When Irene Hayes, 86, was three-years-old, her mum gave her sixpence, which she spent on an hour-long dance class and a glass of lemonade.
“I think I was more interested in the lemonade!” she laughs. But the dance class also stuck.
It sparked a life-long passion which saw Irene set up one of the area’s longest-running schools – Superarts Academy on Walworth’s Larcom Street – for which she was awarded a British Empire Medal last week.
“I was over the moon, I was excited,” says Irene, who lives in Kennington.
But initially she didn’t believe the letter was real, her daughter Susan tells the News, a director at the academy. “I put it on Facebook, we were so delighted, once we were allowed to,” she says.
“Lots of people have all kinds of places from all over the years said how pleased they are and well-deserved it is.”
Irene was officially given the medal at a formal ceremony at the Tower of London on Friday, April 5 for “services to Dance and to the community in Southwark.”
But her proudest achievement is how long she has kept the dance school running for, known locally as ‘Renie’s’. She founded it in 1962 in nearby Manor Place before moving to Larcom Street in 1965.
It wasn’t easy. “It was difficult to begin with, being on my own, totally. [But] I was with my husband, he was in on it, he loved it,” says Irene.
The 86-year-old used to pull a trolley on it with a machine on it for music to dance to in the early days, and also sewed costumes for the shows herself, working 48 or 50 weeks of the year.
When she moved to her current premises in Larcom Street, one person warned that other dance schools have been and gone on the site before her.
“And I said ‘well let me try’ and here we are fifty years on,” she says. Keeping it going can still be tricky at times.
“Some of the children can’t afford it, in this area, but I never want to say no to them, how can you turn children away when they want to dance?” says Irene.
It’s how she started.
During the war, her father used to take her to the hotels in Park Lane where she’d do tap and acrobatics – not for pay, but to keep people entertained.
Aged ten, she started dance classes at a venue in Denmark Hill. Just two years later she was teaching classes herself.
She also began doing lots of pantomimes during the war.
Once she starred in a production of Babes in the Wood, but couldn’t stop laughing underneath the leaves on-stage, as they wouldn’t stop rustling.
“We were under the leaves, we got the giggles they had to call in the whole cast in and punish us.”
The spur to start her own school came after she married and had Susan. Susan went to dance classes too, and when Susan was around eight-years-old, her mum Irene thought, ‘well I could do that’, they both say.
From just five pupils – although it quickly turned into 75 within five weeks – the school has taught thousands of pupils from across Southwark over the years.
Some teachers at the school, which does tap, ballet, musical theatre and others, are ex-pupils, while a few children who currently attend even have grandparents who were also taught at Irene’s school.
The school counts choreographers in LA, BBC radio presenters and assistant choreographers on the X-Factor among its alumni.
“Others went into TV and things like that. We’ve got people in Ireland who’s got their own school, somebody in Australia as well,” says Susan.
“When they come back to see me, I say did you enjoy it?,” adds Irene. “And they say yes. And that’s what it’s all about.”