TV dancers alive and high-kicking 40 years later
High-kicking dancers in sequinned jumpsuits, often with bowler hats or feather boas, were once a trademark of prime-time TV entertainment. And in the 1970s, the Second Generation song and dance troupe led the pack. Regularly appearing on shows such as Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies, its male and female dancers also toured the world giving live performances – at the toe-tapping centre of a variety show bill.
Now, nearly four decades on, the former members of this unusually forward-thinking mixed-gender, mixed-race troupe have started meeting again to “take class” in their old London studio.
“We did a couple of routines and we remembered the steps,” said Lucy Greaves, 58, whose husband, John, also danced with the Second Generation and who went on to become a dance agent. “We all started reliving our careers. We were working with very big stars then. My favourites were the Two Ronnies: they were consummate professionals and very decent people.”
The troupe, set up by choreographer Dougie Squires as a successor to the 1960s Young Generation, worked through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Highlights included dancing for the Queen at the 1977 silver jubilee celebrations. But Squires, now 84, has never stopped. Earlier this year, he choreographed a new dance for the Queen’s 90th birthday at Windsor Castle. And since he still thinks about dance all the time, he wondered if his former dancers did the same, and invited them all to class again, in the battered rehearsal rooms they had always used in Fulham, west London. Many were happy to try again, despite the fact that they’re in their 50s or 60s.
Second Generation on stage in the 1970s
“You can change your body at any time. You can’t make it perfect, but you can change it. Dancing is a discipline for life,” Squires said. “I always used to go for individuals. If someone wore glasses, they’d keep them. Some dancers were small, some big, some black. Mine was the first integrated group on TV and that caused quite a bit of trouble at the time.”
Among those who returned to his class for fun are actress Andrée Bernard, best known for Hollyoaks; Caroline Jeffries, now head of film and television at London’s Arts Educational Schools; Petrina Langford, sister to Bonnie and aunt to West End stars Summer and Scarlett Strallen; and Katie Rabett, who was a favourite of the press when she dated Prince Andrew.
In an age of licensed nostalgia, 1970s TV has been rather ignored – perhaps because of the shadow of historical abuse accusations. Squires believes this is a shame for the rest of the entertainers.
He is proud of the atmosphere he created among his dancers, helping them to cope with the demands of showbusiness: “We were a family. It was a group, but what was important to us was the individuals. I protected them and they could all ring me.”
Squires is also proud of the expressive dance style he pioneered. “TV was a new creative medium and we had to invent a style, addressing the camera to establish a relationship with the audience. The standard of dancing is much higher now, with shows like Strictly Come Dancing, but dancers don’t get the platforms or the range of work any more. Audiences used to have a choice of watching revue dancing, or variety, or tap. And I hate it now when dancers are just wallpaper behind a singer promoting a record” Among those going through their paces once more with Antony Johns, Squire’s long-term partner both at work and at home, is Deborah Goodman, 56. “This was my life and it is lovely to find all the old camaraderie,” she said. “Of course, we used to have to do it all in high heels back then. The changing rooms here are exactly the same though, sadly. Horrendous.”
Goodman, now an arts publicist, went on to present children’s TV with Johns in the 1980s, as well as acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She said she learned more with the Second Generation than at any point in her career. “His dancers were not so much about brilliant technique, especially not compared with dancers now, but we had personality.”
Johns, 56, does not compromise when he teaches the returnees. Soutenus, or quick turns, follow leg kicks and jumps. “What was lovely was seeing them after 37 years. They hadn’t forgotten,” he said. “Dancers don’t give up on dance, but dance can give up on them.” Johns was moved when one former dancer, an acrobatic star of the troupe, told him she had spent the past 20 years bringing up children and not doing anything for herself. “I thought they might all shriek with laughter when they came in, but they wanted to warm up as the music was on. And they were right there when I showed them an old routine. I have lost 20 years somewhere, because when we get together I feel just the same and talk to them in just the same way.”
Second Generation 1970’s dance troupe rehearsing this year in London. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer