Dance doyenne has trained 'em all

TROUPE upon troupe of north Norfolk dancers and gymnasts have time-stepped, pirouetted, high-kicked, tumbled and twirled their way through childhood, adolescence and adulthood under the expert eye of dance doyenne Barbara Sutton.

TROUPE upon troupe of north Norfolk dancers and gymnasts have time-stepped, pirouetted, high-kicked, tumbled and twirled their way through childhood, adolescence and adulthood under the expert eye of dance doyenne Barbara Sutton.

And countless thousands have watched the curtain rise on Sutton School of Dancing pupils tripping the light fantastic at shows, fetes, festivals and fairs since 1971 when Mrs Sutton first opened for business in what she describes as an 'awful, crummy hall' behind Aylsham's former Red Lion pub.

After later moves to Aylsham Middle School and above a business in White Hart Street, the school finally settled in elegant 18th-century drawing rooms, converted to dance studios, when the Suttons bought their listed home in the town's Mill Row Conservation Area 23 years ago.

Nowadays Mrs Sutton, who will be 70 in April, also has satellite schools in North Walsham, Briston and Hainford and shares teaching duties with her daughters Jane and Lorraine, plus Louise Gilding, Victoria Millington and Lindsay Neenan - all of whom learned their craft under her tuition.

At any one time there may be some 300 people on the dancing school's books, ranging from a two-and-a-half year old toddler to octogenarian Jack Barratt, from Happisburgh, who has tap-danced his way to several exam successes.

Pupils come from as far afield as Norwich, Stalham and Bawdeswell to learn ballet, tap, freestyle, gymnastics and theatre dance styles.

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But, despite being a north Norfolk institution, Mrs Sutton is not a native. She did not come to live in Aylsham, her husband Mike's home town, until 1970, although she had enjoyed a much earlier taste of rural Norfolk life.

As a war baby, she had been evacuated from London in 1942 with her grandmother and a sister to the Birkbeck family's estate in Little Massingham, where an aunt was in service.

'It's a terrible thing to say because there was a war on, but I had a lovely time - they treated me beautifully!' she recalled.

Mrs Sutton also has happy memories of the end of the war. Returning home by train after being demobbed, her soldier dad was chatting to a woman fellow passenger about his family and the new daughter he would be meeting. She gave him some sheet music to give the baby. The passenger turned out to be Annette Mills, partner of TV children's puppet favourite Muffin the Mule. The musical score was the famous signature tune she had written for Muffin and pinned inside was a �5 note for baby Barbara.

Barbara's mother was a frustrated dancer, brought up in an era when the art was connected with music hall and considered 'not quite the thing for nice young ladies' to learn.

But she made sure her own daughters had lessons - and all three showed great talent. Joan, the oldest, set up her own dance school with younger sisters Patricia and Barbara as pupils and helpers.

One day a reluctant 14-year-old Barbara had to partner a shy 16-year-old boy, Michael, who had 'three left feet' and kept treading on her toes as she taught him the steps.

He was living with a nearby London family whose son, Roy, had been evacuated to live with Michael's family in Aylsham during the war. Roy and Michael had become great friends - as did Michael and his unwilling young dance teacher Barbara, who eventually married each other.

After Barbara and Patricia had qualified as dance teachers they set up their own dance school in Bermondsey. Mrs Sutton remembers that among their pupils was the sister of a certain Tommy Steele, then unknown, who would sit outside on the wall playing guitar.

For a time in her London days Mrs Sutton was involved in the film industry as an extra and took part in some TV advertisements. She remembers spending three tiring days endlessly dancing the twist opposite actor Michael Anderson Junior in the film Play it Cool, starring Billy Fury, and she also made a fleeting appearance in the Cliff Richard classic The Young Ones.

Mrs Sutton's own 'young ones' - her four grandchildren - have all learned to dance under her guidance and 13-year-old grandson Shaun Taylor shows great talent. He auditioned for the London production of Billy Elliot but was too tall for the title role.

She now finds that the grandchildren of her original pupils are signing up for lessons but she has no plans to retire yet, although she has handed over responsibility for young beginners to her other teachers.

'I think I would be the biggest bore that ever was if I retired,' she said. 'The brain needs to create. The pleasure that you get when someone breaks through who didn't think they would is lovely. I just love the kids - they keep me young.'

And there's certainly no respite for Mrs Sutton in 2010. Rehearsals are well underway for her North Walsham dance school's biennial show at the town's community centre on January 30. Then there's a show at Aylsham High School on February 5 and 6, for Hainford, Briston and some Sheringham pupils. And then there are her pupils' dance routines in Aylsham Players' panto from February 18 to 20. After that there's a packed diary of booking for spring and summer fetes…..

The low-down:

What's the best thing about your job?

'Being with people and doing the things that children like to do. They don't have to come to me - they choose to - and it's wonderful to see the pleasure that dance can bring.'

… and the worst?

'It can become a problem if someone doesn't pay. I hate asking for money more than anything.'

What other career would have interested you?

'I did commercial training and was a secretary originally, with a theatrical company. I enjoyed that.'

Favourite book, film and TV programme?

Book: 'Detective novels, especially those by MC Beaton which are set in the Cotswolds and Scotland.'

Film: 'I love all musicals.'

TV programme: 'Again, detective stories - Poirot and Miss Marple for instance.'

Favourite place in Norfolk

'Sheringham - and then Cromer.'

What one song or piece of music would you have to take with you to a desert island?

'The Glow Worm. We danced to it as children and I've carried it with me ever since' (The Glow-worm Idyll from the operetta Lysistrata by Paul Lincke).

Any unfulfilled ambitions?

'I would love to play piano. I played in my 20s but I couldn't co-ordinate my hands.'

Describe yourself in three words:

'I love life'.

Tesco in north Norfolk towns - good or bad?

'Well I shop in Aylsham Tesco because it's cheaper than elsewhere - and I see people in there who were against it at the beginning!'

In what other era would you like to have lived?

'When those beautiful long dresses were in fashion. I would have liked to walk down a grand staircase in a great big crinoline.'

What would you do with �10,000 to spend solely on yourself and �10,000 to give away?

'I love my home so I'd have the house done up - it needs a new roof. I'd give the other �10,000 to the British Heart Foundation - because my husband died of a heart attack nine years ago - or to the children's hospice at Quidenham.' The Sutton School of Dancing has raised money for a number of charities with shows through the years, and substantial sums for Aylsham High School.

What is man's greatest invention?

'The camera - without it we would never know what we were like as children. You can relive the past with photographs.'

Pet hates?

'Mice, rats and other members of the rodent family. I don't like tortoises either - they look pre-historic to me.'

What do you like to eat for a treat?

'A nice tender steak with a sauce, or lobster thermidor.'

What trait do you most dislike in yourself?

'Although I would never tell a secret, sometimes I speak out when I should hold back. If I feel something, I just come out with it.'

What have your parents given you?

'A lot of support. My mother went without so much so that we could dance. She scrubbed doorsteps and did cleaning to keep a roof over our heads. But she also taught us that there were a lot of people a lot worse off than we were.'

What do you think of Strictly Come Dancing?

'I never watch it!'