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The revamped beachside home exudes retro charm in spades.

| By Rachael Thompson | Home tours

Ballet Teacher Tonia Kelly’s Mid-Century Home in Newport Is En Pointe

The revamped beachside home exudes retro charm in spades.

Welcome to The Makers. Each week, we celebrate innovators, artisans, and crafters of all types by taking you on a private tour of their creative spaces. For this instalment, we tour ballet teacher, Tonia Kelly’s mid-century home, Sundowner House, in Newport.

Training as a professional ballet dancer isn’t for the fainthearted. This notoriously competitive area of the arts isn’t just physically demanding but mentally exhausting. Where the audience witnesses a seemingly flawless and effortless performance, the dancer has spent years of hard work and dedication training as an athlete. For former professional dancer and now ballet teacher Tonia Kelly, it was a labour of love and a career path she knew she would pursue from a young age.“I spent my entire childhood and most of my brain space on learning ballet,” Tonia shares with Bed Threads Journal.

The working life of a ballerina is known to be rigorous. Tonia trained at the Australian Ballet School before being offered a contract as a contemporary dancer with the prestigious Sydney Dance Company, under the direction of Graeme Murphy, where she danced for twelve years. Upon retiring, Tonia studied to become a Royal Academy of Dance ballet teacher and now takes adult ballet classes in Newport.

Familiar with the strict regime and critique that dancers so often experience throughout their training and career, Tonia wanted to teach in a manner that uplifted, not criticised her students. “ I vowed to become a teacher that encourages excellence but not at the expense of breaking the students’ spirit. I was not going to teach from the ‘school of humiliation’.”

The vast majority of those interested in pursuing a career in dance are naturally creative types, and when she retired Tonia went to colour and design school as a side interest. "I was a Bun Head with a passion for shuffling my bedroom furniture around constantly," Tanya shares of her childhood. A passion for interior design has led her to revamp Sundowner House, her beachside abode that was built in the ‘60s. “I have spent the past 12 years re-injecting mid-century character back into the house.”

In revamping this home, Tonia has paid homage to its heritage, adding elements that are an ode to the era. One of the loveliest examples of this is the stone fireplace surround which takes centre stage in the living room. This space also appropriately features an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman as well as timber panelled walls which feed mid-century warmth into the space. The kitchen is another mid-century-inspired element to marvel at with its dark timber joinery and olive green backsplash.

The primary bedroom boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, a classic design element of the era, and ensures the space is filled with plenty of natural light. The linen bedding hues for both bedrooms are in keeping with the laidback, earthy tones of the '60s. A Mineral & Fog pairing in one room and a Cacoa & Hazelnut duo in the other play into the '60s-era sophistication.

We took a tour of Tonia's funky house and spoke to her about her career as a dancer, the benefits of taking ballet classes, and her home renovation process.

Shop Tonia's edit.

Hi Tonia! This series is called The Makers. What is it that you make?

I make mature adult bodies move like a dancer.

I make them laugh at themselves when they make mistakes.

I make them aware of good posture and how to move with grace.

I make them forget about their to-do list during class.

Through my work in private vocational coaching, I make technical excellence fun.

I also make dances that tell stories through choreography, acting, costume, and music.

Tell us about your career journey to date. Did you always know you wanted to pursue this line of work?

Plan A: ballet dancer. Plan B: architect. Ballet was my priority. I spent my entire childhood and most of my ‘brain space’ on learning ballet. I was a Bun Head with a passion for shuffling my bedroom furniture around constantly – nothing much has changed! At least it kept me out of Parramatta Mall and the backs of panel vans with bubble windows.

During my graduation year at the Australian Ballet School, I was offered a contract with the Sydney Dance Company under the direction of Graeme Murphy. I hesitantly accepted the contract, as I REALLY wanted to be in a classical company. I loved it so much, I ended up dancing with SDC for 12 memorable years.

I was so very fortunate to have been a part of the creative golden years of the SDC during the 1980s with Graeme Murphy at the helm. We toured the world with our turned-out ballet feet, big hair, and ‘80s shoulder pads. We thought we were pretty fabulous. Cocktail parties on 5th Avenue NYC, dancing for the king and queen of Spain. The list goes on.

We crisscrossed the globe and landed in incredible places – Beijing, Amsterdam, Athens, NYC, Covent Garden, Wagga Wagga, Rockhampton, Bernie! We were the hottest, most cutting-edge company of the era. In addition to dancing, we constantly had side projects: Vogue photoshoots, TV commercials (like the famous AGL Flamettes). On retirement from SDC, I studied to become a Royal Academy of Dance ballet teacher. I also went to colour and design school as a side interest.

What do you think are the benefits of taking ballet classes and how do you approach your lessons?

Regardless of your age, shape, or lack of prior experience, it’s possible for anyone to learn classical ballet. When I teach adults to feel the music and move to it from their hearts to the tips of their fingers, I see happiness in them. Perfectionism and attention to technical detail are not so much the point in an adult class, however posture and core are. My classes are both seriously hard work and peals of snorting laughter. Big fun.

What’s been the single most crucial tool or strategy you’ve used to further your career?

As a teacher post-retirement, I found that little-girl enthusiasm for ballet again after the years of hard slog as a student and then professional. I didn’t achieve perfection as a student, nor did I during my years with the company. I was very critical of myself as a dancer. My teachers were very critical.

When I became a teacher I realised how futile that mindset can be. I vowed to become a teacher that encourages excellence but not at the expense of breaking the students’ spirit. I was not going to teach from the ‘school of humiliation’.

What’s been the most challenging lesson learnt so far in your career?

To be myself. My bawdiness and sense of the absurd were always there but I’ve let her rip now. You can’t take Parramatta out of the girl.

What’s been the best thing that’s happened to you since you started your career?

The lifelong friendships that I treasure. The physical strength I still have at 62. Resilience.

Do you have a single piece of advice you’d give to your younger self or someone looking to pursue a similar line of work?

Don’t ever lose your sense of humour. Accept that you have limitations and don’t fight against them.

Now, the home stuff. How long have you lived in your home?

12 Years.

How did you initially know this was the space for you?

The MCM window aesthetic drew me in. The sunlight streams through the windows all day and the garden and lawn are part of the interior. A much-loved aspect of mid-century design. Our home has wrapped its arms around us.

Don’t ever lose your sense of humour. Accept that you have limitations and don’t fight against them.

Tonia Kelly

Which is your favourite room in the house?

The kitchen looking into the dining room with the open fire, timber panelled wall, awning windows at the side and balustrade in the background. It’s a still-life scene from the ’60s.

What are your top tips for a well-styled bedroom, and home generally?

  • I’m not a minimalist but I cannot do clutter. I get nervous hives from chaos.
  • A bed base that is on legs or wall hung. I find the ensemble style sits too heavily even if the room is large. Same with bedsides. My Mum calls this the house of legs!
  • I’m also not a fan of matchy-matchy furniture.
  • Good quality linen, not too many cushions. Actually, buy good quality everything so it doesn’t become landfill in a few years.
  • A beautiful artwork.
  • Indoor plants.
  • Windows always open.
  • Sheers on the windows to create wafting movement during the day.

For more from Tonia follow her @sundowner_house

Photography by Alisha Gore. Styling by Audrey Won.

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