WE LET THE LITTLE GIRLS DANCE

 

Hammersmith town hall
1965

The Millie-effect was over by the late-1960s. The steam had run out of the music. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others of their style had done what was necessary. As the Swinging Sixties blossomed into the age of Flower Power it was time for the beautiful people to take over. By the end of the decade wanted to become – and thought that they could and had every right to become – a model. West Indian girls had that same ambition as their white counterparts, even though    they didn’t have an example on the catwalk or before the camera as they had with Millie in music.

Dancing went hand in hand with modelling. It brought in a small income, pocket-money, which most modelling jobs didn’t provide. Sonia Brown had a touch more style than the other girls who came our way. She may also have had a part in framing entertainment history.

In 1965 I had accompanied an AA colleague to an early morning press showing of the film Marriage on the Rocks starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. With my restricted funds I rarely got the chance to go to the cinema otherwise. If this film turned out to be as boring as it promised to be I could sleep off the night-shift lag in the darkness. The film was indeed boring. That was apart from one scene set in a Mexican/Californian night-club. A blonde dancer shook her body in apparent frenzy in a cage. The image was exciting. She was a go-go dancer, a profession that was already established in the USA but unknown here.

Ronnie Simmonds agreed for Sonia to dance a few similar numbers on stage with the Links at Hammersmith town hall. As no cage was available, we improvised by finding other ways of directing the attention of the public to her body. The response was good without being sufficiently demanding as to persuade us to repeat the experiment. Shortly afterwards the popular Friday night television show Ready, Steady Go - “the weekend starts here” – adopted a similar three with a regular team of black go-go dancers. This innovation has been ascribed, correctly, to Elkan Allan, head of entertainment at Associated Rediffusion and founder of the show. Elkan is quoted as saying that the idea came to him from a member of his staff seeing a West Indian girl dancing that way at a town hall show in West London.

Could that dancer have been Sonia? Possibly so, but most likely not. I shall continue to keep that option open until it is proved to have been otherwise.

 

Associated Rediffusion studios
Kingsway, Holborn
1966

Grace was one of the dancers on whom I reported. She was a young Jamaican from London’s East End, sensual, sexy, with above-average intelligence and a ready sense of humour. She brought a dash of glamour to any occasion on which a designer, photographer or producer wanted something “different”. That meant – something exotic. Grace knew where she wanted to go, and didn’t mind particularly how she got there, provided that she didn’t hurt anybody in doing so. Not that I see Grace ever hurting anybody.

At our first meeting she had told me straight.

“I intend to make myself known on television. It doesn’t matter whom I have to sleep with to get there”.

By the late-1960s Grace was indeed well-known. At least, she was known by sight because her name was never shown. While I was visiting the Associated Rediffusion studios, Grace walked in for rehearsal. I asked her if she remembered those words she had said.

She laughed and replied: “Of course I do – but at that time I thought that the people that I would have to sleep with would be men”.

 

Susan’s Academy of Modelling
Oxford Street
Late 1960s

Modelling schools sprang up almost anywhere – so great was the number of girls who saw the catwalk and the photographer’s studio as being their way out of the “ghetto”. The most popular such-academy was run by Susan Belcher on Oxford Street in the West End. My view may be biased because I was on her regular assessment panel. Susan was white, English and may have had some connection to the hotel business. Her whole-hearted commitment to her presentations suggested that the academy was a recompense for own lost modelling dreams.

The courses were very short – six weeks at the most. The graduation took place in the small conference rooms on the premises. The attendance comprised mainly friends and families of the students, as well as some former graduates. Latecomers arriving after the room was full had to stand in the corridor and peer over the heads and shoulders of those standing the doorway. The graduates were assessment by a panel whose three regular members were fashion writer Sheila Brown, model/dance Alva Shelly, and myself. Sometimes a minor celebrity fourth judge was added.

