Friday, 15 May 2009

Change Partners

My regular visits to Jimmy Quinn's ballroom dance classes were taking over my whole life. I thought of little else and the time seemed to drag until it was time to catch the bus to South Croydon from our new abode: 45, Kensington Avenue, Thornton Heath. Yes, we'd moved from Mr. Richman's cramped ground floor flat in Hathaway Road to this nicer 3-bedroom terrace in Kensington Avenue, owned by the Council.

I'd also decided that although Mavis Harmer was a better dance partner than Stella, I much preferred Stella's personality - and so I tended to dance with Stella more often than earlier. And after about three weeks or so of ballroom tuition I asked Stella if she would like to come with me to the Orchid Ballroom in Purley one evening, without Mavis tagging along. She smiled demurely and said yes!

The Orchid was one of the largest dance halls in the UK and a popular venue for dancers of all standards, novices like me right up to top amateurs. There was a revolving orchestra stage and a top class resident dance-band, a full big band sound with good vocalists too. Visiting bands were also great attractions. One of my favourite appearances was the Eric Delaney band, with Eric on the big kettle-drums giving some loud and bouncy solos. We even had Victor Silvester and his strict tempo orchestra there one evening. One night the "Come Dancing" programme was held at the Orchid and I was there to see it all happening. The Frank and Peggy Formation Dance Team was competing against a Northern Counties team and that was always a great crowd pleaser.

Anyway, Stella had agreed to come with me to the Orchid, the first time we had been "out" together and without her friend Mavis. I met Stella at her house in Brantwood Road, South Croydon just before 7 p.m. and we caught a 166 bus to the Orchid, which was near the Purley cinema "The Regal", which, like the Orchid, no longer exists in its former state.

We arrived at the exciting entrance to the Orchid and descended the thickly carpeted staircase to the paybox on the left at the foot of these sumptious stairs. Paid the half-crown entrance fee, Stella insisting on paying for herself (thank goodness!), which left me with just enough to buy a drink at some later point - a soft drink at that! I was still only 16 and a half and wasn't too well off money-wise.

It was a memorable evening. Here I was with my first real girl-friend and I was completely captivated by her. The dance-floor was so inviting as it meant I could hold Stella close and feel her soft body move in unison with me and the music, almost oblivious of the other couples all around us. Her dark brown hair had the delicate fresh scent of having been recently shampooed and gently set is as fresh in my mind as it was all those long gone days ago.

At about 9 p.m. the orchestra was whisked away on the revolving stage and it was announced that a professional demonstration of the foxtrot was being given by none other than James Quinn and Patricia Teare! This again was something that is firmly embedded in my memory. They would be giving their demo to recorded music and would be dressed informally, not the usual tail-suit and ballroom gown. Jimmy Quinn led Patricia to the centre of this vast dancefloor and the music started.

They performed their demo as though they were gliding on a floor made of silk; effortlessly, gracefully and so stylishly it made me wonder how two people could be so perfect, so much "as one" and make it look so easy.

Another thing that struck me was how perfectly cut Jimmy's lounge suit was. As he moved away from my vantage point his jacket seemed to taper down from his shoulders to just below his hips in a sort of "V" shape. I decided at that moment to save up and get a tailor-made suit that would drape exactly like that. No doubt about it, I just had to make that a priority!

The evening seemed to melt away too quickly. Stella said she would have to be home by 11 o'clock at the latest so we left around 10.30 or so to get a bus back to South Croydon. I walked her right to her front door and for ten minutes or so we just chatted about the demo dance and how beautifully it went. I then asked Stella when her birthday would be. She said it had been a few weeks earlier, in May. She had just had her 22nd birthday! To say I was taken aback would be an under-statement; I thought she might have been around 18-ish, but 22!!!! I don't know if she had discerned my shock; I doubt it, but couldn't be sure, I just hoped not.

I gently kissed her cheek and said goodnight and that I'd see her at the dance class in a couple of days. She smiled and said goodnight and then disappeared into her home, leaving me to catch the last bus home to Thornton Heath. All the way home my thoughts were about one thing only: Stella, and the fact that she would be 23 on her next birthday and by then I would be only 17. What to do? I was by now very fond of this girl; probably in love ... if only I knew what love was. I was bound to have to let her know my age soon ...

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