Woman Lightfoot, Louise (1902 - 1979)

Victoria, Australia
Victoria, Australia
Architect, Choreographer and Dancer

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Louisa Lightfoot was born in 1902 in the western district of Victoria, the fourth child of Charles and Mary (nee Graham) Lightfoot. She was educated at the Catholic Ladies' College in East Melbourne, where she excelled at drawing and mathematics. As a consequence, her schoolteacher father encouraged her to study architecture at the University of Melbourne. In 1923, she became the first woman to pass final subjects in the diploma of architecture. But it is not this achievement for which she is celebrated. Her influence was to be as a dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, a pioneer of Australian-based ballet production and an early supporter of modern and, later, Indian dance.

She did, however, work in architecture for a number of years before tempted away by the appeal of a dancing career. She was articled to the renowned architectural practice run by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, working first in their Melbourne office. When the Griffins moved to the of Castlecrag - a new, experimental Sydney suburb intended to allow the resident community to live in harmony with nature - Lightfoot accompanied them, working both in Griffins' Sydney office and as an assistant to Marion in the home.

Lightfoot's passion for dance was ignited by Anna Pavlova's 1926 tour of Australia. Through this tour, and through the Griffins, she met a character dancer, Mischa Burlakov, who taught her the Russian mazurka and other folk dances. She began to teach ballet to children and in 1928 left the Griffins to devote her life to dance. She entered into a professional partnership with Burlakov that lasted until 1938, first preparing character dances to present at charity events, then, after further training, extending to embrace starker modern dance elements. They formed the Lightfoot-Burlakov Classic Dance School, which by 1931 had become the First Australian Ballet. Under this name, the company staged a performance of Coppelia at Sydney's Savoy Theatre, choreographed by Lightfoot. This was most definitely a 'first' in Australian ballet, as previously only companies from overseas visiting Australia turned on full-length dance performances. The production was 'the starting block of professional ballet in Australia' (Wilson).

Lightfoot and Burlakov continued to produce several ballets a year throughout most of the 1930s, some classic and some Lightfoot originals in the modern ballet style. They were well established as leading teachers and producers of dance in Australia and the First Australian Ballet was highly successful. A trip the pair made to Europe in 1937 to secure the rights to new ballets, proved a turning point. Lightfoot took classes in a variety of dance styles, including Hindu, and was dazzled by the performance of the Uday Shankar dance group from India. On the way back to Australia, she stopped off at India and spent the next five months studying Kathakali dance in Kerala. She had found her destiny. On her return to Sydney, Lightfoot staged a production of Diaghilev's The Blue God with Burlakov, then immediately dissolved the partnership. The rest of Lightfoot's professional career was spent promoting Indian dance, both in India and internationally. She was greatly ahead of her times in recognizing dance forms that were equal in value to that of Western ballet and she played a leading role in ensuring Indian dance was seen, understood and appreciated by worldwide audience.

Lightfoot spent two decades living and working in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where she became proficient in Kathakali and Bharat Natya sacred dancing. She organized tours of Indian dance troupes through Australia, Japan and North America, published a book on dance-rituals and in 1947 brought the Kathakali dancer Ananda Shivaram to Australia in a highly influential tour. Shivaram was the first Indian dancer to tour Australia and he quickly won the hearts of his audiences, so much so that he continued to visit and dance in Australia until the mid 1970s. Lightfoot and Shivaram also together established an Indian dance school in San Francisco, USA. Between 1965 and 1968 Lightfoot lived and worked at the yoga ashram of Swami Vishnudevananda in Montreal, Canada. She then returned to Melbourne, where she continued to teach and promote Indian dance. She died in 1979.

Published Resources


  • Lightfoot, Louise, Dance-rituals of Manipur, India: an introduction to Meitie Jagoi, Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs, New Delhi, India, 1958. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Lawson, Valerie, The First Australian Ballet, Dance Australia, February/March. Details
  • Russell, Elizabeth, Louise Lightfoot: Dancing from East to West, Dance Australia, 1982. Details

Online Resources

See also