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Vera Berry c1953-54Every Little Girl's Dream

by Vera Berry

In the 1940s and 50s, the world was recovering from the Second World War. We grew up with rationing and radio and we made our own entertainment that didn't cost much and nurtured vivid imaginations. We were never bored and we got plenty of fresh air because most of our pastimes involved playing outside, not sitting in front of a TV screen or a PC.

My childhood centred around entertainment and I was involved in public performances from a very young age. I copied, or mimicked the "stars" in my Dad's pantomimes as soon as I was able to walk and talk! I got my first pair of tap shoes before I had had a single dancing lesson and I ruined the lino in the living room of our George Street home with my uncontrolled hoofing around! The noise of the taps on the hard floor was music to my ears, but an unholy din to everybody else. When I was given the choice of dancing lessons, or piano lessons, I chose dancing. Well, it was every little girl's dream to be a dancer, so I grabbed the opportunity with both feet!

June Colley was a young aspiring dance teacher at that time. She did the choreography for my Dad in the Century Pantomimes. There I learned to do my first tap step ball change, shuffle down and shuffle hop down and when Miss Colley passed her teaching exams later, she began a dancing class in Francis Street School. I went there for a short while. I remember standing on the stage and shouting the song, 'Easter Parade' at the top of my voice. You would never have called it singing, but I did shout in tune and somebody must have been impressed because Mrs Colley, June's mother, came out of the back room to see who it was making all that noise from the stage. I eventually finished up shouting it in the concerts that were put on in the local area, but I don't remember learning how to dance much at that point. I don't know why, because later, my friend, Joan Green went to June Colley's Dancing Class and became a brilliant tap dancer. I don't know what happened to me at Francis Street. Perhaps I was doing a Billy Liar and thinking I belonged to the stars instead of getting on with learning my trade!

When I was eight years old, my Dad took me to the Johnson Sisters Dancing Class in Kearsley...The Johnson Starlets. They held their classes in the old New Jerusalem school and it was just after I had been in one of my Dad's pantomimes that my real dancing lessons began. My Dad knew Stella, Irene and Ida Johnson and was happy for me to be trained by them. The first time he took me, I had to do a little audition piece so I did what I had performed in the pantomime...'Doing What Comes Naturally' from the show 'Annie Get your Gun'. I cringe now when I think of it, but it was enough to get me a place in the class and I was soon being fast-tracked into the concert programme so that I would be able to travel to the local church halls almost every Saturday to entertain "the troops". Within a year, I was an established member of the class and my formal training had begun. We would travel on the bus with our suitcases full of costumes, all over Farnworth and Kearsley, Little Hulton and Walkden, even to Deane in Bolton which was way out in the sticks to me in those days. We thought we were the bee's knees and revelled in the adulation we got from our adoring audiences! What precocious little madams we must have been! "Rival" dance schools were Frances Bleasdale's and Dorie Horne's Dinky Dots. The Dinky Dots all wore very frilly knickers under their costumes and I was tempted to join them just because I wanted to wear frilly underwear!

Photograph taken for performing licence 1953
Photograph taken for performing licence 1953

My dancing partner at that time was Jeannette Davidson whose parents kept an Off Licence shop on Bolton Road, Kearsley. We did 'We're a Couple of Swells' together dressed in tramps outfits and 'Mrs Binns's Twins'. To this day, I remember all the words to 'We're a Couple of Swells' but the words of 'Mrs Binns's Twins' elude me totally. I know we were dressed as babies and wore nappies and frilly frocks and bonnets. We had big, brown, rubber dummies on a long string and my lasting memory is of Jeannette accidentally hitting me in the eye with her dummy and making me cry. I didn't cry literally, but my eye watered and my nose ran and I carried on stoically, knowing even at that early age that the show must go on! Eventually Jeannette went on to become a professional dancer and I never saw her again. I often wonder what happened to her and would appreciate any information regarding her whereabouts.

I remember Eileen Burton who sang 'All Tucked Up In My Little Bottom Drawer' and she brought the house down frequently with her rendition of the Gracie Fields classic. I also remember Jean McGovern, Emmie Southern and Eileen Abbott who were the senior girls and then Darlene Rothwell and Maureen Jones who were younger than me and little "stars" in their own right. We called them 'the babies' and they couldn't have been more than four, or five at that time. Then one day, the unheard-of happened! We got four BOYS learning to tap dance! Two of them were related to the Johnson's, but I'm not sure how the other two were coerced into the class. Frank Johnson and Ross Tyldesley, the nephews of Stella, Irene and Ida, together with Brian Slater and the fourth boy whose name escapes me at present, all became proficient dancers.

Tap dancing classes were extremely good training in self-confidence and keeping fit. Stella Johnson was the main dancing teacher, but her sisters were competent dancers too. Irene started an acrobatic class and I loved that. We learned tumbling and how to tie our bodies in knots with dire consequences in later life! I swear that my spare tyre, not to mention the sciatica and lumbago, came as a result of all the back bends and walk-overs, the crabs and the octopuses, all the contortions that I made my body do in those acrobatic classes! Having said that, the training was invaluable for gymnastics when I decided to become a PE teacher after I left school and in spite of what I have just written, I'm still comparatively fit for my age ...... she says!!!

Ida Johnson was a trained singer and played the lead part in numerous local amateur operatic shows. As a trio, Stella, Irene and Ida had all the attributes to run an excellent dancing school and I'm sure that all their pupils developed into confident and competent young adults. The dancing school moved premises in the 1950's to a building at the top of Stoneclough Road. It was directly behind the pub on Bolton Road .... The White Horse? The room had a barre and a big mirror and I thought at that time that it was the perfect dance studio......very professional!

The nearest I came to being a professional artiste was when I passed a local audition to perform in a show at the Grand Theatre on Churchgate. I was twelve years old. The show was entitled "The Backyard Kids" and allowed local talent to join the travelling company from Liverpool for one week. I was paid the grand sum of seven shillings and sixpence for seven performances and I was invited to go on the road with them afterwards.

My Mum and Dad wouldn't allow it and I was so disappointed. I had just started grammar school and my education had to come first. Hindsight and maturity tells me now that I probably wasn't good enough to make it as a professional anyway, but it was my childhood dream. The dance training opened lots of amateur doors for me and for that I shall be eternally grateful. There must be hundreds of Johnson Starlets and Dinky Dots out there who might empathise with me and my happy memories. I would love to hear from anyone who shared those childhood dreams.