These company logos, extracted from the internet, were in use in the years this article refers to - Kuwait Oil Company (pre-2008) and Arabian American Oil Company (pre-2001).
I grew up in Kuwait. Oil had been discovered in the Burgan oil field in February 1938, and in the following years, Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) (now a subsidiary of Kuwait Petroleum Company) started recruiting British and Commonwealth workers. In 1946 KOC began commercial oil production at Burgan and started to build its headquarters at Ahmadi, named after Sheikh Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Governor of the province of the same name between 1921 and 1956. Ahmadi was divided by orientation into north, south, east and west. It had schools providing for the Anglo-American, Indian-Pakistani and Arab children of KOC employees. It also had recreational clubs for different employees – Hubara, Nakhlistan and Unity; and over time the company supported a whole range of clubs and social activities from theatre, bridge, riding, sailing, scouting and guiding, desert rallying, golf, squash and tennis, to name but a few.
In December 1953, my father went out to Kuwait as Chief Preventative Medical Officer for KOC and lived in a company Guest House on 1st Street, and we, my mother, brother and sister, joined him on Xmas Eve 1954. We were originally housed in a “Swedish house” (a house made of timber) on 9th Street. One night there was a commotion when the occupier of the Swede next door fell asleep on the veranda with a lighted cigarette in his hand and the house caught on fire. We then moved to a larger A1-type house on 22nd Street in North Ahmadi on what was commonly called the Ridge.
My parents enjoyed playing tennis and golf, and this gave them the opportunity to visit other parts of the region and play in Persian Gulf Oil Company LTA competitions, BP – (Teheran, Iran), IPC – (Baghdad and Basra, Iraq), BPC – (Manama, Bahrain), Aramco - (Dhahran, Saudi Arabia), Shell - (Doha, Qatar), and Tapline - (Beirut and Shemlan, Lebanon). My parents often played against Dr. Bill Taylor and his wife Lois from Aramco.
1957 PGOCLTA Championship, Dhahran.
Bill Taylor (Front 3rd from right), Lois Taylor (Third row 3rd from right), Diana Thom (Back row far right). Photo credit: Thom Family
In the intervening years, my parents had two more children. We were all schooled at the local Anglo- American School until we were sent home to boarding school, as many of our peers were. We returned for school holidays as and when company travel allowances provided, otherwise we stayed with relatives or friends.
In 1971 my father left KOC having reached the pension age of 55 and went on to become a Medical Officer of Health in Dubai, and subsequently Medical Adviser to the Trucial States (now the UAE).
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
Four hundred kilometres to the south of Ahmadi, large oil reserves had been first identified in the Dhahran area in 1931, and in 1935, the US company Standard Oil drilled the first commercially viable oil well. Standard Oil later established a subsidiary in Saudi Arabia called the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) (now Saudi Aramco).
Dhahran was settled after 1938 by Aramco which was building various residential areas, known as camps or compounds, to house the company's oil workers (and in some cases their families) in what was then a remote part of the desert. By 1950 Dhahran had a population of about 7,000 people; today there are more than 50,000 residents in the gated compound which is the headquarters and residential camp. It continues to be the centre of the company's finance, exploration, engineering, drilling services, medical services, materials supply and other company organisations. Aramco's four communities differed from Ahmadi in a major respect, they were gated compounds, whereas Ahmadi was an open town. Both the Kuwait Oil Company and Aramco, like most companies that employed expatriate labour, tried to provide their employees with the life they left behind and encouraged the establishment of social and recreational clubs. Aramco did this through its Aramco Employee Association (AEA) and KOC through its Social Services department.
I arrived in Dhahran in May 1976 and was initially housed in a shared dormitory on 18th Street, 1815, and then later moved just down the road to an Efficiency at 1812. As I had been recruited as a financial specialist, I worked in Internal Audit for two years and then on the renewal of my contract moved over to Contract Cost Compliance for a further two years.
