Lesley Ann Eden marks 50 years of teaching dance in York with Pinocchio And Ponchetta at Joseph Rowntree Theatre

Lesley Ann Eden celebrates 50 years of teaching dance in York with her York School of Dance and Drama pupils. Picture: Nigel Holland

YORK choreographer Lesley Ann Eden stages her 50th anniversary York School of Dance and Drama show at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, on Sunday (25/5/2024) evening.

Pupils ranging in age from six to 70 at her Park Grove School dance classes will perform Pinocchio And Ponchetta, Lesley’s take on the old story of Pinocchio and his sister, “full of fabulous dancing and great fun for all the family”.

“We’re well known for using all kinds of quirky things, such as skateboards and Chinese costumes, or ropes and ribbons,” she says. “That will be the case again, with a cross-section of dancers as usual.

“We’ve been serving York for 50 years now. I can’t believe it! We’ve had thousands of children and adults pass through our doors; some have gone on to set up their own dance schools or teach in higher education, others to further their career in stage, television and film work.”

Loughborough-born Lesley recalls how her York dance school began. “I’m just really humble that it all started with three little girls knocking on my door, saying, ‘you are the actress and dancer from London…would you teach us to dance and act?’. I couldn’t refuse!” she says.

A cellist plays at a York School of Dance and Drama performance. Picture: Nigel Holland

“It wasn’t what I had envisaged or planned, having just returned from India with my new, tiny baby and a stage career pending, but their fresh, expectant faces, full of excitement and wonder, made me accept their unexpected challenge – and I’m still doing it! That’s fate! Without that knock on the door, I would never have opened a school.”

Her school teaches everything from “American tap to lyrical, contemporary works to circus skills”. “And I teach it all myself,” says Lesley, who studied at the University of London. “I’m so proud to have been awarded the National Kidscape Award for the work I’ve done with children. 

“When I first got the letter, I thought it was junk mail, but it didn’t quite look like junk mail, and I’m so glad I opened it! I was asked to go to the [Millennium] Dome for the ceremony, and there were so many famous faces there!”

Lesley, who first taught dance at a school run by Irish nuns in West Bengal, India, enjoys teaching as much as ever. “Just recently, one of my ladies said, ‘can I ask the children why they come and what’s so different about coming here’, and one child said, ‘because it makes you feel special’.

“I do it because it gives me the utmost pleasure and satisfaction seeing someone express themselves from their inner core, pouring out their soul through dance. I just stand back and watch in awe.

A trio of York School of Dance and Drama dancers. Picture: Nigel Holland

“I also take in many children with difficulties, giving scholarships to those who can’t afford it. I’ve done that all my teaching life and I really believe in it.”

The dance school’s motto is “Nullos Limos” (No Limits). “It echoes my own philosophy that in our dreams our skills and performance talents are limitless, and if we can make our dreams reality, our own joy will be limitless, as will that of others who share our dreams,” says Lesley.

“Dance is a blending of mind, body and spirit, and it’s total therapy too, making people forget their problems for an hour. I’ve found this to be the case time and again. When you’re blending dancing with music, it’s just a wonderful feeling of completion. I’m so grateful to be able to teach it.”

Lesley, whose teaching has taken her all over the world, once brought her trademark positivity to both Lesley’s Challenge and her health tips in The York Press. “Some people still remember those tips, and they still put porridge left over from breakfast on their face, as I suggested!” she says.

Look out for her new series of books to be published by White Magic Studios in June and July: Lucky and Lucky 2 Love. “They’re about my travels across the world as a single woman, having psychic paranormal experiences,” says Lesley, who has three books out in the United States of America too.

Her thoughts return to Sunday’s 50th anniversary show and the benefits of dancing. “It’s not just the individual physical and mental process. It’s also the fact that you are unified with others when you perform – and that’s what missing from so many lives now, whether it’s families not seeing each other very often or just surviving in your own little box.

York School of Dance and Drama soloist Esme Frere. Picture: Nigel Holland

“When people come together to dance, they embrace that unity. That’s what classes and performances give them – and the performances also give parents the chance to perform on stage with their children, which isn’t common and is a wonderful joy, giving them a memory for a lifetime.”

In dance teacher tradition, Lesley will never retire. “My children say that I will still be dancing the Funky Chicken on my Zimmer frame,” she says.

Will she dance in Sunday’s show? “I won’t this time, but simply because I’ve had two hip replacements, which does make it more difficult, but not impossible – and I’ll still go on for many more years,” promises Lesley.

Lesley Ann Eden’s York School of Dance and Drama in Pinocchio And Ponchetta, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, May 26, 6.30pm. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Did you know?

LESLEY Ann Eden was the first of five people to obtain an M.A. in choreography, producing her own style of dance, Junction Jazz. She also has invented a style of performance: the “choreo-drama”.

One last question: What is your best piece of advice to a young dancer, Lesley?

“My advice is to learn the technique, then throw it away and dance with your heart.”

York School of Dance and Drama’s publicity image for Pinocchio And Ponchetta on the Joseph Rowntree Theatre website