Gwenda Britten a ballet examiner to the world
OUR PEOPLE: When Gwenda Britten's parents decided their daughter was shy, introverted and had bad posture, they sent her to ballet.
It was the best decision her farming parents could make. Today, Gwenda is a top examiner in New Zealand and her life is based around dance.
For upwards of three to four months, Britten travels the world on behalf of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), examining both students and teachers in three different faculties – ballet, modern and tap.
She returned from London in September 2016 and then spent a month in Thailand and Malaysia during October and November. In January, she travels to Melbourne to hold a course for teachers and trainee teachers.
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Britten loves teaching and examining, which sees her encouraging the "best out of candidates to make it a happy and enjoyable experience".
Her first experience of ballet in Ashburton was also enjoyable. She started dancing at seven, then moved to Christchurch, an hour's journey away, where she studied with Irena Kalnins and Lorraine Peters from Southern Ballet.
Back home in Mid Canterbury, the young Gwenda Williams had her own school of dance. From Ashburton, she moved to study with Patricia Macdonald in Brisbane and danced in Australia Ballet's Corps de Ballet.
Even then she knew she was called to be a teacher.
"It's the giving nature of it I love. I wanted to teach and teach well," she recalls.
When her dad became ill she moved back to Ashburton briefly and then on to Wellington. That was important for her because she joined the Daniels-Bayley Academy and, under Valerie Bayley, experienced modern dance, tap and national character, something new to New Zealand.
It was there that she met a young lawyer, Barry Britten, who'd just been admitted to the bar. Following a brief return to Ashburton, they relocated to Palmerston North, Barry's home.
It was back here that Valerie Bayley entered her life again. Britten had taken time out for family and was ready to teach again. Bayley encouraged it and also told her she was a born examiner.
Britten had studied and achieved her fellowship in imperial classical ballet and fellowship in modern theatre faculty, but examining required another dimension again. That meant travelling to London for five weeks of training plus ongoing refresher courses.
At first, Britten examined children in tap, modern theatre and classical ballet, but soon her reputation grew and she travelled overseas to examine the future stars of stage.
Ballet exams aren't like other adjudications. An examiner doesn't sit in the corner, ring a bell and write pages of notes. He or she establishes a rapport with the dancer and requests a range of movements with different rhythms and flavours to find out what they're really like.
"In that way I can truly evaluate the talent and musicality of a student."
By travelling and examining, Britten has been exposed to what's happening in the world and she brings back ideas that assist local dancers. Her experience also led her to examine the teachers for whom she regularly holds courses.
A great satisfaction to her is to pick up a programme and see the names of those she's assessed now enjoying professional careers.
"I've examined potential stars who've progressed to ballet companies, or musicals on the West End or cruise ship entertainment," Britten said. Those names include Monique Mai and Rose Barnett.
After 25 years travelling the world, Britten has now reached the pinnacle of what she wants to do, but admits she's still learning.
"I love the life," she says. "The day I don't, I'll retire."