In Dhahran, in addition to the common facilities, there were plenty of groups and clubs, but I limited my own recreational interests to squash, rugby, the Dhahran Theatre Group (and BAC Players off camp); mastering how to sail a Hobie cat; windsurfing off Half Moon Bay; while taking advantage of the geographic position of Dhahran to travel to Middle and Far East countries.
Upon reflection, three anecdotes spring to mind:
When I was working in Internal Audit, I was required occasionally to visit other companies off camp. One such visit coincided with a sweep by the Saudi authorities checking on third-country nationals (TCNs) who had been sponsored to work for one company but had illegally transferred to work for another. Well, that’s when they found me, in a downtown Khobar contractor’s office with a desk and chair and with papers showing that Aramco was my sponsor! Three days later I was the last “illegal” to be released from our temporary jail in a local school. Ironic in the sense that the largest company in Saudi took the longest to get one of their employees freed.
In Contract Cost Compliance we had received Invoices from a contractor who had the contract to paint housing stock in Dhahran. The only problem was that the Invoices were for so much paint that the houses would have had to have been painted at least three times over. My job was to knock on the door and ask whoever answered about their paint job. Many residents were rather pleased to find a handsome young man on their doorstep!
Between my first and second contract, I had six weeks' leave, so two friends and I decided to drive back to the UK. We had to leave our Saudi number plates at the border at that time as too many cars with Saudi number plates had been noticed parked outside the brothels in Amman, Jordan. Luckily, my friend had kept his UK number plates. We took our time travelling through Jordan, made a side trip into Israel, Syria, Turkey, and Greece then a side trip to Mykonos followed by driving through what is now Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia, which was then Yugoslavia. The final leg of the journey was through Austria, Germany, Holland, then home, only to find that my parents had moved house without telling me; somehow, I managed to track them down!
Life after Aramco
Despite the amazing time and wonderful friends I had made in Dhahran, I decided not to renew my contract with Aramco and left in May 1980. It is always difficult to leave a place where you feel stable, but I always felt luck was on my side and when I got home I was offered three jobs - with The British Council, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and Dodwell & Co., an Inchcape trading company in Tokyo. I chose the latter and spent an enjoyable three years in Japan working as the Asst. to the Director of their Shipping and Agency Division. While there, I played second row on a rugby team rather than wing (size is all relative), continued to play squash, learned Japanese, travelled around the country, and spent lots of late nights learning to like whisky and mastering the art of karaoke.
After three years, Inchcape promoted me to Financial Controller of a subsidiary of theirs in Guam, which held an automobile franchise. It was an interesting time as the US was restricting Japanese car imports to the mainland. The major Japanese car companies had found a loophole by importing new cars to Guam, a US territory in the Pacific, and then exporting them to the US mainland as used cars.
The prospects in Guam were limited so I moved back to the UK and in 1988 I answered an advertisement for a position that provided no company name. It turned out to be the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) - an international dance awarding organisation, founded in 1920 with offices in 35 countries, operating in 60, and members in 70. RAD trains teachers of dance, primarily majoring in ballet; holds examinations in ballet; and is a membership and leading body for ballet. The UK has a number of these international organisations such as IDTA founded in 1903, ISTD founded in 1904, and around the world Cecchetti organisations. Demonstrations of soft power.
I was the RAD Director of Finance for 27 years during which I learnt about the passion that dance teachers bring to their profession, the importance of training for males and females, and the empowerment that dance and movement can give to the young and old. I recognised the transformative effect that dance can have on the lives of people, whether unlocking the talent within someone, releasing energies within those who need to; or changing lives through the magic of movement.
Life can take us in surprising directions. Who would have guessed that after four years in Aramco, I would have had a 27-year career in Dance? This article was originally about Life after Aramco, but it has made me reflect on whether there was dance in Ahmadi in my childhood, and dance in Dhahran when I worked there. I remember that I took singing lessons in Dhahran for a Pantomime from the wife of the ‘rector’ as there were no official churches in Saudi, so, I thought that dance might also be under the radar.
Dance in the Desert
Well, dance wasn’t under the radar. It was there all the time. As children, my brother and I hadn’t been exposed to the dance classes that existed in Ahmadi at that time as my parents preferred sports, although both my sisters somehow took classes.
Indeed, the nearest we came to ballet was the Christmas Review the doctors performed in 1960 when the Magwa Hospital closed down with the opening of the Southwell Hospital in Ahmadi.
1960 Christmas Review: Farewell to Magwa KOC Medical Dept.
Photos credit: Thom Family
While conducting further research, I managed to track down four remarkable dance teachers whose stories are below:
Alma Walker - Ahmadi 1950 - 1969
Established Kuwait Dance Academy 1952-1962
Dance Teacher, Ballet and Tap
Alma Jessup studied ballet from a young age, with her formative training at the Sheen Academy of Music, Dancing and Elocution and subsequently the Merrymakers School of Music and Dancing in Barnes where she honed her singing skills under the eye of Miss Marjorie Skuffham and her dancing skills under the Misses Lurion and Better such that by the age of 16 she was appearing on the professional stage. She won honours and commends for singing and dancing in her society examinations and at festivals and concerts. She was taught the Cecchetti method of ballet and took examinations in that method. She joined her husband Dick Walker-Date in 1950, who had arrived in Kuwait two years earlier in 1948 and who was KOC’s Chief Draughtsman. Dick’s sister Pamela Walker-Date (who performed on stage as the professional dancer Jackie Lee) came out to visit her brother in 1958, and married Chris Edgerton (who had arrived in 1954) the following year. After leaving Kuwait, Alma and Dick spent time in Zambia, Nigeria, Iran and Saudi Arabia before finally settling in Ferndown, Dorset, England. Alma sadly passed away in April 2013.
The following are extracts from Alma's memoirs and family archives:
Alma’s husband had arrived in Ahmadi in 1948 and Alma followed in 1950. These were early years with Ahmadi expanding not only with new arrivals but also with facilities for the company’s Anglo- American, Indo-Pakistani, and Arab employees - including housing, schools and social clubs; golf, tennis and squash clubs; Anglican and Catholic churches and mosques; hospitals, clinics and cemeteries – all were being established. If you couldn’t find a club to suit your needs, you only had to request company sponsorship, and they would set it up for you. Overall, KOC sponsored 56 clubs and societies. Their motto could have been “from conception to the resurrection”.
It was in this environment that Alma found herself, and as she had studied and majored in classical ballet, she felt qualified to set up a dancing school at the Anglo-American School. She called this the Kuwait Dance Academy. She had approximately 40 pupils who were taught ballet and tap. Classes would take place in the Anglo-American School Hall, as well as other venues.
1950s Kuwait Dance Academy pupils.
Photo credit: Clive and Susan Walker-Date
Each year Alma would present an Annual Show. In 1956 the whole school took part in the 4th Annual Show held in the Assembly Hall at the Hubara Club. There was a Babies Class, Juniors and Seniors showing exercises in ballet and tap, including minuet, polka, musical comedy and tap dances; and some solos. Of the 35 pupils, 2 boys were in the Babies Class.
1956 Kuwait Dance Academy, 4th Annual Show, Hubara Club.
Photos credit: Clive and Susan Walker-Date
In addition to regular classes, Alma would hold open days and demonstrations at the School Hall as well as many stage presentations arranging the choreography, staging and production of the shows herself.
1950s Kuwait Dance Academy
Photos credit: Clive and Susan Walker-Date
Alma immersed herself in other artistic endeavours, treading the boards for Kuwait Little Theatre (KLT), chairing the Johnnie Patrick Club and singing for the Ahmadi Musical Society. It was through the latter that she met Wendy Fuller, who started playing for her classes, often when her usual pianists, such as Mrs. Dymott, were on vacation. After running the Kuwait Dance Academy for 10 years, Alma decided to retire from teaching when she had her second child Clive in 1962 and handed the school over to Wendy. In 1969 the Walker-Dates left Kuwait.
Wendy Fuller - Ahmadi 1954 - 1966
Accompanist and Dance Teacher, Ballet, Tap and Modern 1954 – 1966
Wendy studied ballet, tap, and modern dance as well as piano and singing at the Aida Foster Theatre School in Golders Green, London, founded in 1929 and which became one of Britain’s foremost stage schools until its closure in 1970. Among its notable alumni are Barbara Windsor, Elaine Paige and Jean Simmons.
Wendy Walenn, aged 19, arrived in Kuwait in March 1954 to join her fiancée Alan Fuller, a quantity surveyor for KOC, whom she married in May of that year. Her sister Wanda was already in Kuwait, and she became the accompanist for her piano and singing classes. Alma Walker-Date who had already established the Kuwait Dance Academy in Ahmadi was always looking for “locum” accompanists, and initially Wendy played for those classes, eventually taking over in 1962 when Alma’s growing family took priority.
The Fuller’s left Kuwait in October 1966, driving back to England, briefly settling in Woking, followed by a spell in Tehran between 1968 – 1971, and after further moves around the Home Counties, finally settling in a small village just outside Shaftesbury in Dorset. Wendy stopped teaching dance but continued teaching piano. Today Wendy is a sprightly 89-year-old. Alan has sadly passed away.
Wendy Fuller recalls:
“I had arrived in Ahmadi, Kuwait Oil Company’s company town, in March 1954 as Wendy Walenn and became Mrs. Fuller in May, which all my students addressed me as. I had trained in dance and drama, and I initially became my sister’s accompanist for piano and singing coaching classes, as well as becoming involved in theatre performances, musicals, and pantomimes, as well as school shows. There was so much talent. It was through singing that I had met Alma, Mrs. Walker-Date to her students, who had a nice soprano voice but was also teaching dance.
"So, I started out playing for her classes, often when other pianists were on vacation, and subsequently took over the classes when Alma gave up teaching to have her second child in the early '60s, using Betty Gould as my own accompanist.
"The whole setup was relatively informal in those days, as it would have been extremely difficult to get an examiner to come to Kuwait to hold Society Examinations (as they would have then been called).
1956 Mrs. Walker-Date’s Babies and Tap Classes.
Photo credit left: Sally Grumbridge - Babies
Photo credit right: Chris Sellars - Tap
"We taught ballet, tap and modern and the children worked hard, in particular the off-spring of the Indo-Pakistani employees who had a great work ethic and plenty of motivation from their parents who were keen for their children to learn something new. There were a number of suitable venues in Ahmadi, which we hired from KOC.
"At that time, the children of KOC employees could be educated locally at company schools up to the ages of 9 for boys and 11 for girls, and so we only held about three classes a week for approximately 15 students of mixed nationalities per class. All girls. Of course, there was a lot of competition from other activities for all ages - tennis, golf, football, cricket, hockey, swimming, sailing, and go-karting to name a few. We taught all the year round, subject to the company vacation policy which initially was three years in-country and then three months off.
1956 School Pantomime Performance
Photo credit: Anne Gardiner (Third from right, author’s sister)
"All classes were taught as Beginner, but our children benefitted from our interest in the theatre and those who were chosen for theatrical, or school performances and productions would have additional coaching. Fees would have been inexpensive as we weren’t running a business. The parents made the dance costumes but had to find suitable shoes.
"Nothing, of course, would ever have been possible without the considerable talent of the wives and children of KOC’s employees, and of course the employees themselves, which helped us to use our own talents; and we all made wonderful life-long friends. Alan and I left Ahmadi in 1966.”
Cutting: Sun and Flare April 1951
Local News: "A Night at the Ballet"
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
Meanwhile over in Dhahran, four hundred kilometres to the south, the Sun and Flare, Aramco’s house magazine reveals that ballet was also flourishing in the camp at the same time.
