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Mari Mordell at West Vancouver
Seniors’ Activity Centre. News Photo Mike Wakefield.

   Mover, shaker dances her way to the top


Mari Mordell as a dancer
on the British stage

by Laura Anderson,
North Shore News

EACH year on her birthday, January 15, Mari Mordell performs the sun salutation. This year she executed the flowing series of yoga postures to celebrate her 96th year of life.

Mari, who added yoga to her fitness program 20 years ago, has always been a “mover,” as she says. From 10 years old, that love of movement was channeled into ballet.

“I was the youngest and a bit of a nuisance, always bouncing around,” Mari recalls. “Maybe my parents were relieved to let me go. My sister, Flora, and I went to class once a week, at a shilling a week.”

In 1934, at 17, Mari left her home and family in Glasgow to become a professional dancer. Mari’s ballet mistress, had arranged lodgings in London at the Theatre Girls Club and a place for Mari at a ballet school run by Lydia Kyasht, a former Bolshoi ballerina who had performed with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Years of practice and performance on stage and on screen followed. “In one film, I was at one end of a row of dancers. At the other end was a man with a megaphone away up on a ladder who said, ‘Little lady in yellow down there, show me that you understand me,’ and I nodded.” The man with the megaphone was Alfred Hitchcock.

Mari was on tour in England with Kyasht’s company, Ballet de la Jeunesse Anglaise, when the Second World War began. Noticing that the response from servicemen in the audience was more appreciative for musical comedy than for ballet, and believing she could make this her own small contribution to the war effort, she left Kyasht’s company to appear in productions like “Going Greek”, “Joe Darling” and yes, a ballet, “a wicked little ballet called “Hush”. I call it wicked because it wasn’t traditional ballet and I was the wicked girl who danced the non-balletic role.”

Mari’s professional career came to an end when a bomb exploded close to her parents’ home. Mari returned to Glasgow to care for them. “My parents were in their late-60s, which seemed old to me. When I say old, people looked it in those days. My mother wore long black skirts and her hair was white. Very different from today,” she laughs.

Mari hadn’t been home a full day when the National Service came calling to recruit her. “Can I be an officer?” she asked. Request denied. Instead, Mari went to the Rolls-Royce factory as head checker for Bays D245 and D246, producing reduction pinions and gears for Spitfire fighter aircraft. Transferred to the main office in Derby, she met and wed engineer Donald Mordell, “one of the back room boys who came up with the bright ideas.”

In 1947, the Mordells immigrated to Canada.  Donald rose to become dean of the engineering faculty at McGill University, president of Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and founded the Canadian College of Advanced Engineering Practice. The couple traveled widely for these institutions, working to develop the industry and reduce dependence on imported technology in emerging nations, but Mari’s stories are of the green mamba she met in a bathroom in Ghana and of the  snake charmer and his cobras in Bangalore, India.

Home for the family’s three children and always a dog or two was Cobwebs Manor outside Montreal. From here and in subsequent homes in Vermont and in Jordan and Eden Mills, Ontario, Mari coordinated examinations for the Royal Academy of Dance, cultivated gardens, raised Afghan hounds and poodles, became a sanctioned dog obedience judge, sang in choirs, won awards for flower arranging, taught classes in the art of shortbread and was famous for her parties.

For one such event she called Mari’s Safari, guests encountered their hostess in a gorilla costume, a friend in a lion costume, her son with bottle in hand impersonating the rare white wino, a papier-mâché giraffe (head only, crafted by Mari) peering over a fence, rubber mambas recycled out of a Gorgon costume from a previous party and a few tiny elephant figurines, reduced, as Mari explains, to fit into their shrinking habitat.

Since moving to West Vancouver in 2004 to be closer to her family, Mari continues to write poetry, complete the cryptic crossword and attend fitness classes for the movement and for the friendships she has made.

For 96 years, Mari Mordell has embraced the gift of life, accepting its joys and trials with grace and wit. Long may she move.