Billie Barry: dance tutor a step ahead of the rest

Billie Barry taught 20,000 young dancers over a period of 50 years

Thirty-three years ago, in an unglamorous hall in the north Dublin suburb of Marino, I had my first close encounter with showbiz. I was six years old and attending my first tap class under the tutelage of a charismatic woman wearing a pair of golden tap shoes.

She was, of course, the legendary Billie Barry, who died yesterday in a Drumcondra nursing home, and I was just one of more than 20,000 young dancers to pass through the Billie Barry Stage School since its foundation in 1964.

Child star

A former child star from a theatrical family – her father, John Clarke-Barry, was a musician and her mother was an amateur opera singer – Billie was a child star who performed all over Ireland and Britain before working as a dancer, choreographer and singer. She then went on to found the stage school, which was already an Irish institution by the time I started tapping there nearly 20 years later.

Thanks to performances in big Dublin pantomimes and, of course, regular appearances on the Late Late Toy Show, Billie Barry's name became synonymous with child hoofers, and Angeline Ball, Jacinta Whyte, Brian McFadden and Samantha Mumba are just a few of the former Billie Barry kids who went on to become professional performers. To this day, whenever I tell people that I was a Billie Barry kid, the first things they always ask is whether I was in a panto or in the Toy Show.


Elite class

Sadly I was in neither, as in my day such things were limited to an elite class called the Theatre Group, but the school has always put on its own big stage shows in which all students took part, which is how I ended up dancing on the Gaiety stage wearing a pair of red polyester lederhosen.

These shows still take place every few years, and indeed the school's spectacular 50th anniversary show Gold runs at the Gaiety from October 28th to November 1st. Billie Barry's death will inevitably make the show a bittersweet affair, but today's Billie Barry kids will rise to the occasion.

And thanks to Billie herself, thousands of us who attended her classes over the years can visit Dublin’s oldest theatres and think: “I watched that curtain go up from the other side. I danced on that stage.” Billie Barry sprinkled some showbiz glitter into our lives, and you can never quite brush that off.