South Africa’s only prima ballerina assoluta, Phyllis Spira

I arrived in Cape Town after matriculating in 1975 to study further.  One of the friends I made at college was a beautiful, graceful dancer.  We became inseparable.  Her mother used to buy me a ticket to the ballet to accompany them when they attended at the then Nico Malan (now Artscape).  It was there that I encountered the dancing of the lovely living legend, Phyllis Spira.  ‘

Phyllis Spira

Phyllis Spira

Born Phyllis Bernice Spira on 18 October 1943 in Johannesburg, she was educated at Waverley Girls High School before being accepted into the Royal Ballet School and then the Royal Ballet Touring Company as a soloist where she toured extensively in Europe, and the Middle and Far East.  In 1964 she decided she wanted to return to South Africa to dance in the country of her birth, and in so doing, she was obliged to turn down an invitation to dance with Rudolf Nureyev.  She joined PACT in 1964 but moved to CAPAB the following year.  Then in 1967 she went to Canada where she toured with the National Ballet of Canada until 1969 when she returned to CAPAB.

Phyllis Spira

Phyllis Spira

She had two main dance partnerships, the first with Gary Burne and the second with Eduard Greyling. She was awarded the title of prima ballerina assoluta in 1984 and continued to dance until 1988 when she suffered an injury on the opening night of Giselle.  She then became the Principal Ballet Mistress of CAPAB until 1999 when that company was renamed the Cape Town City Ballet Company.

She and her husband, Philip Boyd, ran the Dance for All Programme which teaches ballet in the black townships of Cape Town.

Phyllis Spira

Phyllis Spira

Only eleven people worldwide have ever been awarded the title of prima ballerina assoluta, and Spira also received South Africa’s highest civilian award for excellence, the Order of Meritorious Service Gold in 1991. Other awards were the Nederburg Award for Ballet (twice), the Lilian Solomon Award, the Bellarte Woman of the Year Award for the Cape (1979) and in 2000, the Cape Tercentenary Foundation awarded her the Molteno Medal for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.  In 2003, Spira was named a member of the Order of the Disa for her contribution to ballet and the development of ballet in disadvantaged communities.

A very young Spira with some of her many trophies won at Ballet Competitions and Eisteddfods.

A very young Spira with some of her many trophies won at Ballet Competitions and Eisteddfods.

After a foot injury sustained August 2007 in London, Spira underwent a series of operations, one of which she did not survive. She died on Tuesday 11 March 2008, aged 64, at Kingsbury Hospital in Cape Town.

South Africa has produced, and continues to produce some of the best dancers in the world.


About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
This entry was posted in Brief Biographies, Dance, South African Culture, South African Women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to South Africa’s only prima ballerina assoluta, Phyllis Spira

  1. Andi Colley says:

    A beautiful article, by a beautiful writer, about her beautiful ballerina friend.

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