Karen Ainsley only took up dancing to cure her flat feet, but she loved it so much she bought the company. Chris Owen catches up with her
It was a doctor who persuaded Karen Ainsley to take her first nervous steps on the dance floor.
Unlike many little girls she had no burning desire to pull on ballet slippers or tap shoes, let alone perform in public.
But it was a fairly innocuous trip to her GP which was to change her life.
‘It’s the only reason all this started,’ she says, waving airily around the room.
‘It wasn’t because my mum wanted me to do it, unlike so many little are girls who are pushed into it.
‘It happened when I was about five. I was pigeon-toed, flat-footed and knock-kneed and the doctor advised me to take up dancing.’
That was 34 years ago and Karen was so smitten by the dance bug that, to coin a phrase, she bought the company.
Now 39, she was just 19 when, with her parents’ help, the gregarious young woman bought possibly Portsmouth’s most well-known dance school – the Iris Barnes School of Dance.
We are chatting in the reception room to the school’s various studios high up on the fifth floor of Venture Tower on Fratton Road with the city spread beneath us.
It’s Karen’s little piece of personal heaven.
So, did that doctor’s advice work?
‘It certainly did. The ballet training corrected the positioning of my legs because you have to pull up on the inside of your ankles.
‘The constant work on insteps really helped and my legs and feet just got better and better as time went on.’
But it was not just her physical condition which improved thanks to all that barre work.
‘Believe it or not I was very shy when I was a child. If truth be told, I still am.
‘But what dancing did for me, I’ve seen happen to so many, many other children.
‘It improved my co-ordination and my social skills, but the biggest thing for me was overcoming the shyness – I’m really not an outgoing person at all.
‘I suddenly realised that when I put on a costume and got on a stage I had the chance to be someone else, something I could hide behind I suppose.
‘You get consumed by it when you’re on stage.’
The traditional world of the dance school – ballet, tap, (especially tap, her favourite discipline) and modern – made such a mark on Karen that when she left Mayfield School at North End, she knew exactly which path she wanted to follow in life.
‘I would have loved to have been a professional dancer but I’m only 4ft 11in so that was never going to happen.
‘So, for me, the next best option was to teach.’
So, with a part-time job at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, she paid for herself to go to the Roynon Dance Centre in Southampton where she qualified. ‘Then at 19 I had the chance to buy the school I’d been going to since I was five.’
In her time it has moved from the Oddfellows’ Hall then the Regal Palace and Crystal Rooms at Fratton to the old Alliance House in St Mary’s Road, before ending up overlooking the city’s skyline in Venture Tower.
Karen adds: ‘These things go in cycles, but there’s no doubt that dancing at the moment is very popular thanks to shows such as Strictly, Got to Dance and So You Think You Can Dance.’
She has 110 pupils on her books aged from two-and-a-half to adults, but the numbers include only five boys whose ages ranged from 10 to 18.
Karen says: ‘It’s a shame there aren’t more lads, but that’s the way it’s always been.’
These days the conventional dance forms now also include jazz, disco and rock ‘n’ roll and Karen is joined by her sister Bobbie, 36, to teach these modern disciplines.
Karen is still on a high after her dancers triumphed at a national competition in October.
She says: ‘We’ve just had probably our most successful year since I took over.’
It came at the finals of the disco freestyle competition in Guildford run by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing when nine-year-old Grace Scannell, who has been dancing at the school since she was three, took first place and she triumphed again in the pairs with Megan Atkins, who is also nine.
Karen says: ‘In total we came home with 27 places, which is a record for us and I was totally thrilled for the children.
‘It’s been such an exciting time for us as we have several of the children in Cinderella at the Kings Theatre, we have recently had children in the English Youth Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, and to top it all we had our own show last month at the Kings.’
Karen took pupils to see just what is possible when they recently went to London to see Emma Green in Wicked in the West End.
‘Emma left us when she was 16 and was determined she was going to dance professionally and she’s made it.’ Another ex-pupil, Laura Green, has also appeared in Beauty and the Beast.
‘There are also a lot of ex-pupils who live abroad and who now own their own dance schools.
‘That gives me a huge amount of pleasure. We’re like a big family.’