Alva was modest and self-effacing. He came to prominence first as a dancer on the television show Now broadcast from Bristol. His dancing partner, Cindy Pettigrew, had raved about him so much that before our first meeting I feared that he would be unbearably arrogant. Nothing could be further from the truth. I met him initially at an Old Year’s Party at his home on Cressy Road, West Hampstead. He was strikingly handsome in an Hispanic way, lean, lithe, agile and extremely modest. Shelly directed the limelight to his professional partners rather than to himself. As a result, his own role has been unjustly under-valued. Alas, Alva died far too young.

I had got to know Sheila Brown first when Aubrey Baynes escorted her to the Cinnamon offices.

“I think he had a soft spot for me” she said many years afterwards.

Throughout the late-1960s and 1970s into the 1980s, Sheila wrote regularly on West Indian and African fashion, music and dance. We worked well together on several assignments. Even today we see each other occasionally and exchange Christmas cards. When it changed its franchise in the late-1970s, the Weekly Gleaner, to its shame, did not retain Sheila’s contributions and replaced her with another writer they had brought in.

The panel had to assess the models on a scale of A (very good) to D (unsuitable). It was painful to decide to mark a girl – male models then were few and far between – who was obviously poor as D, and thereby shatter what confidence she did have, or to raise false expectations by judging her a little higher. Each time we put pen to paper I questioned the morals of encouraging such dreams in a process which, in spite of the several hundred students who passed through the doors, took money from those who could least afford it and produced no model of note. Each time, also, I considered that the good far outweighed the bad. Incidentally, none of the assessment panel were paid for their services.

Susan did not rip off her students. In that she was different to most similar operators. Although she did run the courses for fees, it was never really only about money. Susan really did believe that she would discover a star of international modelling. She dreamed of finding a black star of the catwalk to rival the celebrity of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Every time she introduced a new graduate onto the small podium with a short description of her bearing and what she was wearing (ending always with “and black patent shoes”) Susan believed that she announcing a girl that would soon become a household name. If she deluded the students in the process, Susan deluded herself even more.

Although none of the models achieved the success they craved, most of them did gain from the experience. It gave them a self-confidence they could not have achieved by sitting around at home or wandering the streets of the neighbourhood. One glance into the eyes of the shortest, tubbiest or scrawniest graduate as se paraded before adoring friends and relatives, as if it were in the leading fashion house of Milan, Paris or Duesseldorf, told you that it was money very well spent. My wife’s sister, who is now a successful lawyer in New York, told me that she would have had the confidence to succeed in court if she had not entered beauty and modelling contests in her teenage years. I hope that the girls who passed through Susan’s courses felt the same.

“For one evening at least, it gave me the chance to be somebody” Joan, a young, chubby Vincentian told me.

In addition to an A mar I gave to those three or four candidates out of twenty or so at each graduation who showed talent to go further a note for them to contact me afterwards. Then I could point them to openings about which I had heard in acting or entertainment. Susan’s Academy did not linger long in Oxford Street, partly because she did not take enough from her students to remain viable. She was forced by ill-health and financial pressures to move to Battersea. The new location did not have the aura of the West End and the academy folded after a few months. Susan retired to the south coast. Too soon afterwards, I learned, she passed away.

Susan’s girls continued to pop up for some time at beauty contests and hair-styling shows in which they won a number of titles. It’s an irony of the time that Susan, who was white, trained and developed the talents of black girls, the most prominent West Indian contest, Miss JOFFA, was still selecting as winners only from those entrants of lighter complexion. The situation was changing but the era of the beautiful people would have to pass before it did.

 

Ballroom
Tottenham Court Road
and then
Streatham
Late 1969

On one of Saturday news-gathering exercises Eddie Grant and myself made our way along the back of the auditorium to the stage on a regular dance night at a ballroom towards the Warren Street end of the Tottenham Court Road. A girl in the audience tugged at my sleeve as we passed and asked me to dance with her. Now, I hardly ever dance, as those who have seen me on the floor will readily understand why. Nevertheless I could not resist her appeal and recognised her as being one of Susan’s graduates to whom I had given a B mark the week before. Perhaps she wanted to know, I surmised, why she had not been graded higher.

But no, the girl just wanted to be friendly. She was Yvonne Miranda Smith who had come down from Birmingham to make her fame and fortune in Swinging London. It hadn’t worked out like that. That is a phrase I have heard and used too often for comfort. She was struggling to live on the pittance she earned as a trainee hair-dresser, an occupation where payment was traditionally paltry. Yvonne was a pleasant, attractive young lady who undoubted talent lay elsewhere than on the catwalk.

At the end of the show Eddie asked her where she lived.

“Streatham” she replied.

“That’s on our way home” Eddie surmised. “Do you want a lift there?”

Eddie always accommodated as many as he could fit into his car.

As we approached the area Yvonne said: “This is near where I live. You can put me down here”.

She declined my offer to walk her to the door.

I insisted, and warned her.

“There has been a murder around her recently. I couldn’t rest with my conscience if that happened to you as well while I was nearby”.

Yvonne shrugged her shoulders in resignation.

She turned the key in the lock of the door and made to go in. There was nothing there. The door opened into a shell of a building with walls, bricks and nothing else. Her few belongings were kept among little more than rubble.

“I can’t let you stay here” I gasped. “You’re coming home with us. We have a spare room”.

 

44 Kilmorie Road
Forest Hill
Late 1969 and 1970

Yvonne Smith became part of our family for just under two years. Our young daughter, who was then learning to talk, was devoted to her, referring to Yvonne as her “mate”. She would have stated much longer but her mother died suddenly and Smithy was needed to look after the family in Birmingham. She took on a number of jobs to keep their finances together, including, I believe, that of fire-eater. Yvonne had great courage and a commendably fighting spirit. Somewhere along the way we lost contact. When our son was born in 1972 we sought in vain to find her and invite her to be his godmother. We are still looking for Yvonne.

 

Wembley Arena
April 1970

Stanley Beiderbecke, promoter of the Caribbean Music Festivals at Wembley, phoned me on the Friday evening before the show on the Sunday. He sounded urgent:

“Desmond Dekker’s dancers have pulled out. Can you find a team to replace them?”

Not at that short notice, I couldn’t.

“Can you put a team together?” he repeated.

“I can’t form a dancing team in that time” I replied. “Please be sensible”.

Yvonne Smith, who had heard my end of the conversation, cut in to the conversation: “Tell him we can do it”.

I shook my head in disbelief.

“Tell him we can do it – please” she pleaded.

“The lady says we can do it” I relayed into the receiver.

“Good. I shall hold you do it” Stan concluded.

That evening we went through my notes and memories of recent assessments at Susan’s. We phoned those girls whose names we agreed on and asked them to come to our place for an audition early the following morning. There Yvonne put on a record, or two, watched them dance for a few minutes nodded her head at some of them, and asked three to say on behind. They were Arlene, Delva and Pearlene. We had a team. Rather, with Yvonne included, we had four girls who could dance a bit. It remained to be seen if they could be knocked into a team.

Yvonne announced.

“We have eight automatic routines already. That’s all we need”.

The three girls, and myself, looked at her. What was she on about?  That hadn’t even danced together yet.

“We can all dance” Yvonne told them pointedly. Let us all work out our own solo number – as we would do at a party. That’s all it is. We shall take turns to dance in the front, showing off the moves, with the other three bobbing up and down behind her. That is four dances – half the number we need. Not only that, we can each do two dances. For the second, we shall form up with two in front, the leader to the left, and two behind. It is for the leader to set the pace and style and for the others to follow exactly what she does. So that we don’t get muddled, every move will be in four-time.”

She started to demonstrate.

“Hands up – one - two – three – four. Shake hips to the right – one- two – three – four. Jump back – one – two – three – four. Whatever it is – one – two – three – four. With everyone dancing one solo and leading on a team routine, that makes four numbers. We have an act. Are you ready? I shall start. Follow me”.

