Arts

It's Strictly Belfast as city school celebrates 60 years of teaching people to dance

As the iconic Clarke School of Dancing prepares to celebrate 60 years of waltz, foxtrot and jive in Belfast, Alan Clarke tells Gail Bell it's Strictly all about muscle memory – and synchronising your four legs

Natasha and Alan Clarke in their dance studios in Donegall Street Photograph: Declan Roughan
Gail Bell

THEY make it look so easy on the telly – but, as Belfast ballroom maestro, Alan Clarke, will tell you, every armchair Anton (du Beke) needs to believe they too can chasse with the best of them.

But while TV dance professionals enthral yet another phalanx of fans in the new BBC Strictly series, everyday social dancers are queuing up to learn the intricacies of the waltz, tango and quickstep at Belfast's oldest and longest-running dance school in Donegall Street.

The Clarke School of Dancing, founded in 1958 by Alan's parents, Cecil and Eileen, will celebrate its 60th anniversary in November – at a time when ballroom has never been more popular, judging by the numbers crowding on to the studio's (original) wooden floor for September's booked-out social ballroom and Latin mash-up sessions.

"We're having a weekend celebration with dancing and workshops in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, and we'll definitely raise a glass to my parents," says Alan, a recipient of the British Empire Medal last year for services to dance education in Northern Ireland.

"Sadly, my dad passed away some years ago and my mother now has dementia, but the school is their legacy and they will be very much in our thoughts.

"Thanks to their determination, the dance studios survived the Troubles, fires, economic downturns and changing social tastes over the years and provided a much-need form of escapism at a time when people in Belfast really needed it."

A former All-Ireland and Ulster Latin champion, Alan gave up a successful competitive career 40 years ago to teach and today the family tradition continues through his younger daughter, Natasha, who has been bringing hip hop to a new generation of dance fans.

"I joined in 1978 at a time when Saturday Night Fever was huge, so that opened up the whole disco scene for us," he says. "Then Grease came along and different films like Dirty Dancing, so we were very much at the forefront of all that, while still keeping our staple diet of ballroom and Latin which never really went away."

Natasha (25), a former ballroom and Latin champion herself and former backing dancer for X-Factor boy band, JLS, also has her diary full – increasingly due to grooms' parties secretly booking hip hop lessons for a big reveal on the big day.

But, while the Strictly phenomenon has definitely helped boost interest, Alan – an honorary member of the World Dance Council who adjudicates dance contests across the world – says there are many reasons why people are kicking up their heels again, whether for private or group lessons or at social dances periodically organised by the school.

"Some want to learn to dance properly for a first dance at a wedding – no-one wants to be a penguin in the middle of the dance floor these days," he muses. "Others want to improve, while beginners just want to be able to pass themselves at a social event.

"Children are also getting more interested – I'm just back from China where I was adjudicating the World Solo Ballroom and Latin championships and there were nearly 6,000 entries, many of them kids. You can see how, from a young age, they learn good posture, confidence and skills of social interaction which will carry them throughout life.

"Whatever their age, though, I haven't met anyone yet who has two left feet and who can't learn to dance."

Keeping this firmly in mind, I recently buzzed the door of the studio with a slightly reluctant husband in tow and prepared to learn to "dance properly" myself.

It would be a first, having been a child of the 'free movement' disco era where dance-around-your-handbag was the norm and steps were just wherever you chanced to place your feet.

We were to start with a slow waltz, it was decided – a lot tamer than the Argentine tango, but theoretically easier to master with its 1-2-3 time signature and repetitive back (forwards for the leading man) and side steps.

It is all about one body with four legs, our soigne dance coach helpfully explains, but, sadly, the envisaged synchronised Lipizzaner stallion soon dissolved to pantomime pony, the back legs apt to wander away from the front.

Travelling backwards in a circle, neck gracefully inclined to the left, is infinitely more difficult than it looks – especially when turning corners.

And while on a normal day, when standing still at a bus stop or somewhere, you absolutely do know your right from your left, once music and too many legs enter the equation, that can take on a difficulty level bafflingly akin to quantum physics.

Never fear: for every obstacle, the good-humoured Mr Clarke has a ready solution: in this case, the trick is to transfer weight to the opposite foot immediately after your side manoeuvre.

"Muscle memory will kick in and it really is that old cliche of practice makes perfect," he affirms with cheery encouragement.

Or as near perfect as you're going to get, given that everyone has an individual aptitude for these things?

"A dancer is made rather than born," insists the popular teacher and adjudicator who was "honoured" to judge the Blackpool World Professional Ballroom Championships in 2014 and can still spot a slouchy elbow at 20 paces.

Yet, despite his own nimble feet, he proves a gracious, quick-witted instructor – his favourite line is telling everyone to make sure they leave with the same partner they arrived with. In his own case, however, he really did waltz off with his companion, meeting his aerobics-instructor wife, Heather, while teaching her to dance.

"I do understand how difficult it can be, but I get so much out of seeing people coming in looking nervous and then going out feeling completely different," he says. "Not everyone is going to make it to Blackpool Tower Ballroom but you can learn the basics and decide how far you want to take it.

"Teaching is my passion now, but I did try doing other things – my first job was working in a shoe shop and I also worked as a buyer for a store in Belfast – but, I think, with my parents, dancing was what I was destined to do."

When he was growing up, Cecil and Eileen – both fellows of the National Association and Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing – ran the famous Number One Club at the studios which attracted many well-known names, including Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison, back in the day.

"They would play at the pop nights in the late 60s, early 70s when it was half a crown to get in," Alan recalls. "There have been many famous faces over the years, but my abiding memory as a child was of the legendary drummer Cozy Powell giving off to me for playing his drums with my bare hands. He was worried I would put them out of tune."

Next up is a free dance workshop for brides at Belfast's Culture Night and, following the 60th birthday bash, there will be choreography required for yet another important wedding.

"Natasha is getting married next July," Alan adds, "and we're thinking of a daddy-daughter dance. I'm not sure what she has in mind, but I'm hoping it's not hip hop because that's just not me."

:: For information on events and classes, including a new Latin class for children, visit clarkesdancestudios.com

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