Gallery: A Real-Life Billy Elliot tells his story
His story is a real-life version of Billy Elliot. John Dowson s father was a Durham miner. Now 75, he is still teaching ballet in St Ives. Interview by ANGELA SINGER. ENGLISH National Ballet s Angelina Ballerina is in Cambridgeshire next week, choreogra
His story is a real-life version of Billy Elliot. John Dowson's father was a Durham miner. Now 75, he is still teaching ballet in St Ives. Interview by ANGELA SINGER.
ENGLISH National Ballet's Angelina Ballerina is in Cambridgeshire next week, choreographed by the internationally acclaimed Antony Dowson.
What many people are unaware of is that the English National Ballet School's head of dance can pop in to see his parents in St Ives.
Aged 11, Antony, now 50, joined the Royal Ballet - having been taught to dance by his father John, a real-life Billy Elliot - the working-class lad who wanted to dance.
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John, 75, who has danced since he was nine and still teaches ballet, told The Hunts Post: "That's my story - I am Billy Elliot."
John's true story has an uncanny resemblance to the fictional one of Billy, set during the miners' strike of 1970.
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A generation earlier, John was also the son of a Durham miner.
Tragically, he never knew whether his father would have approved of his dancing. He was called up to fight the Second World War and never returned.
However, it was likely that he would have been proud.
"My father loved ballroom dancing, he went to London to dance and that was where he met my mother, a London girl."
After his father was called up, his mother, Violet, moved her family back to London to live with her mother. They were one of the few families to move into the Blitz instead of away from it.
"She took the attitude that if a bomb was going to drop, we would all go together. I was evacuated to Kent but three weeks later my mum arrived and took me home again."
The family survived the bombings in London and after the war, by chance, John ended up at a ballet class.
"My sister, Anne, was born with a dodgy foot and the doctor said she needed exercise and we should take her to ballet lessons to help her learn to turn her foot out. All the women in the family were working so I took my sister to ballet classes.
"She had lessons with a former chorus dancer, Miss Stephenson in King's Road, Chelsea. Miss Stephenson was quite a dragon - she made me join in. She actually taught me for nothing. My mum was a good seamstress and she made costumes for her."
Two years later, Miss Stephenson sent him on to Helen Wolska.
"Madam Wolska had been with the Anglo Polish Ballet. She was one of a group of dancers who escaped from Poland before the country was taken over by the Germans.
"When I was 14, Helen thought I needed more professional training so she suggested Vera Volkova who had been a dancer with Diaghilev's Russian Ballet Company, which become the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo when the company left Russia for France after the Russian Revolution."
He paid for his dance classes by doing paper rounds, two in the morning and one in the evening.
There was no Royal Ballet then. At 16, John joined the International Ballet earning �4 a week and touring the country.
At 18 he was called up for National Service and ended up stationed at RAF Brampton. "I still bought my copy of The Stage every Thursday and two weeks before I was due to be demobbed, I saw there was an audition at The Palace Theatre for dancers in Zip There Goes a Million (about a man who has to spend a million before he can inherit his money)."
"I asked for a day off for the audition and it was granted to me. I hitched a lift down the A1 to London. I got to the stage door and found that I should have made an appointment but I said, I'm a dancer in the Armed Forces and I persuaded the person on the door to let me in. I got the job and I was in the show for 18 months."
But musicals were not "his bag" he says and later he joined another ballet company, The Masque Ballet in Chelsea. He met his wife, Doreen, a former dancer with The Royal Ballet when she went to the company to take classes.
Doreen died of cancer seven years ago but the couple had three children, Antony and his sisters, Samantha, a theatrical designer and Belle a dancer who has danced in West End musicals including Cats.
The family moved to Huntingdon in the 1960s and John opened his first dance school in Hartford in 1969. His current dance school, the St Ives School of Dance, is in New Road Studios and he is planning to open another class in Houghton and Wyton Memorial Hall in September.
He teaches purely ballet, not tap, modern or contemporary. A ballet dancer can do it all he says. "Once they have had the discipline and the training they can turn their hand to anything.