York octogenarian dance teacher Evelyn Witcombe is planning a show to mark 60 years with the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. MAXINE GORDON hears her story...

EVELYN Witcombe has been teaching dance for almost 70 years and has anecdotes that could fill a library.

But her favourite stories revolve around her young charges, to whom she has been teaching ballet, tap and freestyle dance for decades.

She giggles like a girl as she recalls one particular tale. "One dancer came up to me just before the show and said: 'Miss, one of my testicles is broken'." She meant the tentacles of her costume, of course, but Evelyn, who will be 84 in February, still chuckles at the story.

York raised, Evelyn first began teaching dance aged 15 – from her bedroom above the family grocer's shop in Huntington.

Within a short space of time, her class of nine students had grown into a class of 60.

Today, she still teaches ten classes a week, working with dancers aged from four to 70-plus.

Dance, she insists, is a way of life. "I feel as if I came out of the womb dancing," she says.

When our photographer Frank arrives, she strikes an incredible pose: lifting her right leg high in the air. She does it several times during the photoshoot. When we check out our archive, we spot her doing a similar move in a Press photo dating back some 20 years.

"I can't think of a life without dancing," says Evelyn, who keeps impressively active despite having a left knee replacement and suffering from arthritis. "The doctors tell me to keep on dancing," she says, raising her voice to hammer home the point.

And keep on she certainly does.

Currently, her school of dancers are rehearsing for a commemorative show at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in Haxby Road next month.

It is called Diamond Dance and is to mark a 60-year association with the theatre,

The programme tells us more about Evelyn's remarkable career.

"She had longed to take dancing lessons, but her parents encouraged her towards music, specifically the piano," it says. "An accomplished young player, at the age of six, she was asked to take part in a show at the theatre. Dressed in a beautiful turquoise dress, trimmed with a red velvet sash, she took her place at the piano. Over the course of the dress rehearsal, she was drawn to the beautiful, free-spirited movement of the older dancers on stage. There was no going back. Watching a troupe of six dancers, weaving their magic, she was sure what she wanted to do. She begged for dancing lessons, and was allowed by her parents to join the Three Graces Dancing School in York. At the age of only 15, recognised as an accomplished dancer with the Rowntree’s Youth group, several older dancers asked her if she would teach them."

And so began the Evelyn Witcombe School of Dance. Evelyn picks up the story: "We had the grocer's shop in Huntington Road –Watson's corner shop. It is now a tanning centre.

"My dad said if I wanted to do dancing, I could do it above the shop – in my bedroom. So I had to manage. I put in some barres next to the bed and could fit in 12 dancers – there was a reasonable amount of space, it was a good, square room."

Today, she runs her dance classes from St Andrew's Church Hall in Huntington – she still lives locally in the area.

Over her long career, it's difficult to calculate how many students have been taught by Evelyn, but several have gone on to professional careers in dance.

A troupe of 30 will be taking part in the Diamond Dance show on Friday November 22 and Saturday November 23.

Evelyn has worked with her assistant Charlotte Hardy to choreograph the show, which will last around two hours.

The dancers are split into five groups: Rainbow, Trendsetters, Jetsetters, Fab Five and Gals, the latter of which feature older dancers including those in their 70s.

One of Evelyn's 12 grandchildren, Courtny Richardson, is in the troupe and will be performing a solo in contemporary dance.

Evelyn has agreed that profit from the show will be donated to the theatre's £4 million major fundraising extension project.

As the theatre prepares to celebrate Evelyn's remarkable career, one story remains disputed.

There is a black and white photograph hanging in the theatre gallery and the story goes that Evelyn is among one of the dancers.

Evelyn, however, isn't so sure. "Do any of them look like me?" she asks.

We'll leave that for others to decide.

Tickets for Diamond Dance are available online at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk