Tony Hawkins loves ballroom dancing – and he wants you to enjoy it, too! The 93-year-old Bimport resident is hosting a tea dance at 3pm at the Town Hall this Saturday, 24th November.If the three-hour-long event proves popular, it could become a regular fixture.
Tony was serving in the army in Egypt when he first received the sort of compliment that, if offered today, could change a career direction. “I was dancing away in our mess and these two ENSA performers came up to me and said ‘you know, you are a seriously good dancer. You should do something about it. Write to Covent Garden and tell them about your love of dance’.”
Tony paused for a second. “I have retained that love to this day. You should see me on the floor this Saturday,” he laughed. He can’t remember which dance he was performing when the professionals who entertained the armed forces praised his footwork. “Some waltz or quickstep or something like that,” he said.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t take up the advice at that moment. It was wartime – 1945 – and he was in Egypt, serving as an officer in the Royal Tank Regiment. But encouraged by the kind words, he later wrote to the principal choreographer at Covent Garden. She replied and asked Tony to visit after he was demobbed, although she also stated that, at 21 years of age, Tony was too old to start a professional dancing career. He decided not to take matters further. He had a responsible role in North Africa, after all.
“I was sent to the First Reconnaissance Regiment and when they moved up to Palestine, as it was called then, they left me behind. I don’t think they felt I had enough fighting spirit. I was left in Egypt, attached to the Royal Army Service Corps. It was good fun,” said Tony.
“There was a Polish unit down the road and I was the sole officer in charge. The delay in demobilisation meant things got very rough. There was almost mutiny. There I was, on my very own and I was told ‘you keep your men to order’. So I said to the men ‘if anybody starts thinking about trouble, you’re going straight in the guard room!”
After the war, Tony returned to his studies at Oxford University where he became fascinated by the work of Mendel into genetics. Tony followed his scientific interests working with plants during his career with Webbs, the seeds company. There he specialised in developing sugar beet. He liaised with international scientists to create a genetically engineered seed. Traditionally the sugar beet seeds were in clusters and had to be ‘singled’. Tony’s team introduced a more efficient single seed to the UK market in 1967.
He was at the forefront of sugar beet development in this country. “You could say that,” said Tony. “Although my colleagues sold sugar beet, they knew nothing of the breeding of it. As I knew a bit more than they did I knew enough to breed this new variety.”
At the age of 93, Tony is arguably busier than when he was working full-time in the agricultural research sector. He volunteers with the memory café, he plays the saxophone, enjoys watercolour painting and he’s just started taking singing lessons. And above all, there’s dance. “It’s my idea to hold this tea dance. There are no dances of that nature in Shaftesbury but there are dances like this in other towns. I thought it would be good to have one. My darling wife died last year, but for our diamond wedding we had a tea dance. It was a great success. I thought I would do it again.”
Tony has some favourites moves. “I’ve got a very naughty one – a Latin American dance called the lambada. I also love doing the Viennese waltz and the slow waltz, in fact all of the ballroom dances. We’re even going to have a few old-time things, like the Gay Gordons.” But there will be some live music, too. “Our local postman, Jerome, is a drummer. He’s going to augment the music by playing along.”
And as there’s three hours of dancing, there will be refreshments with the Royal British Legion volunteers helping to provide cuppas. “You’ll get a cup of tea, of course. And you’re invited to bring a cake.” You may even win one. “I’ve spoken to Reeves, across the road, and he sent me a voucher for the raffle.”
Tony’s Tea Dance will raise money for good causes that are close to his heart. “There are two charities that I am involved with. One is the Children’s Society and another is The Memory Café. Shaftesbury is on its way to becoming a dementia friendly town. Gillingham already is. That’s where the money is going to go.”
Tony says that if Saturday’s session is well attended there could be more tea dances on a regular basis. “I have spoken to the Town Hall staff and they tell me that the first Saturday afternoon of every month is free. So if this is a success, I will invite the people at the dance to come along again, assuming they stay free, on the first Saturday in every month.”
And as Tony is such a fan of dance I had to ask for his Strictly predictions. “It’s all acrobatics now, I think. But there was one person I particularly wanted to get through and win. That was Kate Silverton. I thought she was absolutely lovely and she was eliminated this last weekend. My interest will fade a bit now. Of course, I’ll watch the final,” Tony said.
If you need more information about the Tea Dance you can contact Tony on 851615. So prepare to foxtrot and raise funds for good causes this Saturday, 24th November at Shaftesbury Town Hall. The event is on between 3pm and 6pm, so you’ll be home in plenty of time for week ten of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ at 6.50pm.