Paula Harris ( Now Sullivan )
Paula Harris (now Sullivan)
My Dancing Memories
Although I have been dancing to music ever since I was a toddler, according to my mother, I actually first started to learn to dance properly at the tender age of almost 5 years old, shortly after just starting school. Various members of my family already went dancing socially, including my grandparents, aunt & uncle, a couple of cousins and even my parents went for a while. So I suppose I could really say that 'dancing was in my blood'. My mother first took me to a small local dance school in Penge, just to see if I liked it. She chose this one because she thought I would be overwhelmed by the size of 'Spencer Dancing' as I was so young and quite shy.
Just recently the beautiful old building The Royston CIU club in Penge, which many years ago was home to the Frank and Peggy Spencer Dance School has been sold to MATICO (Matthew Cutler and Enrico Stey). The ballrooms, including the smaller one downstairs are now in the process of renovation and being transformed back to their original glory and will become the Matico Dance studio Penge!
Hmmm … now where did I put my dancing shoes? :
I remember being transfixed by the floor to ceiling mirrors, the beautiful crystal chandeliers and the Ballet Barres around the room, making it look enormous, sparkly and very palatial. The dance school was run by a one armed man (he had lost it in the war) called Brooke and his wife Renee Bayley in their home, in Avenue Road. I first learned the Teddy Bears Picnic and then a few Old Time dances such as the Valeta and the Two Step together with the Waltz and Rhythm Foxtrot. I soon fell in love with dancing and my sparkly silver shoes and eagerly awaited the next lesson each week. It was here that I took my first juvenile medal (bronze). After a while, I think they must have retired, the Bayley's sold up and moved away. I was absolutely heartbroken, it didn't take Mum long to put the smile back on my face though!
And so I started dancing at the Royston Ballroom in Penge run by Frank & Peggy Spencer learning Ballroom and Latin American dancing and forming lifelong friendships where we grew up together. I have very fond memories of learning all the dances and the many lovely teachers that taught me there. I completed taking all my Juvenile and Junior medals and awards under the careful watch of my mother and other parents peeping through the many holes in the red curtain up on the balcony!
Around 1969 Peggy formed her first All Girls Latin Formation Team which I eagerly and excitedly joined, especially as Peggy had personally asked me to. We started off as a 4 couple team, then quickly became a 6 couple team when word spread about us.
Our first 'dress' was a short navy wrap over skirt with white piping and embroidered anchor together with a white blouse and short white socks. I don't actually remember whether we competed in this team at first but I do remember doing several demonstrations at 'special dances'. I started off dancing in the team as a girl, but soon had to dance as a boy when I had put on a growth spurt. We became an 8 couple team and many girls came and went but I and a few others stayed until we were 16. This is where we formed lifelong friendships where we are still in touch today. We had so much fun growing up together, I loved being part of the formation team, travelling together on coaches at weekends, competing up and down the country, appearing on Blue Peter, dancing at Blackpool and doing demonstrations. I also competed individually and danced with Kay and then Linda. Dancing was the big love of my life! I was even privileged enough to be asked to teach the younger children how to dance and demonstrated footwork with teachers during classes, which carried on through my adult dancing days in exchange for free private lessons with Peggy.
During the school summer holidays I would often work in the office (converted garage) with Frank, while Peggy was away at a conference or meeting, at their home in Percy Road, especially when they had a big mailshot to do. I helped print off flyers from a Gestetner 180 printer, turning the handle as fast as I could, it used to make my arms really ache and together with the smell of the ink and Frank's cigar, it was strangely intoxicating! I would then collate the flyers, put in envelopes, address them, stick on stamps, post and sometimes hand deliver. There was always lots of filing to be done -
I also took their little Yorkshire Terrier for a walk, sometimes I roped in my brother John with the dog walking when I had lots to do in the office. Once Frank asked me to sew on a couple of shirt buttons for him because 'Peggy couldn't sew', which I duly obliged!
Frank & Peggy moved the dance school from the Royston to various ballrooms, mainly using the Regal Ballroom, over Beckenham cinema, plus the Rivoli Ballroom at Crofton Park and the Arnhem Gallery at Fairfield Halls. It was here, at The Regal, that I completed all my adult medals and awards and joined the adult formation teams.
At some stage, age 16 after leaving the All Girls team Peggy invited me to join her Adult Team as a reserve. The highlight of my time with them was doing the hand jive at the Carl Allen Awards, in the Great Hall at the Grosvenor Park Hotel in London in front of Prince Philip. We were dressed from head to toe in black and wearing fluorescent gloves to show up in the dark. I felt very privileged to be dancing in front of royalty and still do. I eagerly went to their practise sessions and learned their routines but unfortunately they seemed to stop competing and for various reasons the team disbanded.
Not long after Peggy wanted to start another team and I was asked to join the new adult 'Penge Latin Team' which originally consisted of just four couples, we later became a six couple team and our first dress was black and silver, which we wore, together with short blonde wigs at the World Championships at the Royal Albert Hall … we came third! It was very exciting to be dancing there and it was the first time I got to meet Terry Wogan.
Dancing was my life, I lived, ate and breathed it … team practise twice during the week, Friday nights teaching children, then adult social dancing, followed by team practise again. We competed virtually every Saturday up and down the country and soon expanded to an eight couple team. Sundays afternoons were spent having private lessons, followed by more team practice and then social dancing in the evening again.
We represented Home Counties South in the original 'Come Dancing' series at the Orchid Ballroom in Purley which was hosted by Terry Wogan, where we always won the formation heat. I also competed individually but never made it further than intermediate standard, first dancing with Pete, my partner in the team and then later with Quentin, after Peggy partnered us together when he joined the team. I have danced and competed at some very beautiful ballrooms but sadly most are no longer there.
I recall how nervous I was when I danced a Samba, one of our favourite dances, at the Hammersmith Palais with Quentin to Copa Cobana and getting a standing ovation as we were the only ones on the floor but soon nervousness turned to exhilaration! The Lyceum Ballroom was another regular place we danced, now home to The Lion King; The Rivoli, The Leas Cliff Hall at Folkestone, various corn exchanges in market towns and of course Blackpool's Tower Ballroom and Winter Gardens Ballroom. We had great fun over the years, not just competing but also going clubbing together when not competing and at various fancy dress, birthday and engagement parties, weddings and of course in the hotels we stayed in both here and abroad.
Like many of my team mates, I married my partner and had very high hopes of becoming a great dancer. We even had extra private lessons with David Sycamore and Denise Weavers in Norbury to help brush up on our skills but alas the marriage ended after two years and that was the end of my competitive dancing days. My heart was broken and I never stepped on to the dance floor again until approximately 8 years later when I started having private lessons again, training for an Alex Moore Award, I was also contemplating taking my teacher qualifications but for one reason or another unfortunately none of it transpired and the dancing stopped yet again.
A few years later I got married again and had my 3 sons, I desperately wanted at least one of them to love dancing like I did, but sadly not one of them showed the slightest interest in ballrom and latin and neither did my husband. None of them could ever comprehend why I was often reduced to tears when the 'Strictly' series began … bringing back such wonderful, happy memories of my dancing days that I missed terribly.
However, today I am extremely excited and looking forward to the near future as hopefully I can maybe in time catch up where I left off with my dancing. Just recently the beautiful old building The Royston CIU club in Penge, which many years ago was home to the Frank and Peggy Spencer Dance School has been sold to MATICO (Matthew Cutler and Enrico Stey). The ballrooms, including the smaller one downstairs are now in the process of renovation and being transformed back to their original glory and will become the Matico Dance studio Penge!
Hmmm … now where did I put my dancing shoes? :