SO WOULD YOU DARE TO DANCE?
Putting on a pink tutu doesn’t have to be confined to little girls – grown women can also improve their fitness, mental health, not to mention their creativity through dance. Monica Cleaver reveals her lifelong passion for teaching performing arts to both young and old to Elestr Lee
MANY OF US who raised our families in Emmer Green or Caversham will have come across the ball of energy who is Monica Cleaver – or, more familiarly, Mo of Mo’s Dance and Drama. Monica and her team of dance and drama teachers have been providing lessons for four decades, with 2023 marking the school’s 40th anniversary, having first opened its doors in 1983.
But the fun of dance classes, or joining the Berkshire Theatre School (a Saturday school for under-18s interested in musical theatre) doesn’t have to be confined to children. Monica also offers lessons to older people at her Adult Dance School, in both Caversham and Reading. Together with fellow teachers Julie and Nicky, she teaches ballet, tap and contemporary dance, just the same as for the children. No doubt most parents sign their children up for dance hoping that some of the benefits will rub off – improved co-ordination, increased confidence, and the chance to get involved in what might become a lifelong interest. However, Monica reckons that the benefits for older dancers might be even greater.
Monica was eager to introduce me to some of her adult pupils when I visited her private studio in Caversham. A great success story has been Doreen Pechey, who first started dancing lessons after she officially reached retirement age. “My parents couldn’t afford for me to have ballet lessons. But I visited my Canadian niece who’s a dance teacher, and she offered me a class. I loved it so much I decided to take up lessons here locally. Someone suggested I should go to Monica, and I haven’t looked back!” she recalled.
Having taken her Royal Academy Dance Grade 6 exam in 2016 at the age of 71, the electrical engineer has been declared ‘the world’s oldest ballet dancer’ in the national press – and even danced on the stage of the London Coliseum.
“I teach adults from all walks of life,” Monica commented. “Teachers, scientists – including oncologists – all sorts”.
Indeed, arriving to practice her tap routine was Carol Cutler, a former director with a local authority. “When you set out to do something like dance it helps you keep on form, not only physically, but also mentally. Repeating and memorising all those steps and sequences means firing up all those neural pathways. Anything to improve balance and muscle strength, as well as memory, can only be good. So many people become incapacitated following falls”.
But Carol is also very keen to promote the real thrill adults feel when they dance.
“I had the biggest smile on my face at the end of my first ballet lesson as an adult,” Carol remembered. “I used to dance when I was a child but gave up. Then I went to see a performance of 42nd Street, and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed it. I didn’t want to join a class with children, so Monica’s adult classes are ideal. It is so wonderful to do something that I enjoy!”
Teaching children remains an important part of Monica’s work: “I do musical theatre classes for 3-6-year-olds,’ Monica explained. “And I find that if they love it at the age of six, then they stay with me right through until 18. The biggest problem with children these days is that they tend to want to ‘do it all’ – they take on so many different things. Stick at one thing, is what I advise!”
She is proud of her pupils’ achievements and, while few choose to become professionals, she is thrilled by success stories such as that of Teige Bisnought who started lessons with her aged 10, and who now dances professionally in the US.
Preparing for dance exams and rehearsing for shows is the mainstay of performing arts, but Monica always ensures that the emphasis is on her pupils having fun as they learn. The recipe is the same for both children and adults – and everyone gets the chance to perform. In 2022 her adult dancers put on Dance for Ukraine at St Andrew’s Hall in Caversham which raised £800, and a Tap-a-thon in Broad Street, Reading, in aid of Children in Need.
“We have been doing the Tap-a-thon for the past 7 years. Obviously, everything was disrupted during Covid, but now we are rebuilding. Sometimes I worry that people will stop dancing – but I know that won’t happen. Once they start attending lessons it becomes a commitment. They look forward to their weekly lesson, but the great thing is, they leave beaming!”