Lionel’s lust for life
Veteran dancer Lionel Blair taps into town this month as he hosts a new ballroom dancing spectacular. Sarah Hardy hears all about his tap routines, his favourite Yarmouth fish restaurant and how he plans to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary
The first thing you hear are the giggles - and they continue throughout the interview. Whatever Lionel Blair is on, I could certainly do with some as his enthusiasm for life and naturally sunny outlook is almost catching!
We were chatting on the telephone about his latest show, Simply Ballroom, which arrives in Norwich this month. Lionel freely admits that it has been created on the back of several highly popular telly shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and Strictly Dance Fever.
He says: “Yes, they have really started a resurgence of interest in ballroom dancing - now everyone knows just how much hard work it all is.”
But he says: “Our show is more of a celebration of dancing, it's not a competition and we're not there to knock anyone.”
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It's a show that looks wonderfully over the top from the glossy promotional pictures, with gorgeous dancers in extravagant costumes strutting their stuff with great passion. Stars of Strictly Come Dancing Anton du Beke and Erin Boag are responsible for the choreography and you'll get to see all your favourite dances, from the waltz to the quickstep, tango, jive and the cha cha cha.
Lionel acts as host - and yes, he does tap dance too - and he explains: “We tell the audience about the dances, explaining what steps the dancers are attempting, and where the dances originated - all that sort of thing.”
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And he adds: “People should be ready to join in, I get a lady up from the audience for my routine and the whole audience gets to salsa! I like to have a chat with the audience, to get a bit of conversation going.”
He says: “It's a show that appeals to people aged three to 90 and I'm proud of it. Certainly, the standard of dancing now is very different to when I started. Dancers are more athletic, how they can bend their bodies is fantastic.”
Although in his 70s, Lionel looks in tip top condition, with his perma-tan and wide grin still in place.
He says that he doesn't do any particular exercises to keep fit, especially when he's on tour. “Being on stage is enough, but I limber up before I show, I have to stretch my legs, get them ready for tap.
“I find going to the gym boring, especially on your own, but something like a personal trainer, if you can afford one, is great as they will push you, which we all need.”
Lionel also praises the 16-strong dance company, saying: “Some of them are so young - one of the girls is just 16 years old - but I just about manage to keep up with them. And I do find that I get a bit of their energy.”
Lionel, now based in Surrey, is no stranger to Norwich as he was in the first show when it reopened after its last major refit in 1992. “I played Buttons in Cinderella,” he says. “And then I came back two years running, as Dick Whittington in Puss in Boots.”
“I know the theatre well and I'm great friends with Peter Wilson. And I like to visit a fish restaurant in Yarmouth. It's the best I know. It's a fish shop and a restaurant and I'll certainly try to get there - I'll see what days we have matinees.”
If you're interested, we reckon he means the Bloater King on Regent Road!
Lionel isn't a trained dancer, rather it was just something that he loved. “I've been dancing since I was three. My parents were not in business, my dad was a barber. But they always encouraged me.”
He lists Bruce Forsyth and Roy Castle as his ideal dancers, but says that Sammy Davis Junior was the man he admired the most. “He was like me, untrained. But these days, I like John Travolta, I think he's got natural rhythm, a bit like Patrick Swayze.” After he finishes the tour next month, Lionel is off to visit his sister in LA. “I used to dance with her and I visit when I can.”
Despite still mourning the disappearance of the family dog, Florence, he's also planning a big celebration for his ruby wedding anniversary next year. He's been married to Susan for 39 years and they have three children.
“We're hiring an Indian restaurant to have a party for friends and family. A curry is a Ruby Murray in rhyming slang so we thought it would be fun.”
And he'll be watching the World Cup with his five-year-old grandson, Ben. “He's mad keen, just like his father. I bought him one of those blow-up chairs so he can sit in that and watch the football!”
Lionel adds: “I'd like to say England will win, it's time, and it would be so good for the country. I remember where I was when we won last time, making a film in Morocco. They shut down the whole set so we could watch. But this time . . . well?”
Simply Ballroom opens at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on Monday May 15 and runs until Saturday May 20. Tickets are from £5 and more details are available on 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk