Life with Tommy Cooper, Bruce Forsyth and Morecambe and Wise - Jill, 78 years young dances on as school celebrates 50 years
It’s the ramrod straight back, the elegant walk and the delicate flutter of hands that set a ballet dancer apart from the rest. And Jill Webber, principal of one of Devon’s longest established dance schools is no exception.
The swept back hair and a flexibility that defies 78 years, are very much in evidence as Jill looks back over half a century at the helm of Torbay School of Dance.
“We’ve had generations of families attending the school,” says Jill. “Mothers now bring their daughters and increasingly we have been welcoming their sons to experience the joy of dancing.”
Jill followed in her older sister Pamela’s dance steps and took classes in Exeter with renown teacher Olga Cooper, catching the train from Dawlish where the family lived.
Family friends included International ballet star John Gilpin, a principal with London Festival Ballet and Leo Kersley, a founder member of Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet.
Gilpin’s stunning performances as the dashing Hussar in Graduation Ball, the Nutcracker Prince and leading roles in all the major classical ballets, provided huge inspiration for a budding young dancer.
“I’m not sure I always enjoyed my lessons with Miss Cooper, because she was very strict. But she got me through the Royal Academy of Dance Advanced exam at 15. And then she found me my first professional job.”
So a very excited young Jill joined the chorus on stage in a pantomime at Exeter’s Theatre Royal, appearing in Mother Goose. Then followed regular ballet work, particularly in summer shows and tours.
One standout memory was taking part in the grand opening night of the Princess Theatre in Torquay in 1961.
Top of the bill were popular singers of the day Joan Regan and Edmund Hockridge with comedian Tommy Cooper following them.
Jill said: “Further down the line-up came Morecambe and Wise. Just imagine, but that’s where they were then - fourth on the bill. How things changed for them.”
Impresario Bernard Delfont who ran the theatre, then offered Jill work in his touring shows. She celebrated her 21st birthday while rehearsing in a show starring entertainer and later Strictly Come Dancing host Bruce Forsyth.
By now, Jill had met her future husband Lewis, and she realised she wanted to confine her dancing career to Devon.
Regency House on Totnes Road first opened its doors as a dance school in 1962 run by Ann Leins. She subsequently sold the school to Gillian Longman who continued running dance classes there. Then came an opportunity to buy the premises so Jill and her dance chum Ann Goodwin, whom she’d met during their All England dance competitions years in London, decided to go for it. In September 1970, they officially launched Torbay School of Dance.
Ballet has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years and Jill attributes a lot of this to the Billy Elliott effect of more boys joining classes
Jill says: “Here at Torbay, we are incredibly lucky to have always had boys coming through, thanks to their mums being our former pupils. We are particularly proud of one of our students, William Ashraf who won a place at the junior Royal Ballet School at White Lodge two years ago.”
One thing has never changed - the school‘s biennial shows at the Palace Theatre in Paignton, are a highlight. Every student gets an opportunity to take part in a stage experience, cheered on by audiences of proud families and friends.
Jill’s teaching skills have also been recognised internationally. She is an esteemed examiner for the National Association of Teachers of Dancing, a branch of her career that has taken her overseas, from Mallorca to Malaysia, examining dance students.
These days Jill teaches the youngest students at the school, gently encouraging them to point their feet as they take their first dance steps, as well as senior ballet classes.