Doreen Leighton-Ward

Doreen Leighton-Ward (1931-2020) discussing her life with Paul Matthews as part of the Luminate 2019 Festival

From Hollywood to the Lothians

From an early age, Doreen was adamant in where her passions lay, dance. Life was no different than those Hollywood musicals of the day to this young star to be, everything in her world revolved around movement, and of course, music. All of this rose from the common pastime of the cinema, a cheap day out for Doreen and her mother. Little did either know, that these golden-studio gals would ignite something across the pond and in the heart of a young Scot.

As an avenue to channel her daughter’s energy, Doreen’s mother enrolled her with notable teacher Madam Ada, who was already well established for her diverse teachings of a variety of techniques beyond the traditional ballet. First and foremost – Doreen was an Adaline Calder Girl, students of the esteemed Adaline Calder. Transitioning quickly, Doreen skirted as a Moxon Girl, a playful title for those who were under the leadership of May Moxon, who provided Variety dancers across the major Scottish cities.

Learning the various purist and continental styles of ballet and tap, as well as Irish, Highland and Spanish dance, Doreen’s time with Madam Ada infused these techniques into a hybrid. This infused a profoundly visually striking, theatrical aura to the performance. Noteworthy that you can spot an Adaline Calder girl if you were to study the way they held themselves. Tap, as well as ballet, was an art form instilled in the girls, but those crowds were not cheering for the refinement of choreography, no, they were here to see the wonderful Calder Girls. With a panache for turning tap into a signature, often having to weave the choreography into songs not composed for the style, the audience’s adored Doreen and the girls.

There was an expectation from the crowds, particularly when from the Leith Gaiety or Palladium, where audiences knew they were in for a packed evening of fun, particularly with the local comedians getting involved. Notoriously hard work, if enjoyable, the girls would often perform the opening for both acts, a middle number and be involved in the closing of the performance. Not without recognition, following the curtain fall, gifts, praise, and cheers met the girls as they would take a bow. No amount of showering gratification though could temper Doreen’s distaste for a, particularly popular, routine by the name of The Galloping Major. Having performed in Hula skirts, sailor suits and as a cowboy, the chorus girls were no stranger to unique showcases, pretending to be a horse, however? Well, at least the crowds were appreciating the bumpety-bumps and cringe-worthy lyrics.

Surrounded by infamy, much of the time spent backstage between routines was amongst the comedians of the time, Doreen also worked with several choreographers such as George Clarkson, Desmond Caroll and Billy Cameron. Growing in presence, Doreen would make her solo debut and step out from the chorus line for performances of Mood Indigo at the old The Gaiety Theatre, Kirkgate. Donning a blue strapless dress, gracefully billowing to the tempo of the song, Doreen held the stage for the brief duration, bathed in the cerulean glow. Remembering the choreography vividly, Doreen has since gone on to teach Katie the movements.

It was around this time where those shoulders rubbed even more so with Variety royalty; Jack Anthony, Lex McLean, Johnny Victory, Jack Milroy and Movita (Maria Luisa Movita Castaneda) – to name but a few. The Johnny Victory Show may have phantom tingles of unease for Doreen, as a ‘minor’ mishap with one of the production’s firearms caused shrapnel to lodge itself in her leg, unharmed, it’s safe to say that she maintained a distance from the guns the following nights…

A Rousing Chorus of Success

Yet, as these names live on with some, more so than Doreen’s – a great many of the people working in this industry have an unknown debt to her diligence and pursuit in fair pay and contracts for dancers.

By now, Doreen had been working the theatres of Edinburgh for a few years, and in the early nineteen fifties, she was working in the Gaiety Theatre. Never one to rest upon her laurels, a Sunday off would see Doreen take a chance visit to the North British Hotel where she would attend her inaugural meeting of Equity, the actors union. On this opportune day, Alex McCrindle, Rosamund Johns and Duncan McCrae were on the subject of the wages chorus girls were receiving. At the time, Doreen was paid roughly between two and three pounds per week, which was also to cover digs and living expenses. As the trio was discussing the payments other dancers were earning, well, Doreen had heard quite enough for a glint of a decision to overcome her senses. Deciding fallback and open up to the panel, Doreen struck up a conversation with McCrindle, the Equity man for Scotland, who took in her words and cottoned on, responding; “Oh well Doreen, I think we can help you out there”.