Cathie Parssinen - Aramco 1951 – 1962, UPM 1975 – 1979, Aramco 1980 - 1992
Children’s Ballet Theatre - UPM 1979 - 1980, Ras Tanura 1980 – 1986, Dhahran 1986 - 1992
Cathie is a second-generation Aramcon, first accompanying her parents Floyd and Willette Teel in 1951 as a young child; and then with her husband Jon in 1975. At the age of 4, she took ballet with Daisy DiGiacomo and studied Hawaiian dance from Karen Kristofferson, sister of Kris Kristofferson. At the age of 7, she performed a hula dance to “The Little Brown Shack” in an AEA Talent Show and was hooked. Dance remained a constant, threading its way through her life as an extracurricular backdrop while she worked on her formal degree programs. Cathie achieved a BA in International Relations and an MS in Education from the University of Southern California. On Cathie’s return to KSA, she founded, as she calls it, “her many iterations of the Children's Theatre Ballet” - in UPM, Ras Tanura and Dhahran. Cathie also contributed at this time to the book King Faisal and the Modernization of Saudi Arabia (Edit: Willard A. Beling. (1980). London: Croom Helm, Ltd.) and spoke at a conference of the same name.
In 1992 Cathie and Jon, with their family of 2 daughters and 1 son left Dhahran and settled in Austin, TX where she founded a glossy lifestyle magazine called Waterways, focusing on lakeside living, the arts and the gala scene. She has now settled in Williamsville, NY.
Cathie Parssinen remembers:
“I returned to Saudi Arabia with my husband in 1975. He had been recruited to teach social sciences at UPM (then University of Petroleum and Minerals), now the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran. I took ballet and creative movement classes as a young child and continued while in university in California. Over the next thirteen years, I used this training to bring the magic of movement and music that I had experienced as a young child to a new generation.
"I founded the University Children’s Theatre Ballet in the fall of 1979 and taught the children of UPM Faculty and staff, ending the year with a performance of “Thumbelina”. In 1980, Jon was recruited by Aramco’s Management Training Department, and we moved to Ras Tanura. Shortly afterward I established the Ras Tanura Children’s Theatre Ballet, with performances of “The Tin Soldier,” “Thumbelina” and “The Teddy’s Bears Picnic,” and even a square dance. In 1986 we moved again to Dhahran where I founded my third Children’s Theatre Ballet. Classes consisted of Pre-Ballet, Introduction to Ballet, Graded classes as students matured and improved, “En Pointe” for selected students, and Creative Movement for the younger 4-year-olds.
Class and teacher.
Photos credit: Parssinen Family
"These classes were held in the same Auditorium next to the Fiesta Room in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where I had first learnt ballet in 1951!
"Over the next six years, the programme grew exponentially to 250 students. There was a significant change in the mix of students; whereas in 1951 all my classmates had been American, my students now were from all over the globe - Saudi, Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, English, Scottish, Welsh, and American. These students were curious, achingly eager, and serious to learn, inspired by dance, music, and literature.
"I believe that performance is fundamental to the study of art, and the shows we presented to the community were as lavish as they could be under the circumstances. We put on among others Scheherazade, and selections from the Nutcracker. My father even returned to Arabia to help.
Photos credit: Parssinen Family
"My success with the Children’s Ballet Theatre can be attributed to two factors – my love of working with children, weaving fairy tales - and the dedication of volunteer mothers and fathers who respectively looked after dancers patiently waiting to go on stage or controlled the antics of 4- and 5-year old boys playing 40 thieves; and others who provided artistic input, costumes, narration, sets and all the other assistance one needs in putting on a show. To help so many students express their love of storytelling through performance and dance was magical.”
Laureen Flynn - Aramco 1979 – 2000
Dance Teacher, 1979 - 2000
Laureen started ballet lessons on Long Island, NY at the age of 5 with various teachers, many of whom were ex-NYC ballet dancers. Laureen and her 2 sons accompanied her husband Michael in October 1979 to Saudi Arabia and were originally housed in North Camp, subsequently moving into Main Camp. On her vacations home, Laureen would continue to take class as and when often in the Cecchetti method. The Flynn’s left Saudi Arabia in 2000 and settled in Warwick Neck, RI and are now in Woodstock, GA. Laureen retains her interest in dance, transitioning to line dancing and yoga to keep up the movement. Artistic endeavours are now primarily focussed on painting and jewellery design.
