 musicals in all genres.

“Shirley took kids out of their comfort zone, often taking them to places they didn’t know existed,” Lismore High teacher Ian Champion said. “There are people who have taken her pursuit of excellence attitude and created their own careers in the performing arts such as Angela Mitchell, Alistair Tomkins, Andrew Stewart, Michael Gates and Rachel Beck, to name a few.”

Michael Gates, who is best known for his drag queen character Maude Boat and as a costume designer for stage shows including Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Lion King, said Shirley was his mentor.

“I remember her wearing ugg boots, cigarette in hand, trying to teach us the box step,” he said. “She was brilliant, a real original. I’ve never met another person like her. She basically got me out of my shell when I was a kid... Shirley was the most fabulous person I could have had as a dance teacher. She was the first person who nurtured my talent.”

Shirley devised a national character dance syllabus called ‘Khorobushka’ (which is Russian for ‘peddler’). It was a seven book series where each one is like a dance dictionary for another country. The syllabus teaches people how to modify and improve on national character dances – whether it be through dancing styles, costumes or other aspects of the dance – so they can be appropriately staged, but still retain their authenticity.

In 2002 she was awarded an OAM for the syllabus and services to dance.

With thanks to Ian Champion.

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