A figurehead of sorts, Doreen took McCrindle’s advise of gathering the girls of together and discuss a refusal to perform on the following Monday evening. As the concept of a contract with the producers, and well-earned pay rise was a rising possibility, McCrindle was adamant they had a shot. They agreed to unionise. A mere few weeks later, the girls took a visit to a small café just around from the theatre, rather than going into work. The struggles of finances overcame the worries of producers uncovering the demands of the girls, and Doreen and seven other chorus girls banded together – refusing to perform that evening.

Sturdy, steadfast and determined to claim what was rightfully theirs, the chorus girls would win out in the final hour. For really, producer Claude Worth realised that without the dancers, the show cannot go on, they were the backbone of Variety. McCrindle took it upon himself to inform the girls in the very same café, pronouncing; “Well, we’ve won girls”. The debate between Worth and McCrindle exposed, what is most unsurprising, that the fears of being held to ransom by the dancers did not merit the lack of a liveable wage and the absence of contracts. With their raise assured, the more coveted prize was the Equity contract, an invaluable form of protection in an otherwise unsafe industry.

With a rise to over ten shillings, a substantial statement had been sealed to the value of these women, though still having to pay living costs it was a decisive victory. The following week each of the girls would climb the stairs to Worth’s office, signing their new Equity standard contract for chorus girls across Scotland. This is of course, except for Doreen, who upon entering the office was informed that she would never work in Worth’s theatre, The Gaiety again, which she never did. With the advent of television and the dwindling of Variety Theatre, Doreen among many put their ballet and tap shoes in storage. Not forever, just intermission.

Made in Scotland

Taking a few choice appearances on the small screen, Doreen would sign up with the Pat Lovett Agency appearing in a few firm favourites such as Take the High Road. She would, however, make a return to the stage, and not only with An Audience With… Choreographing The Last Post and working alongside musician Tom Poulson, composer Alistar MacDonald and director Susan Worsfold as part of the Made in Scotland showcase for the Festival Fringe’s 2017 repertoire.

Along with June, Marie, Betty, Katie and Janice, Doreen makes up a pillar of An Audience With… At first, the experience of striking her tap shoes once more on the Festival Theatre stage was revitalising for Doreen, especially after thinking they had been hung-up for good. It took time, it’s a peculiar feeling for some to drudge up the past, but as Doreen put it herself, this is precisely who she has always been. All of her training, discipline and skill came to fruition for the show in October 2017, at the live performance of An Audience With… as part of the Luminate Festival. Speaking with Reporting Scotland, Doreen, and June note how after thinking it was time for the new generation of dancers to take the helm, this event reminded them that they were someone, they were needed and had the wisdom to share. Now a celebrity in her own right, Doreen found herself answer questions in the local supermarket to her televised appearance.

Dance is something that, once learned, you don’t really forget – mentions Doreen. It is a part of your being, even if it fades away into the background for a decade or two. An Audience With…, and by extension Janice, have an uncanny ability in looking inside someone and sourcing precisely what they can draw out. And for someone who had expected their tap shoes to be hung up for good, Doreen had the last hurrah – spending her finale years gathering up her exuberant reviews (and a few five-star ones at that) and graciously taking her final bows with friends and good company as she performed, taught and danced once more before sadly passing into ‘the big cabaret in the sky’ with her fellow An Audience With… dancers June and Betty.

Ours is a small piece of a large jigsaw from which other dance styles evolved. I’ve a renewed sense of the work we did 65 years ago. This is exciting heady stuff

Doreen Leighton-Ward – An Audience With…

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