Dancing her way into the history books

Barbara Benson ''w134707
Barbara Benson ''w134707

In the 1950s Barbara Benson was a newlywed facing up to the prospect of moving from her long time home of Scarborough up to Whitby with her husband.

Now, as she is putting together her 60th year of dancing show, she has become known in much winder circles than just the north east coast.

In her time she founded a hugely successful dance academy, producing talent which has gone on to star on stage and screen, met Prince Charles and been awarded an MBE for services to dance.

However, at the age of 83 she isn’t done yet.

And as she and pupils from the Benson Stage Academy rehearse and recite in preparation for Junior Showbusiness, on at the Whitby Pavilion tomorrow and Saturday, Barbara tells me how it all started quite unintentionally.

In 1951 she married her beloved late husband John, having met him many years before at Sunday school, and as he was too young to be called up for national service he ended up spending 18 months at sea on an Arctic 
expedition.

However, he didn’t really have sea legs and on his return he joined the police force and the young couple were all set for a posting in Scarborough where Barbara had been since her parents moved from Leeds during the Second World War. She said: “His friend that trained with him had a Whitby beat but because his mother was taken ill, John said we will move and I was devastated. I was thinking what a dreadful place.”

Barbara was already a professional dancer in Scarborough and spent many years at the Open Air Theatre. She worked her way up to being the principal dancer in Carousel and was travelling backwards and forwards from Whitby to Scarborough to teach at a school her mother had formed many years previously.

She auditioned for and was offered a place as a dancer on the Black and White Minstrels tv show, which aired from 1958 to the 1970s, but she turned it down because the backstage lifestyle wasn’t for her.

But then a local Whitby councillor asked her to give his daughter dance lessons in Whitby and the rest, as they say is history. Only five children turned up and for the first production, in aid of the Police Federation, they had to borrow pupils. It grew and grew and there has been a show every year for charity and for many years Barbara and the Academy have supported the NSPCC.

In 2009 she handed over the reigns of the school she founded to former pupil Julia Trillo but is still heavily involved.

Nowadays, Barbara still teaches acrobatics, drama, ballet and tap as well as doing private lessons and over the years she has taught generations of the same family.

She said: “It is very gratifying that they should have the confidence to keep coming back. It is a lovely achievement. Not just for me but the people that came after. That is what it is all about – passing on what you know to somebody else.”

It is this dedication and service to dance that landed Barbara the MBE she was 
bestowed in the New Year’s Honours last year. She recalls: “I was thrilled but I got carried away. There were only two people getting knighted, they went in first then we got put into six groups and I was in the fourth.

“By that time there was a great big screen and people could see it all happening. We had to stand and when we were given the nod, you had to go a bit further, take two steps forward, curtsey and shake hands.

“Prince Charles talked very much about how much he loved Whitby but I thought he would talk more about my work with the NSPCC. At the end he said well done, I stood back and forgot where I was and did a special ballet courtesy.

“He just burst out laughing, when I got back to my seat my daughter was in fits and a colonel said that was the best curtsey he had seen all day because someone had broken the protocol. I was red in the face.

“I never ever thought this would happen, the award was actually meant for my mother.”

Barbara is fully deserving of the accolade, but there is some truth in that as undoubtedly it was she that encouraged and inspired her life on the stage.

Barbara said: “We are a very theatrical family but the Victorian period was very snobby and my mother was not allowed to go on the stage. She was born in 1906 and the war came in 1914.”

But as a youngster her mother started to entertain the troops in hospital with a few more local people from Leeds and was then part of the Sunbeams until she was spotted by comedienne Florrie Ford.

“She wanted my mother to go with her and she did for seven years. But, my mother’s full name was Emmy Dorothy Elizabeth Nettleton and she said “you can’t put that bottom of a bill, I christen you Maimie’. Benson came from my mother’s uncle who had been knighted for Shakespearean acting.

“All of our family had been doctors or clergymen but once he had been knighted it was ok for her to go on stage.”

Of the current big interest in TV’s Strictly Come Dancing, she said it was a very staged show but that judge Darcey Bussell was “excellent”. “She knows everything,” said Barbara.