As a sixteen-year-old ballet dancer at the Royal Ballet School in London, Phyllis Spira was hailed as a future Alicia Markova. On the brink of a successful career abroad, however, she elected to return to her home in South Africa where for many years she came to occupy center stage as South Africa’s prima ballerina.
Phyllis Spira was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on October 18, 1943. She was the first daughter and second child of Lazar and Fan Spira and the close-knit family lived in a modest home in the suburb of Orange Grove. Lazar was a company secretary and Fan worked as a secretary to the South African Rabbinical Association.
When she was four years old Spira was enrolled at a ballet school where her exceptional talent was recognized even at that early age. Her teacher at the time commented: “She was just incredible, completely different from the other children and showing, at that very young age, the quality that makes a dancer.” She began school at Sydenham/Highlands North Hebrew Nursery School in 1948, then attended Orange Grove Primary and Waverley High School for Girls. Ballet classes and training for eisteddfods always took place after school, but when she was fifteen years old her headmistress, recognizing her exceptional talent, obtained special permission from the education department for Phyllis to leave school at the end of Grade 10 to pursue her dancing. Soon thereafter she was offered a chance to attend the Royal Ballet School in London and, despite her parents’ concern at their daughter being alone in London at such a young age, she took up the offer and arrived in London in May 1959.
Phyllis Spira was only sixteen when she began her ballet studies in London and had not been there long before her teachers began to refer to her as a “baby Markova.” She obtained a bursary from the school and progressed very quickly to the Theater School, considered the last stage before a student was accepted into the company. In 1960 she made her debut at Covent Garden and at the age of seventeen was invited to join the Royal Ballet Touring Company. For the next three years Phyllis Spira danced with the Touring Company and her name was mentioned in the 1963 list of Improved Dancers of the Year alongside such names as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
After four years with the Royal Ballet a very promising future lay before her, but her longing for home made her decide to return to South Africa in 1964 to dance with PACT Ballet. A year later she joined the University of Cape Town Ballet Company (later to become CAPAB) where, over the next twenty-eight years, her high artistic standards helped raise the company to international heights and ensured capacity houses.
With her dance partner Gary Burne, Phyllis Spira toured the United States, Canada and Mexico in 1967. They received standing ovations and the critics were full of praise for Spira. It was on this tour that she experienced the first of many injuries that were to interrupt her dancing in later years.
In the 1970s Spira’s career continued to blossom and she was awarded the coveted Nederburg Prize for ballet in 1972 and 1979. She married the dancer Philip Boyd in 1986 and in that year was appointed Principal Ballet Mistress of CAPAB Ballet Company. She retired from dancing in 1988 but continued her duties as Principal Ballet Mistress until July 1999.
Phyllis Spira received numerous honors and awards during her long career. She was granted the status of Prima Ballerina Assoluta in 1984 and in 1991 received South Africa’s highest civilian award for excellence, the Order for Meritorious Service Gold. In 2000 she received the South African Woman Award in Canada for her contribution to the performing arts and in the same year the Molteno Medal from the Cape Tercentenary Foundation for Lifetime Services to the Performing Arts.
She now heads the David Poole Trust Youth Training Program and with her husband runs Dance For All, a program that provides talented dance students from disadvantaged homes with the opportunity to follow their dreams.
“I teach these students every afternoon after regular schooling,” notes Phyllis, “and they are proving to be quite exceptional, very focused and dedicated and of course abounding with talent.”
While her dance career brought audiences pleasure and joy, her work with the David Poole Trust and Dance For All brings hope and opportunity to children and creates artists of the future—a truly magnificent legacy.
Both, A. Phyllis Spira: A Tribute. Cape Town: 1988.
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How to cite this page
Shain, Milton and Miriam Pimstone. "Phyllis Spira." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 7, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/spira-phyllis>.