Recollecting Sheffield's dance schools of the past

In common with many other young girls I desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer.My father loved the music of Tchaikovsky and I had grown up listening to the beautiful sounds of ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ but really all I knew about ballet was learnt from the books by Lorna Hill about Sadler’s Wells which were very popular during the 1950s.

Monday, 19th August 2019, 13:51 pm
Updated Thursday, 22nd August 2019, 17:09 pm
City dance teacher Constance Grant puts a couple through their paces in the 1970s

Lorna Hill wrote the ‘Dream of Sadler’s Wells’ series after her daughter left home to become a ballet student at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in London.

There were to be 14 books about ballet students, in addition to other popular series like ‘The Vicarage Children’ and the’ ‘Patience’ series. She wrote 40 books in all before she died in 1991.

I wasn’t alone in my never to be realised ambitions.

There were scores of dancing schools in Sheffield throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Many more than there actually are today.

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After much persuading, bearing in mind that I certainly didn’t look as if I was ever going to be a prima ballerina, my mother agreed that I could attend the Fayre Daviso School of Dance which was in a large detached house on Barnsley Road in Sheffield and which I dutifully attended for a few Saturday mornings until the enthusiasm wore off.

I found out in later years that it was actually a very interesting school of dance indeed.

The Fayre part was a lady called Zena Fairbotham who adapted her name for theatrical purposes as she had belonged to the Tiller Girls.

She was quite intriguing looking, being masculine in speech and in dress. She looked like the television personality of the day, Nancy Spain. Her hair was cropped and she wore men’s suits.

Her ‘significant other’ was called Ninette Daviso. She was small, dark and feminine. She had been born in Portugal in 1908, the daughter of a circus performer called Hercules Daviso and on coming to live in England with her two brothers sometime before the Second World War, was naturalised and changed her name from Marie Antoinette to Ninette in the belief that her real name might be bit too French for the British.

Her family and friends called her Netta. Her dancing school opened around 1945.

The school also taught ballroom dancing and strangely enough had PE classes!

Ninette also became the dancing mistress of the Ellesmere Operatic Society, then situated in Ellesmere Community Centre, before moving to their present home at the Montgomery Theatre in 1973 and who continue to this day to entertain Sheffield audiences, although they have now changed their name to Ellesmere Musical Theatre Company.

Mabel Delemore who sadly died last week at the age of 89, and who was a member of the company for decades, would certainly have known of Ninette.

I only found out years later that Ninette and Zena were an ‘item’ as same sex relationships were not something talked about in those days.

Eventually their private and public relationships broke up with Ninette leaving and the dancing school becoming known as the Zena Fayre School of Dance.

Other dancing schools in Sheffield at that time included Marjorie Fields, Collinson’s, Constance Grant and Edith Hirst.

There was absolutely no reason why you could not become a prolific ballroom dancer at least, even if you could never aspire to doing the dance of the dying swan!

An important part of local pop culture sprung up on the site of Dey’s Dancing at Pitsmoor.

As a dance hall, with its sprung dance floor, hundreds of couples trod the light fantastic, and it is said that on dark gloomy nights you can sometimes hear the strains of the Hokey Cokey drifting over Burngreave Road!

Opening around 1950 by Thomas Williams Dey, the dance hall and school was known affectionately as Billy Deys.

It was a sad day (no pun intended) when it closed, to become very briefly a bingo hall before it became the famous Mojo Club, opened in 1964 by our own Peter Stringfellow who lived on the premises, and his brother Geoffrey.

Sadly, after a lengthy court case about noise and anti-social behaviour, this piece of Sheffield history closed in 1982, the building demolished and a small housing estate built.

It was originally and fittingly intended to be called Mojo Mews, but was sadly called Firshill Mews with another chance to commemorate Sheffield’s pop scene lost for ever.

The Constance Grant School of Dance started over 90 years ago but lost its Miss Judy a few years ago, when Judy Sylvester, the daughter of the founder and who had taken over the reins in the 1950s, sadly died.

However the famous name lives on with her two daughters Karen and Tracie continuing with the historic tradition of teaching young people to dance.

Former pupils of Arthur Golds who had his dance hall on the upper floor of a premises on St. Paul’s Parade in the city centre after moving from Handsworth Road, tell of dashing across the Peace Gardens to Marsden’s Milk Bar in the interval.

Alcohol seemed to be rarely part of a night out in those days and even the Mojo Club only had a coffee bar.

Not very rock and roll, was it?

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