Welland School of Dancing in Stamford turns 60 years old
One of Maggie Purr’s favourite memories, aged eight, is of being a fly that is caught and eaten by several spiders.
Like many thousands of people who grew up in the Stamford area, she attended the Welland School of Dancing, and performing before an audience was the icing on the cake.
“As a child, an iconic Welland number was Spiders,” explains Maggie, now 44 and principal of the school.
“The spiders were played by ‘the big girls’ in their teens, who had back-combed their hair and wore black lipstick.
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“I was one of the little ones playing a fly and found it terrifying and exhilarating all at once to be caught and ‘eaten’ by them. It was my ‘moment’!”
Memories such as this help Maggie, who went on to become a professional ballerina who toured the world, stay focused on what the Welland School of Dancing should be about.
The school - now in Broad Street, Stamford - turns 60 this year and since launching at the old YMCA it has gained a reputation for quality and friendliness.
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“When I attended, Miss Desbruslais was principal and she made me feel safe,” said Maggie.
“The school was like a second home - so safe and friendly - and there was no rivalry.
“It’s still a non-competitive school and we encourage individuality. Dance should be a safe space in which people can express themselves.”
During her time as a professional Maggie joined Vienna Festival Ballet, a UK ballet company that spends about eight months of the year touring.
She also toured with Phantom of the Opera, meeting her future husband James Skinner, who was a singer, while they were working in Taiwan.
The couple returned to the UK and, after a spell living in London, decided to settle in Stamford.
It was around then that Anne Desbruslais decided to step down as principal – although she continued to teach until 2020 – and, having by now trained to be a dance teacher, Maggie took over as principal.
Anne has fond memories of running the school with her husband, David Walker, who not only arranged events and shows but ran the school shop and made costumes – often with the help of parents.
She is full of praise for the team – Ann Beddow, Miss Debbie (Shuttleworth), Lisa Tee (Topliss), Miss Amy (Kendrick) and Miss Lesley (Gramenga) – several of whom still teach with Maggie, who is also quick to point out that the school is a success due to its teamwork.
“The school has a warm atmosphere and a family feel,” said Anne, who had previously taught at Stamford Junior School, Copthill School in Uffington and Witham Hall School in Witham-on-the-Hill.
“It’s an inclusive place where people from all backgrounds can feel welcome and many of those who danced together have remained life-long friends.
“We got to know the children well – some joined aged three and were with us until they were 18. It was a privilege for us to be a part of their lives as they were growing up.”
Like Maggie, several other former pupils have returned to work at Welland School of Dancing. Two currently hold positions there, while three of Maggie’s pupils will leave later this year to attend professional dance and musical theatre colleges.
But the vast majority of her pupils dance purely for enjoyment. There are 658 on the books, from pre-schoolers up to people in their eighties.
There is, however, a group that Maggie is frustrated in her attempts to attract. Boys.
Of the hundreds who attend the school, very few are boys.
“I get it,” said Maggie, who has a nine-year-old daughter, Briony, and a younger son, George.
“Briony enjoys it but I only managed to get her brother along to one session. He said it was ‘too pink’.”
Maggie has tried holding all-boy sessions and satellite sessions for mixed classes at local schools, but has not found the solution yet. She remains determined to change opinions in the future.
When Welland School of Dancing turned 50, in 2014, Maggie had been principal for just four years.
To mark the 60th anniversary, a gala show will take place at Stamford Corn Exchange in Broad Street on Saturday, March 2, from 6pm.
Current pupils will be joined by past pupils on stage, including some who are now professional dancers.
After the show there will be a drinks reception, giving people an opportunity to chat, meet up with old friends, and exchange stories from their time at the dance school.
Prices start from £10.
A quick step through the Welland School of Dancing
1964 - Welland School of Dancing began at the YMCA in St Peter’s Hill with a class for three and four-year-olds, and a class for children aged five and over. They were taught by Susan Mitchell Smith, whose lessons were accompanied on the piano by Miss Marjorie Perkins. Mrs Mitchell Smith also held keep fit classes and dance classes at Easton-on-the-Hill.
1983 - Miss Karen Taylor took over as principal, having taught at the school since 1976. Her husband’s job moved to London and she left Stamford and the school in December 1984.
1985 - For the next 25 years the school was run by Miss Anne Desbruslais and her husband, David Walker. In the 1990s, Anne and David moved the school from a small studio in St Mary's Passage to the former ballroom of the old Stamford Hotel in St Mary’s Street. They were involved in ‘Stamford Showcase’ a largescale event on Stamford Meadows to mark the Millennium, at which the dance school pupils performed Peter and the Wolf.
2010 - Maggie Purr, a former pupil of Miss Desbruslais, became principal of the school. She helped the school mark its 50th anniversary in 2014 and is now looking forward to the 60th anniversary dance gala at Stamford Corn Exchange on March 2. Keeping up with the times and trends, the school teaches several dance styles, with its most popular ‘acro-dance’, a style similar to floor gymnastics.