Laureen Flynn recalls:
“We had arrived in Dhahran in October 1979 and were living in North Camp when I overheard someone wishing there could be dance classes for their children. Although I worked in Occupational Therapy, I certainly felt qualified to teach Beginner’s ballet as I had a teaching degree and I had studied ballet from the age of 5 until 18.
"There were no affiliated dance groups in North Camp, and I set up classes in 1979 in North Camp Library with students using the shelves for a barre, graduating to portable barres and the stage that Recreation Department had built in the North Camp Movie Theatre. Later in 1980, we moved to Main Camp, but I kept the classes in North Camp and commuted several days a week, until 1981 when I phased these out and started classes in the Auditorium in Main Camp, adjacent to the snack bar.
"All classes were taught as Beginner, from 3 ½ years up to 15 years old. Mostly girls and a few boys. Many ex-pupils who continued to take dance when they returned to their home countries told me they were placed in Advanced classes. As my own teachers had been strict, I was as well and placed great emphasis on good posture, alignment, and placement. I also used my knowledge of anatomy, physiology and sefukujitsu to work with students with disabilities or physical challenges within the class structure.
"Initially, I taught 3 days a week of varying class size usually 20 to 30. This was initially all year except for vacations or holidays. Although fees varied over the years, parents paid about SAR30 a month. Uniforms in the early days tended to be what parents could buy or shipped in following a vacation. We slowly morphed into what looked like a more traditional looking ballet class.
"We benefitted from a close relationship with the Dhahran Theatre Group, especially Michael Buckley, Quinn Gregor, Chris Robbins, Sylvia Bertie, and Keith Kynoch among many others who provided backdrops, lighting, sound as well as advice and of course Recreation Department.
Photos credit: Laureen Flynn
"Toward my last few years, we added an extra teacher and as I had more outside commitments, I reduced my teaching to 2 days a week.
"Nothing of course would ever have been possible without the total continued generous support of Aramco, and we all miss our life there every day because of the wonderful friends who became like family in such an extraordinary location. My family and I left Dhahran in 2000.”
There were of course many other influential dance teachers and many stories. In Ahmadi in the latter 60s and 70s Jane Mills remembers being taught ballet, tap and gymnastics by Avril Collard, while Angela Wright recalls ballet, tap and Highland dancing with Dawn McSporran; and in Dhahran, Cathie remembers Daisy DiGiacomo from her childhood, while the Sun and Flare records ballet classes in its columns. Kay Siebold in Dhahran built her own tap and jazz studio attached to her house and put on excellent shows every year. Nancy Ackerman taught jazz and modern mainly to adults and directed the long-running dance production, 5678!
Norma Ackert, Nancy Ackerman and Kay Siebold at the 5678! 20th Anniversary Gala held in Las Vegas on June 25, 2005. Photo credit: Aramco ExPats
Well, there you have it, the story of four teachers, passionate in bringing their art to the desert. I would like to thank them and their families for providing the material, their memories and their photos for this article.
About the Author
Richard Thom grew up in Ahmadi, Kuwait 1954 – 1969, and worked in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia 1976 - 1980. He became the Director of Finance at the Royal Academy of Dance in 1988, a position he held until he retired in 2015. During this time, he spoke at national and international conferences, was interviewed on US cable TV for Spirit of Dance, lectured to students on the Academy’s dance degree programmes, delivered business seminars to dance teachers, wrote dance-related business briefings and articles for dance and business magazines, as well as doing his day job.
After retirement, he became a Trustee for the Cecchetti Society
Trust and bbodance.
In 2018, he published the book Dance into Business a how-to guide for dance students, teachers and professionals wishing to start up a dance studio or go freelance. It contains helpful tips, practical examples and points to consider whether just starting out or already in business. It is available from Amazon websites as a printed book or an e-book priced locally.