Celebrating Women: Get into the groove with Dee Quemby

Wasn’t it wonderful watching the Oscars last night with the amazing line-up of older women nominated? Glenn Close, Melissa McCarthy, Rachel Weisz (swoon), Olivia Colman (please be my best friend) – incredible actresses all of them.

On top of the likes of the Dames – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Joan Plowright and on and on – it’s such a change from the days when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were told they were “washed-up” by their early 50s.

Now I can add another name to the list: today’s Celebrating Women star Dee Quemby.

Dee has spent her life in showbusiness. She started learning to tap dance when she was 18 months old and appeared in her first show a few months later, became a tap teacher when she was 19, was one of the first women stand-up comedians to work professionally – including being one of only two female comics to appear on The Comedians – and starred as Tallulah “Lulu” Dingle in Emmerdale.

She’s now in her 70s, but has to intention of slowing down.

Dee not only runs Tap Works & Co, a weekly dance workshop in her native Loughborough, but later this year she starts shooting a full-length feature film.

How incredible is that?

Dee as Tallulah 'LuLu' Dingle in Emmerdale
Dee as Tallulah ‘LuLu’ Dingle in Emmerdale

I particularly love what her director, James Smith of Raya Films, has to say about her character: “The lead actor plays a lonely, but tough woman who refuses to conform to any norm of settling down, retirement or the usual stereotypes.”

Sounds like the perfect 50Sense woman!

I tried to get more details, but they’re keeping their cards close to their chests and all I could find out was it’s a thriller sent in a rural location, with “a number of unsettling incidents”.

But I think I fell in love with James when he told me: “Having Dee on board lends experience to the cast.”

Yes! Yes! Yes! A woman being praised and valued for her years and experience! I think I may have to lie down…

I also have a confession about the other reason I asked Dee to be on 50Sense: I did tap dancing when I was a young girl, too. We used to meet at the old Co-op Buildings on Heaton Road under the “tutelage” (she wasn’t that good) of an old music-hall dancer and I loved it. I still get itchy feet when I watch Strictly Come Dancing (although that could be my menopausal skin).

Here, Dee tells us more about her early days, her career and why we should all show off our fancy footwork…

How did you begin dancing?

I was taken to dance classes in Loughborough, in Leicestershire, in 1947 at the age of 18 months and I appeared in my first show – a pantomime – when I was two. 

None of my family were involved in entertainment at all, but my mother had always wanted to dance. However, my grandparents couldn’t afford for her to go in the 1920s. So as soon as she could, she enrolled me in a dancing school.   

My granddad was the landlord of the pub where we lived in Shepshed and he would sit me on a table as he mopped the floors and we would sing all the old music-hall songs together. I remember going into the bar with my tap shoes and dancing for the regulars!

What happened after that?

I qualified as a dance teacher when I was 19. At that time, in the 1960s, tap was considered very old-fashioned and not many schools taught it. But I felt passionate about it and had many children in my tap classes. 

I taught at a school for 50 years and then started Tap Works & Co five years ago as I didn’t want to stop tapping.

Tap dancing is a great way to keep fit and active and having to remember routines is also a great to keep the brain going.

Tell us more about Tap Works…

Tap Works is a weekly drop-in workshop so many former pupils, some in their 50s, have come back to me. I also have two ladies in their 70s.

I absolutely love the tap workshops and I love having older beginners come along – we have such fun. 

Dee and Stephen Mear
Dee with her former student Stephen Mear at Scrooge the Musical

Have you taught anyone famous?

I won a teacher-and-pupil award in 1979 with Stephen Mear, the West End and Broadway choreographer and director. He was my pupil from the age of three to 17.

He’s since won two Oliviers and other awards and this year, he’s reuniting with Sir Matthew Bourne for a new production of Mary Poppins in the West End. I’m so proud of him.

Plus many other pupils have joined amateur companies and now choreograph the shows. 

What else have you done?

I worked for 28 years as a comic – I met Jayne Tunnicliffe that way – and I played Lulu Dingle in Emmerdale. I also played Judy Garland in “Death By Excess” Hollywood Godessses for Sky and I’ve appeared in The Last of the Summer Wine, The Comedians and a few films.

It must have been very exciting to get a lead in a film at this stage in your career…

I’m so thrilled that someone has written a film with an older woman in the lead and I can’t wait to get started with it. I haven’t acted for a while and as I’m now 73, I thought that was the end of my acting career.

Finally, what would you say to my readers who are thinking about learning to dance?

A lot of people tell me they would have loved to have learnt tap dancing but say they are too old now. I always encourage them to come along as it is never too late and I’m so proud of what they can do after a few weeks.

Plus tap has brought me many friends. My husband died ten years ago and we had no family, but some of the pupils I taught as children now live nearby and they really look after me if I need it and we go to shows, which is so lovely.

I count myself very lucky to have such wonderful friends.

I’d love to know what sort of dancing you’d like to learn? Or what you can do! Leave me a comment below. If you’ve enjoyed this, please like and subscribe and share with your friends.

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