Fulfilled living in later life

Friday 31st May 2024

My Story: June

Now living at Milward House in Tunbridge Wells, June, 97, enjoyed an incredible career as a professional dancer, sharing the stage with the likes of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, before opening her own dancing school where she directed the steps of just a few Royal feet…

In the lounge room at Milward House June is tucked beneath a tartan blanket waving her arms gracefully from one side to the other. The theme from Swan Lake plays in the background while two girls from the local Claremont School stand before her, mirroring her movements. It’s a masterclass in action from a venerable veteran of dance.

Born in Singapore in 1927, June spent her early years in Taiwan, before going to school in Egypt and then Eastbourne. Her father was the distinguished RAF pilot Harry “Wings” Day, renowned for escaping from German captivity numerous times and one of the planners of The Great Escape.

It was June’s stepmother who noticed her talent and enrolled her in dance classes as a child. As an adolescent, she danced in pantomimes for the Army and Air Forces in camps around England, securing her first solo performance in Mother Goose in Stow-on-the-Wold in 1940. “I never really felt nervous,” says June. “Once you’re on stage, you just get on with it.”

June then joined the company at Sadler’s Wells Theatre under Dame Ninette de Valois – the company later became the Royal Ballet and moved to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. “Ballet dancing could be very painful as at that time we were still using very soft pointe shoes,” says June.

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One of her favourite ballet pieces is the finale to Les Sylphides by Chopin. “I like how it is all in white, very ethereal. On one occasion I was dancing the solo part and my brother came to see me and had a front row seat. Afterwards, I asked him how he’d got on and he said, ‘very well, but which one were you?’ We all wore the same costume – white with feathers on our faces and our hair in nets and he couldn’t pick me out!”

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There were times when June was on stage while bombers roared overhead. “We went on doing it regardless. The Air Force people could be sitting in the front row and then there would be an emergency call and you would see them all getting up and going.”

Finances were precarious, which in turn led to some exciting adventures. “You weren’t paid to rehearse, so it was a very, very poor time,” says June, “You found yourself waiting for someone to come along and do a show and choose you. That’s how I got to Spain – a bus load of us went over the Pyrénées. After the show, a friend and I got left behind and ended up having to climb over the wires to get back into France. On the way home, I ended up spending time in a couturier centre in Paris, watching all these magnificent costumes being made. We lived with some students, and they didn’t have any money either, and so our staple meal became potage, bowl after bowl of potage.”

At the Royal Ballet, June shared not only the stage but a dressing room with Margot Fonteyn. “It always amused me because her under things were all silk and mine came from M&S!”

June also remembers how hungry she would get. “We’d rehearse all day and I remember going out and finding an old man selling sandwiches round the back of the Royal Opera House.”

In the post-war years, June went to perform at Caux, Switzerland, where the Moral Rearmament Organisation (MRA) held conferences to bring together members of the international community to work towards reconciliation. It was here that she met her husband, David Bowerman, who was working in agriculture for the Government.

On retiring from the stage, June opened a dancing school, teaching children aged four and up. The then Prince Charles and Princess Anne came for lessons in ballroom dancing. “We had a studio in London right next to Harrods,” recalls June. “We were on the top floor and I remember looking out of the window and seeing the Queen visiting Lord Roberts Workshop [which provided work for disabled soldiers and sailors]. Charles and Anne waved and shouted ‘hello, Mum!’ but I don’t think she noticed us.”

Another student of June’s was a young Sophie Rhys-Jones, who came to June’s dancing school at Brenchley. “She was a very beautiful girl and had terrible trouble when the press were trying to find out who she was. I’d find them sitting out in the garden.”

Having spent many years teaching dance to children, June enjoys the times when children come to visit Milward. Asked recently what wisdom she’d pass on to the next generation, June wrote ‘Do exercises every day’. Coming from a former dancer, who has lived to a grand old age, these are wise words indeed!

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