Aylsham is mourning inspirational teacher Barbara Sutton who brought the joy of dance into thousands of lives.
Barbara, who has died aged 79, will also be remembered as an ever-smiling mother figure with a cup of tea for every visitor, a costume-maker extraordinaire, charity fundraiser, and New Year’s Eve party host.
For more than 40 years Barbara, founder of the Sutton School of Dancing, taught generations of children and adults, from the age they could walk to their late 80s, at classes in Aylsham, Corpusty, Briston, North Walsham, Mundesley and Hainford.
Several pupils – including Sonia Newstead, Iona Kilburn and Diana Redgrave – later became professional dancers, many more went on to dancing colleges and became teachers themselves.
And all Barbara’s pupils will have lifelong happy memories of learning ballet, tap, freestyle, theatre craft, gymnastics or musical theatre at her dance school, as well as performing on stage in biennial shows with all proceeds given to Aylsham High School.
Barbara also passed on her passion for dance to her two daughters, Jane Taylor and Lorraine Taylor, and to one of her four grandchildren, Shaun Taylor, who all teach at the school she founded.
Her family has been overwhelmed with several hundred messages of sympathy and tributes over the past few days, many describing her as a “legend” and an “inspiration” who touched their lives.
“Mum did everything for the love of dance. She wanted to share it with everyone. She didn’t care about disabilities or how old, tall, small, fat or thin anyone was, she wanted everyone to have the same opportunities to learn,” said Jane.
Born in wartime Kent, Barbara first came to Norfolk as a young evacuee when she, her grandmother and one of her two older sisters, Patricia, were evacuated to the Birkbeck Estate at Little Massingham. Barbara had happy memories of her time there.
Back in London, after the war, Barbara’s mother, a pianist at a dance school, made sure that her three daughters all had dance lessons, a pleasure she had been denied as a child because dance – then associated with music halls – wasn’t seen as quite the done thing for respectable young ladies.
All three sisters showed great talent and the eldest, Joan, went on to start her own dance school where Barbara and Patricia were both students and helpers. Barbara and Patricia later set up their own dance school together, in Bermondsey.
A talented young dancer, Barbara appeared as an extra in several films, including The Young Ones (1961), starring Cliff Richard, and she can be seen twisting in a polka-dot dress while Billy Fury sings The Twist Kid in the film Play It Cool (1962).
She also appeared in shows and films featuring Sammy Davis Jr, Harry Secombe and former Strictly Come Dancing judge, Len Goodman.
One of Joan’s pupils, anxious to learn ballroom, was a shy, Aylsham-born teenager living in London, Mike Sutton, whom Barbara later described as having “three left feet”.
Barbara suggested she stood on his feet while she tried to teach him, and he was smitten.
The couple married in 1964 and moved to Yaxley’s Lane, Aylsham, in 1970 with their two young daughters when Mike got a job in Norwich.
When a doctor told Barbara that little Jane’s pigeon toes would be helped by dance lessons, she decided to launch her own dance school and do the job herself.
Over the decades the Sutton School of Dance has moved base from Corpusty to a number of sites in Aylsham – behind the former Red Lion pub, Penfold Street, White Hart Street and then Millgate, where it stayed for more than 30 years before moving again, to Aylsham Youth Centre. In January this year the school moved across Cawston Road to the Drill Hall.
Granddaughter Alison remembers that Barbara would teach six days a week, keeping Sundays “free”, but she would spend them filling in paperwork for pupils’ exams, making costumes for the next show or taking small troupes of dancers to perform at fetes, shows and pantomimes across North Norfolk, often raising money for good causes.
Although Barbara was supposed to have retired about seven years ago, she never entirely managed to let go of the reins. “She was a very fair, strong person who liked things to be done her way,” said Jane.
Barbara had been delighted that her three-year-old great grandson, Corey, had already started learning at her school and was loving every second of his dance lessons.
He may follow in his uncle Shaun’s dancing shoes. As well as teaching at his grandmother’s school, trainee lawyer Shaun, 23, choreographs Aylsham High School’s annual musical productions, and next month he has been invited to teach tap at Move It, the world’s largest dance convention, held at Excel, London.
Barbara was hugely proud of her own family, and treated everyone at the dance school like extended family, according to Jane, who added: “She cared about them all.”
Funeral details have not yet been finalised and will be published at a later date.
PICTURES: STEVEN KEY AND SUPPLIED.