Torbay dance school owner celebrates 50 years of teaching classes

PUBLISHED: 12:59 07 October 2020 | UPDATED: 12:59 07 October 2020

Jill Webber today, marking 50 years of teaching dance. Photo: Jill Webber

Jill Webber today, marking 50 years of teaching dance. Photo: Jill Webber

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Teaching legend Jill Webber who danced with the stars looks back on half a century in business

Jill with Bruce Forsyth and another cast member on stage. Photo: Jill WebberJill with Bruce Forsyth and another cast member on stage. Photo: Jill Webber

It’s the ramrod straight back and elegant walk 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, with the grace and flexibility that defy her 78 years.

Thousands of youngsters have been lucky enough to enjoy the wide range of dance classes on offer over the past half century.

“We’ve had generations of families attending the school,” says Jill. “Parents now bring their daughters and increasingly their sons to experience the joy of dancing, whether it’s for a future career or just for fun.

However, for Jill growing up in Devon, there was no choice.

Jill Webber teaching students at her Torbay dance school. Photo: Jill WebberJill Webber teaching students at her Torbay dance school. Photo: Jill Webber

“I don’t think I ever thought of any other career,” she says. “I was sent to classes in Exeter with Olga Cooper, catching the train from Dawlish where we lived.”

Family friends included international ballet star John Gilpin, a principal with London Festival Ballet, so there was always plenty of ballet talk at home: “John and his twin brother Tony would come down to Devon and we’d all go to our beach hut during the summer holidays.”

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Not surprisingly, Gilpin’s stunning performances in The Nutcracker and major classical ballets provided huge inspiration for a young dancer.

“I didn’t always enjoy my lessons with Miss Cooper, because she was very strict, but she got me through my Royal Academy of Dance Advanced exam at 15,” explains Jill. “And she then found me my first professional job.”

So, a very excited young Jill joined the chorus in Mother Goose at Exeter’s Theatre Royal. One standout memory was taking part in the grand opening night of the Princess Theatre in Torquay in 1961. Impresario Bernard Delfont then offered her regular ballet work in summer shows and tours. She celebrated her 21st birthday rehearsing at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where Bruce Forsyth hosted a backstage party for her.

As marriage beckoned, so did an opportunity for Jill and dance pal Ann Goodwin to buy Regency House, in Totnes Road, where a dance school had already been created. The pair launched Torbay School of Dance and 50 years on, Jill is still at the helm.

“We’ve always adapted to changing needs,” reveals Jill. “Nowadays children are keen to learn gymnastic, contemporary dance as well as ballet, modern, jazz and musical theatre.”

Jill’s teaching skills have also been recognised internationally as an examiner for the National Association of Teachers of Dancing, taking her all over the world.

“Dance teaches you many things that help you on your journey through life: confidence, self-discipline and co-ordination. Plus we hope our students will be the theatre-goers of tomorrow,” she concludes.

Discover more here about the Torbay School of Dance and Jill’s work

CURTAIN UP ON THE PRINCESS THEATRE, TORQUAY

The theatre opened first opened its doors on Wednesday, 7 June, 1961.

Top of the bill were popular singers of the day, Joan Regan and Edmund Hockridge with comedy magician Tommy Cooper following them.

Fourth in the line-up were up and coming funny men Morecambe and Wise.

Performances of Showtime ran twice nightly, six nights a week for that first summer season.

The Beatles performed there in 1963.

The theatre today hosts a variety of entertainment including musicals, pantomimes, opera, ballet and even wrestling and ice shows.

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