At the age of 8 my mother took me to see the ballet Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Court theatre in Liverpool. It changed my life. “I wanted to be the lilac fairy”. “I was totally spellbound”. I immediately asked my Mother if I could have ballet lessons and soon decided I wanted to be a ballet teacher.
I used to line up my friends and teach them the basics of ballet before I knew anything much myself. We would put on shows to raise money for charity.
I was born and brought up in Crosby, Liverpool, where my father was a window cleaner and my mother a school teacher. I left school at 16 to go to dance college and very soon was giving dance classes in the local church hall in order to make the money to pay for my own dance training. By the time I was 21, I was renting a dance studio of my own where I taught 150 pupils ballet, tap and modern dance. I had absolutely no money. I scraped together the rent and that was it.
When the keep fit boom arrived a few years later, I also started offering keep-fit classes for adults. By 1979 I had moved to bigger studios and had 2 teachers working for me. I also started making bright coloured leotards for my pupils to wear in the end-of-term shows I put on at the local theatre.
Most people at that time still wore black or blue nylon leotards and they didn’t fit like leotards do now. They were baggy, lumpy garments and I hated seeing my students looking like that, but I realised there was this amazing fabric you could get in bright colours called Lycra. My leotards were soon in demand and a lot of my friends were dance teachers, so they would see them in my shows and ask me to make them some.
Initially, I made the leotards on a friend’s sewing machine as a favour to other teachers, but as the demand grew I borrowed £50 from my mother and bought an old industrial sewing machine, which I installed in a friends attic.
The school was expanding, so I made them at all sorts of bizarre times, sometimes during the day and sometimes late in the evening after class.
In 1980 I married a Devon man, but continued to run my dance school and make leotards in Crosby during the week and commuted to Devon at the weekend. By 1985 I decided it was time to move to Devon permanently so I handed over the dance school to a friend and took my sewing machine with me!
By now the dancewear business was a separate entity and I thought I could do it anywhere, because by now I was selling to dance teachers and retailers all over the country. In Devon I hired a small unit on an industrial site for £35 a week. To begin with I was on my own – I would sew the leotards myself and then phone round to get orders. Sometimes I would close the place to go and deliver them. In the first year I had sales of £15,000. I took on a couple of machinists and a youth training scheme trainee and when my husband Tony retired, he joined the business too.
As the business grew we became very hands-on. We would go home when everyone else went home and have a quick bite to eat and then go back to work, often until two or three o’clock in the morning.
I also started buying in ballet and dance shoes to sell with the leotards. As the business grew we rented more space until in 2004 we bought some land and, for the first time, borrowed from the bank to build a brand new warehouse and offices.
During all these years I stayed in touch with dance teachers as I was the RAD local organiser for the North-West and then the South-West where I was also Chair of the Region at one time. I was instrumental in founding both the North-West and South-West IDTA Areas and was the first Chairman of the North-West Area. I became a trustee of the RAD and was a member of their finance committee for many years.
Many of our achievements at IDS have been driven by the hopes and dreams I had as a dance teacher and one of my passions is to share the business knowledge I have learnt over so many years with dance teachers and other business owners.
I run business seminars, mentor students from Exeter University and I have sat on the board of our local business group, export group and a national mail order group. I am very proud to be Patron of Tap Attack and Devon Rape Crisis Service.
In 2010 I was delighted to be honoured with an MBE for Services to Business in the Queen’s Birthday Honours and I have also been awarded a First Women Award, Everywoman Award and a Stevie Entrepreneur Award.
I firmly believe you can’t grow bigger than your dreams. And my favourite motivational saying is “If you reach for the stars, all you get are the stars . . . . if you reach for the heavens, you get the stars thrown in.”