A Whangarei woman who taught ballet to thousands of Northland children and gained an international reputation during a 68-year teaching career has died.

Only a week before she died on Tuesday, Tess Graham (ONZM), aged 84 years, was demonstrating to her regular ballet class for adults how to pointe properly.

Despite being in considerable pain, she continued to attend dance events until a few days before she passed away suddenly, after a short illness. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a couple of months ago.

An outpouring of love and respect has followed Ms Graham's death, with former students and colleagues describing her as stoic, strong, funny, gifted, commanding and "mellowing greatly although not always gracefully as she got older".


Her legacy extends beyond the Northland towns where she taught ballet - including Ruakaka, Maungaturoto and Dargaville - to the international stage where some of her former students have starred. Ms Graham received the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1999 for her contribution to ballet.

Her daughter Sylvia Graham said the family had received condolence messages from all over the world. Sylvia Graham described her mother as quiet and dedicated to her family when at home - and a different person entirely when she was teaching ballet or choreographing large productions.

She said her mother had remained extremely fit and active for her age, thanks to her years of dancing and teaching.

"She was absolutely driven by her passion for dance. She was teaching a class a week before she died. When everyone's tendency was to tell her to take it easy because she was sick, she said she didn't have time for that. Dancing, and continuing to teach, gave her life."

Mrs Graham began learning ballet at 6years old and started teaching it in Auckland at the age of 16. Some years later she moved to Whangarei where she and her husband Walter bought the Northland School of Ballet. Mrs Graham retired from the small-town teaching circuit a few years ago but continued with some classes, particularly at Ruakaka-based Bream Bay School of Dance.

She is survived by Walter (Wally), five children and grand- and great-grandchildren. Her funeral will be in the chapel at Newberry's Funeral Home, Tuesday April 12, at 11am.