When Bébé de Roland hears music, she can’t help but move to the beat.
Whether she’s in public or at home cooking, when music comes on, the 92-year-old Esquimalt resident has the impulse to dance — something that comes naturally to her.
“Whenever I hear music, I have to move to it, no matter where I am,” de Roland said. “I could dance all day and all night. I hear two notes of music and I’m off dancing.”
The senior has had a long and storied career in dance, dating as far back as 1929 when she took up ballet at the age of five. De Roland was recently honoured by Dance Victoria as the recipient of the community award — one she was thrilled to receive in front of friends and family and those in the local dance community.
Growing up in New Zealand, de Roland took up ballet as soon as she could walk. At only 11 years old, she snuck into examinations put on by the Royal Academy of Arts and received the highest mark of all dancers in the region of Australasia (comprised of Australia, New Zealand, the island of new Guinea and islands in the Pacific Ocean).
That prompted New Zealand residents, including de Roland’s neighbours and teachers, to help raise money to send her to train under Russian ballerina Lydia Kyasht in England.
Under Kyasht, de Roland learned a variety of other skills, including voice, piano, character and modern dance and tap, and within three years made her debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London in front of hundreds of people. She was just 14 years old, making her the youngest prima ballerina in the world.
“Standing in the wings, waiting for the introduction of my music, my legs were shaking so much, I didn’t think that I’d ever even get on stage,” de Roland said. “But once I was on, it all disappeared.”
Her fame continued to grow as she performed in dozens of ballets, before eventually hurting her left foot. But the injury didn’t stop her from doing what she loved. De Roland then transitioned to musical theatre, which allowed her to put less pressure on her injured foot, but still light up the stage with her performances.
Things took a dark turn when World War Two began in 1939. While bombs were constantly dropped on London, the city’s musical theatre scene flourished with de Roland continuing to entertain audiences, dancing in constant fear that the theatre she was performing in could be hit.
“As the bombs were falling, we had to just carry on with our performance. You’d hear them exploding and think ‘oh god, I hope that one isn’t going to get me’. Nothing stopped, we had to keep going,” de Roland said.
“When you’re a theatrical person and you’re on that stage, no matter what, you keep going.”
It was during the war that de Roland met her husband Norman, a member of the Canadian Forces. Eventually the two got married and moved to Halifax, where Norman was stationed.
After years on stage, de Roland admitted she was happy to give up the spotlight and her point shoes to give birth to and care for her four sons. In 1953, the young family relocated to Victoria — a place that reminded de Roland of her hometown in New Zealand.
De Roland continued her passion for theatre in Victoria as well. She worked for Jerry Gosley’s The Smile Show, an annual production in Victoria, and later took over a local dance studio, renaming it the Victoria School of Theatrical Arts on Broad Street, where she taught ballet, tap and character dancing among other things. She eventually retired in 1996, after 30 years of running the studio.
“She had quite an unbelievable career. She was a child prodigy,” said Sylvia Hosie, who presented de Roland with the Dance Victoria Award. De Roland also taught Hosie in her dance studio.
“She had hundreds of students who went through her studio. She made a huge mark on Victoria. She’s a very unique human being. Her talent is amazing.”
Today, de Roland still lives in the home she and her husband designed overlooking the water in Esquimalt. Even now, she still can’t help but move to the music.
“If I’m in the kitchen with a frying pan and I hear music, I’m going to dance with the frying pan,” de Roland laughed. “The music carries me away and I’m in a beautiful movement world.”