- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Andé Lyons (Ashcroft), Walter Laird, Frank Spencer, Peggy Spencer, Victor Silvester, Lawrence Ashcroft, Charlotte Ashcroft, Robert Ashcroft, Elsie Ashcroft, Franklin D. Tyrer
- Location of story:
- Farnborough, London.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 June 2005
Walter Laird and Andé Lyons: dancing through the war years. During and immediately after the war Andé and Walter travelled around Britain in cabaret shows with Frank and Peggy Spencer. They also appeared with the Victor Silvester Dance Orchestra.
This article is submitted on behalf of Andé Ashcroft (now Tyrer) who became a professional ballroom dancer during World War Two using the name Andé Lyons. Andé and her dancing partner Walter Laird helped entertain people at dancing shows, touring the country with another dancing couple, Frank and Peggy Spencer, as well as appearing with the celebrated Victor Silvester.
It has been an honour to learn about Andé's memories of dancing, dance music and 'Big Bands' during World War Two. The contributions of people like Andé and the others mentioned in the article to the war effort through music, dancing and singing should be acknowledged and remembered. The terms of 'People's War' website have been read and understood.
When war broke out
"A lot of the wartime memories I have are about dancing and dance music, especially the big bands. I got to know a lot of the people who were involved in professional dancing and the dance orchestras, such as Victor Silvester who was a dancer and led a dance orchestra.
My parents' names were Lawrence and Charlotte and our family name was Ashcroft. My brother's name was Robert and his wife's name was Elsie. However, during the war I took the surname 'Lyons' for dancing as it went with 'Laird', my professional dancing partner's surname, so much better than 'Ashcroft'.
I was eighteen when war broke out and at the time I was living in Farnborough which is next to Aldershot, so everything was very military. After the declaration of war nothing much happened for some time. Then there was Dunkirk, which luckily my brother survived.
I remember seeing the troops returning, those who were lucky enough to return. They were in a very sorry state. Gradually the area filled up with Commonwealth troops and those who had escaped from Europe, such as the Polish French, Belgian, Dutch and others.
Wartime dances in Farnborough
I was at an age where I wanted to go dancing, especially when the various dance halls were overwhelmed with men from all nations! With Farnborough and Aldershot being military towns the girls were outnumbered by boys. Therefore, all the girls were allowed into the dance halls for free! It was wonderful.
However, the blackout was on and my parents were very protective. My brother Robert was in the RAF and so my brother's wife Elsie came to stay with us. It was not until then that I was allowed to go out with her. This did not last long though as I was called up for war work, which meant joining the Services or working in a Factory.
Working in wartime
My father was in the RAF, and he had been for the whole of my life. For reasons of his own, he was very much against my going into the Services, so I opted for Factory Work. I was sent to Perivale in N.W. London where Hawker Aircraft Ltd had taken over Sanderson's Wallpaper Factory. They had fitted it out to build the Hurricane aircraft.
I was assigned to the Wages Office, which meant taking my turn to work 'Nights' to pay out the night shift. By this time, the Blitz had started and factories were a prime target, which brought some very scary moments. Even at my digs, which was an attic flat on the top floor, I spent my time running up and down stairs when the air raid siren went to get to the underground railway. This was where the shelter nearest to me was at. Sometimes I was there all night!
After about eighteen months my parents managed to get me transferred nearer to home and I was sent to the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough as a shorthand typist. In the course of my duties I had to take shorthand from the various scientists. These included foreign scientists who had escaped to Britain from all over Occupied Europe.
Training to be a professional dancer
One day I was sent to see a scientist by the name of Walter Laird. At the end of the dictation, he asked me if I was keen on dancing. By this time, the Americans were in force in the area. Like most of the girls I now knew how to 'Jitter Bug' (later called the Jive) and I was having a great time! My answer to him was that I loved dancing and that I was pretty good at it too!
We made a date and to my horror it turned out Walter was a professional ballroom dancer. I soon realised that I was well out of my depth. However, Walter offered to teach me to dance properly as he thought that I had potential. So that was how my second career was born!
After taking my dancing examinations I partnered him professionally as 'Walter Laird and Andé Lyons'. We then started doing shows and entering dance competitions together. It was not easy getting around the country during wartime as petrol was rationed and the trains were crowded with military. Then, of course if an air raid was in progress the trains just stopped wherever they were. There was many a time we had to leave the train and walk along the track in the blackout while the raid was in progress.
There was one very funny incident I remember whilst we were travelling on a train during the war. It happened after a very hectic dancing session and our feet were killing us. We managed to get a seat opposite each other but it was so crowded with troops. They were standing everywhere. Suddenly, I looked down and there was Walter leaning down and untying the shoe laces of the fellow sitting next to him. I wish you could have seen the fellow's face! But Walter was unaware of what he had done and just sitting looking quite relieved.
