Remembering the Del Ballroom... and Janet
PUBLISHED: 08:54 12 June 2018
So it’s goodbye to the Del Ballroom. Paul Barnes has fond memories...
News that the Del Ballroom in Norwich is to be demolished and replaced by flats caused a curious twitching in the feet, a spasm in the knees, a moistening of the eyes. That’s what happens when you learn that the place where you learned to tap-dance is about to disappear.
When I first came to the city late in 1977 I was roped in to appear in the Anglia TV pantomime Cinderella. Not for broadcasting, but for fun and for charity. The cast was a mixture of staff, friends and a few on-screen people. Patrick Anthony and weatherman David Brooks were in it. Pam Rhodes worked out a simple dance routine for us. It got laughs, but what I really wanted were gasps of astonishment as the spirit of Fred Astaire added wings to my feet. Instead I danced with all the finesse of a French peasant treading grapes.
After the show the dream of Astaire persisted, so I telephoned Janet Russon who ran the Anglia Academy of Dance at the Del Ballroom. I had a little flat at the other end of Waggon & Horses Lane so the Del was on my doorstep. Janet had a good pedigree in the dancing business. It was reckoned once that she could be the new Jessie Matthews, who was a big star in the Thirties.
“Is it only Fred Astaire that you want to be?” she asked. “Well, now I come to think about it,” I said, “I wouldn’t mind being Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor as well.” There was a pause. I heard the sound of tea being stirred. She asked if I could dance at all. I said that when I still at school I used to go old-tyme dancing with my mother. We won the Post Office Social Club prize for our Military Two-step.
I signed up with Janet for a short course. The first evening was a bit of an eye-opener. The class consisted of about 30 women and me. Feet didn’t come into it at first. It was a session of hand-clapping and finger-snapping to become accustomed to rhythm and tempo: clap four beats, pause four beats, clap four beats, finger-snap two beats, and so on.
Then we walked in time to the music, the beat of our feet on the hardwood floor crashing back at us from the bare walls and ceiling. “Heads up!” shouted sergeant major Janet. We were on our way. As weeks went by we learned to shuffle-ball-change, tap-step and time-steps. I even got to do time-steps with Wayne Sleep when I interviewed him.
That was long ago. I’ve still got my tap-shoes and my Astaire dream isn’t entirely vanished, unlike the dear old Del. On its site they are building seven flats. People who live in them should be aware that on still nights there may still be heard the sound of tapping feet and shouts of “Heads up!”