Put as simply as that, it seemed to be easy. And, in a way, it was. The girls danced throughout the morning into the late afternoon until they felt that they had developed sufficient rapport to “go public”.

Yvonne dismissed them saying:

Be back here tomorrow by mid-day. Don’t forget to bring your needle and cotton. We have to make the costumes on the train on the way to Wembley”.

Before they arrived the next day, Yvonne went into Brixton and bought some yellow cloth. It was the only material available as few outlets opened then on a Sunday. Hopelyn got to work with her in shaping it into costumes. These were skimpy bikini tops and bottoms with rows of little hooks to which pieces of plastic, ribbons and cloth could be fixed to give the impression of there being a selection of different styles.

Hopelyn and the dancers were still sewing on the tube train, and were still punching on the finishing touches in the dressing-room before the team was called on stage. The opening sequences of Horace Ove’s film of the concert, Reggae, briefly show Hopelyn helping the girls with their make-up.

Everything was put on so quickly and haphazardly that we feared the pins and plastic would come apart when the dancers threw themselves about in their performance. They were so good that after their performance with Desmond Dekker ended the team was asked to stay on stage and accompany the other artistes. We couldn’t relax until the last note had sounded and they returned to the dressing-room. They girls came off-stage to tremendous applause. It was a total vindication of Yvonne’s faith.

Alas, the evening of triumph ended on a sadly low note. As one of the dancers could not be found straight after the show, we missed the anticipated lift how. The driver had other commitments and couldn’t wait. By now public transport had started running and all available cabs had been taken by the crowd of thousands flowing out of the arena. There was nothing we could do but set out by foot all the way to South London. (The girls had been hot on those same feet all evening already).

The young ladies who had a few minutes earlier in their semi-deshabille state had charmed the audience were now coated up against the chill night air, lost in the amorphous throng.  I flagged down a passing police car and begged them to take us towards the way we were heading.

“You must be kidding, matey” scoffed the driver. “Now get a move on, And don’t block the road”.

Somewhere on the road to Willesden we came upon a cab office. The girls’ wages for their performance, and some more, had to be handed over for the fare home. We were tired, really exhausted, and argumentative among ourselves. The other girls were not happy with their colleague’s whose delay had caused us to miss our transport. However, the team, Hopelyn and myself knew that something special had been achieved. I had heard enough from the appreciative comments of the connoisseurs to realise that they were very good.

The press thought so, too. Dancers aren’t usually mentioned in reports, especially when there was so many international stars on show. However I didn’t know what to tell reporters the team was called. We had been too busy to think of a name. Most reports referred to “Desmond Dekker’s dancers”. They had proved the point of that singers recent hit You can get it if you really want. The promoter had wanted a successful team in less than 48 hours, and now he had one.

One report, I can’t remember now whether it was in the Melody Maker or the New Musical Express, called them the “saffron-clad dancers” after the yellow tone of their costumes. That was the name they needed. Henceforth the team was known as The Saffrons.

The Saffrons stayed together, dancing mainly at the town hall shows and social clubs which were then popular, through Yvonne’s departure and many changes of personnel and we moved from Forest Hill to Barnehurst in March 1975. Our new house was too far for the dancers to come and rehearse. That was a pity because in Lee Buchanan they had just found their best leader since Yvonne Dmith.

 

Catford town hall
c 1971

 The promoter of one neighbourhood shows asked me why the team was called the Saffrons, and I told him the story of the costumes.

“Oh” he sighed. “I have told people something quite different. They are attractive, very sensuous young ladies, and they raise passions in the men who see them – but the men mustn’t touch them. They can only be patient. As for their passions, they have to suffer-on”.

“No, sir. They are the Saffrons, not the Suffer-ons”.

With the Saffrons I had proved, however inexpertly, that I could really manage and promote a successful girl group over several years and vicissitudes. There was still that one regret – that I hadn’t had the same experience and expertise when I was managing the Dimplettes.

Pioneers

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