Competitive Ballroom Dancing
As 'Walter Laird and Andé Lyons' we went on to win many dance competitions. With the Jive background I had, we became Britain's first 'Eight Dance Champions'. As a dance couple we went on to become the Southern England Champions, West of England Champions and lots of other titles.
We joined up with another couple called Frank and Peggy Spencer of Formation Team Dancing fame. So we went all over the UK and Ireland to do cabaret dancing. It was well received by everyone, and we also performed for Princess Margaret. We all appeared with Victor Silvester, who had founded his very popular Dance Orchestra before the war.
This was the time when music and dancing was extremely popular and the Victor Silvester Dance Orchestra made regular programmes for the radio. After the war we continued to appear with Victor Silvester, and with television starting up again, we appeared with Victor Silvester on many television programmes, such as the 'Victor Silvester Television Dancing Club'. These broadcasts eventually led to the TV series 'Come Dancing'.
Being a scientist, Walter had a very analytical mind and wanted to know where the centre of gravity was at any part of a dance movement. I remember he used to say, if I turned my head at the wrong moment, "You have just thrown nine and a half pounds in the wrong direction and put me off balance!"
Like Victor Silvester, Walter went on to write several books and professional papers about dancing. His Latin American book became, and still is, the 'Bible' for the profession. He also wrote a paper on 'The Physiology of Movement, Appertaining to Ballroom Dancing'.
During his research for that paper, Walter went to a shoe factory in Northampton and sat under a glass platform where they tested shoes for wear. His interest in that was where the pressure was at each step. Perhaps this shows how much professional thought went into our dancing. He became the authority on Latin American dancing for the International Dance Masters Association and up until he died a few years ago travelled the world lecturing and adjudicating.
At the end of the war we were invited to Germany to represent UK in an International Competition and won. However, it was very strange going to Stuttgart so soon after the war and being invited into peoples' homes where there were pictures of relatives in SS Uniforms. I felt that I might be arrested at any minute!
Much to my surprise, the German audience always gave us a terrific reception. We then went on to Denmark and Holland, where we did not dare mention Germans. The feeling there was still very tense.
After the war
I left professional dancing at the age of 35 and went to live in a bungalow at Thames Ditton, opposite Hampton Court. Of course, living on the river I had to have a boat. I bought a Cabin Cruiser named 'Mananuwi', which is a Maori name I believe. With my brother having survived Dunkirk, I was thrilled to see that Mananuwi was one of the small ships that went to rescue our Forces at Dunkirk! She had a brass plaque in the wheelhouse which read: "Dunkirk 1940, I know, I was there." I often wondered how many brave souls she saved.
The war also decided my fate as far as a career. This was because at the end of World War Two, when we were allowed to leave our war work, I was given the option of staying in the Civil Service, which I did. So, I became a secretary to a Government Under Secretary in London. Then I rose through the ranks to become a Higher Executive Officer. I finished my career at the age of 60 as the Contracts Officer at a Government Scientific Establishment (i.e. The National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex).
Reflections about the war years
During the war I think the young people in Britain, being oblivious to the dangers, lived for the day. As far as possible, all the young people during the war enjoyed themselves. It was, in spite of the horrors of the Blitz and losing loved ones, a most memorable time.
The young have always been resilient. There were good and bad times, and people seemed closer to each other in times of danger. A great feeling of comradeship existed then and many strong friendships were formed.
I am still a close friend of Peggy Spencer. She still comes over once a year to see me in Spain. We are both now well into our eighties. Although I am no longer actively involved in dancing Peggy still is. Peggy now lives in King's Lynn, Norfolk where she was Deputy Mayoress last year. Peggy still trains a Formation Dance Team and teaches people to dance. She also travels the country adjudicating and watching dance competitions.''
Andé now enjoys a happy and contended retirement in Spain with her husband Franklin. Andé often mentions the health benefits, happy memories and good friendships she obtained through dancing.
I would like to thank Andé for sharing some of her wartime memories and in particular to see some of her dancing photographs. It was a real pleasure to see them.
As Andé refers to above, some of the research and published works on dancing by Walter Laird and Victor Silvester remain definitive works for the budding ballroom dancer. At the time of writing this article (June 2005) some of the guides to ballroom dancing by Victor Silvester and Walter Laird had only recently been republished. Many of the things that were learnt during World War Two are still relevant.
An additional point of interest about these recently republished works on Ballroom Dancing is that there is a photograph of Andé on the front cover of one of the dance guides by Walter Laird. It is entitled 'The Ballroom Dance Pack'! During and immediately after World War Two Andé was a real starlet if ever there was one. Evidently it is as true in 2005 as it was then!
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