Sprightly Velma Furniss has been in the mood for dancing for 74 years - ever since lessons in ballet and tap were prescribed on doctor’s orders when she was just five years old.
“The doctor told my mother the best thing for me was dance - and all these years on, it still is,” says the graceful Firth Park dance teacher beloved by generations of children.
The Shiregreen youngster had a stomach valve disorder which caused painful spasms and threatened her health. The family GP suggested dance lessons as a way of strengthening the little girl’s abdominal muscles. It worked and changed her life. The little girl got hooked on her new hobby and stepped into a life-long love affair with dance.
It wasn’t only the doctor Velma has to thank for a career which has already spanned some 59 years, though.
Velma only managed to be enrolled at the Joan Cooling School of Dance in Firth Park because of her mother’s selfless devotion.
“We couldn’t really afford the fees for lessons, or the shoes. So mum took a little cleaning job to pay for them. That was just the start of her endless support for my dancing,” remembers Velma, who went on to train in ballet, tap, theatre-craft and ballroom at the local Peggy Harrison Dance School. “She was never a pushy showbiz mum; she was just very proud of me.
“I danced in competitions all over the country and it was mum who would take me and make all my dance stage outfits. I have very fond memories of a bluebell costume she hand-sewed for me.
“I see the same sacrifices in the mothers of my pupils today and I’m very grateful to them. It’s not just the child who makes the commitment to dancing.”
Velma was offered the chance to dance professionally. A production company asked her to join their chorus line but she was “too much of a home bird” to take up the opportunity. Instead, at 16, she went to work as a nursery nurse but carried on dancing in her spare time and qualified as a dance teacher.
With the help of her mother once again, she achieved her ambition of opening her own dance school when just 20.
“I enjoyed teaching so much. I wanted to pass on my love of dance to other people – that’s what drove me,” she explains.
She started her school at the Clocktower in Firth Park, then moved to her own home, where she sacrificed her front-room as a dance studio.
At first a handful of pupils came but as her reputation grew, so did the size of her classes and her home had to expand to suit. She had a wall removed and later an extension had to be built to create more space.
Velma, who went on to become a primary teacher at Shiregreen First School, still has a studio at home, but teaches most of her classes at Hatfield House Lane Methodist Church, for which she had to raise funds for a new floor. Velma’s School Of Dance stages a much-loved pantomime every Easter and a dance show every July at the University of Sheffield’s Drama Studio. Proceeds from every show go to charity.
“We’ve given to various charities. We must have given thousands of pounds over the years,” she muses.
The eager dance students she has taught over the years run into thousands, too.
“I’ve lost track of the number,” she says. “But I do remember some of the characters - and I constantly get stopped in the street when I’m doing my shopping by ex-pupils, now grown up with children of their own.
“Actually, I taught the grandmothers and the mothers of some of the youngsters in my school today. It’s lovely to think that.”
Just eight months off her 80th birthday, she stands tall and elegant at the front of her classes. Her figure has remained slender through decades of continual exercise, though not for Velma dance tights, tutu and leg-warmers these days. She teaches her classes in comfortable trousers and a loose top – but is still nimble and flexible enough to perform many of the routines she teaches to her 80 or so pupils three nights a week.
“Dance has definitely kept me supple - and healthy,” she says. “It tones the muscles and keeps the joints moving. I’m rarely ill.
“And, even if I am, I don’t take to my bed. I believe in staying active. At 79 I do have arthritis and I’ve got a bit of sciatica at the moment, but I’ve found the best cure is to keep moving. It’s when you stop that the problems start.”
Over the years Velma has seen countless children grow up and reach their potential in many different walks of life. Never married nor a mother herself, it gives her enormous satisfaction to know she has played a part in shaping her pupils’ lives.
Two went on to launch their own dance schools, one abroad, one in Sheffield - and two more are still with her, teaching at Velma’s school and helping to organise the shows.
Susan Blackett is now in her sixties and Diane Fenton is a sprightly fifty-something and Velma happily admits she would be lost without them.
A member of the International Dance Teachers Association, she praises the effect exams have on pupils: “They give pupils goals and an incentive to do better. They build confidence, as do the shows we produce,” she says.
“The first time a child steps on to a stage or in front of an examiner it’s a big ordeal.
“But it all works out, they learn that they can do it and the second time, it’s fun. That confidence goes with them into whatever they choose to do.”
Encouragement to do your best
I first stepped into Velma’s ballet, theatrecraft and tap classes as a starry-eyed four-year-old, writes Leeds Trinity University student Stacey Hallam.
Clad in my regulation black leggings, leotard and matching headband, I dreamed of being a ballerina one day and took my lessons very seriously.
Velma was a patient and encouraging teacher, always reminding you to do your best. But she also takes no prisoners. “Point your toes, stop looking at your feet and smile” are her constant refrain - and words I will never forget.
The school has always had a homely feel to it. Parents still meet in the waiting room and have a good natter – while their children tappety-tap their way through classes – and volunteer themselves as much-appreciated front of house staff at the annual shows.
I remember appearing in one in a stripy bee costume, I tell Velma. She remarks that one of the mothers had knitted it for me by hand.
Costumes weren’t easy to come by back in the day, she explains. Most were made by Velma, her mum and the parents of pupils. I remember helping out, stringing elastic through skirt waistbands rather unsuccessfully.
I will never forget the momentous day I first went en pointe in my ballet slippers at the age of 16, but regretfully, now I’m 19 and at university in Leeds, I no longer dance.
I’d like to go back to it at some point in the future, but for now it is my sister Kirsty, 25, and our mum Hazel who are keeping up the family connection with Velma’s school. Mum is in her fifties and loves her adult classes. She’s already got a few certificates and medals.
In the presence of a dancer with 74 years of experience. I can’t pass up the opportunity to ask for tips for other aspiring dancers.
Velma’s advice is simple: “Just practise and practise. Keep going. Persevere,” smiles the woman who intends to do precisely that. She has absolutely no plans at all to hang up her dancing shoes.
“What keeps me going are the friendships I have made along the way and the sheer love of dance,” she says. I get so much satisfaction from passing that on to children.
“I watch sweet little three year-olds toddle through their paces and turn into graceful nine-year-olds determined to get their medals.
“Then I see them grow into seniors with grace and confidence. It’s lovely to know I helped with that.”
Velma Furniss School of Dance perform The Snow Queen at the University of Sheffield’s Drama Studio March 26-28. Tickets are £8 adults and £7 concessions. Call 0114 2400011.