Footsteps of the first Billy Elliot

As a Yorkshire family consider remortgaging their home to send their son to the Royal Ballet School, Nick Ahad met the man dubbed the 'original Billy Elliot'.

It sounds desperately bleak.

A boy, barely 18, was shown to what would be his home for the next two years – a single room with a basin in the corner. Underneath the basin was a bucket to catch the cold water as it flowed straight out of the pipes. The only contact with home was a weekly letter.

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Yet it was among the happiest times of David Gayle's life.

"I arrived at Victoria with all my luggage. I took a train to Clapham Junction, went to this guest house and a lady showed me to my room.

"My parents were paying 3 and 10 shillings a week for bed, breakfast and evening meal. It was a tiny room with grey

paint and a single bed. There was a small television downstairs in the kitchen, but when the lady's husband came home, he would turn it off, because he didn't think I should be watching it.

"It didn't matter to me, because I was dancing all day and that was all that mattered."

It was the early 1960s when David left his home town of Ilkley to seek his fame as a dancer in London.

Accepted by the Royal Ballet School a day after his audition, he went on to become a dancer with the Royal Ballet, appearing on stage alongside Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn and eventually set up the famous Yorkshire Ballet Seminars attracting some of the world's best ballet dancers to the region.

David's interest in dance began when he was growing up in Ilkley.

"Music, that's where it began for me. I would listen to the radio and dance around to it," he says.

At the C of E school at Leeds Road, David also clearly remembers dancing in the corridor and his schoolmates clapping along, encouraging him.

"That was my first applause," he says.

The applause continued when the enterprising youngster organised his own concert at his Ash Grove home in Ilkley.

"I danced with a couple of girls to a wind-up gramophone and the children who came to watch paid a penny for the show, which included a glass of lemonade and a biscuit. I wrote the order of the programme on a scrap of paper. The outside toilet and the coal hole were the star dressing rooms."

David says he owes much to a number of people. Although his butcher father and mother were baffled as to where his creativity in dance came from, they were always supportive.

He also had early support from Skipton-based ballet teacher Mrs Margaret Jaffe, who attended Buckingham Palace with him when he received an MBE in 1991.

Those early classes led to the place at the Royal Ballet School. The recent story of young Keenan Faulkner from Barnsley whose family need to raise 100,000 to allow him to take up a place at the Royal Ballet School stirs memories for Mr Gayle, who also has words of advice for the youngster – and hopes he is under no illusions as to the difficulty of the path he has chosen.

"If one is going to be a professional dancer you need to have a great deal of attributes. Talent, determination, ambition, good health, a good physique, a good memory and be musical," he says. He adds, however, that it is not just hard work that young Keenan can look forward to when he makes it to London.

"He will find it so much better when he is around other boys who are also dancing and having male teachers. It is going to be a very different experience for him, compared to the one I had, but the thing that we will have in common is the sheer joy of having that amount of dancing to do."

After two years training at the school, David Gayle was taken straight into the main company and travelled the world with the Royal Ballet.

"When I was told that Sir Frederick Ashton wanted me to join the company, it really felt like I had made it. That's what you always hope for you while you are training," he says.

He danced for a relatively short period, until he was 28, but then began teaching around the world, giving lessons in places like New York and LA – where he unknowingly gave a dance class to film star Cyd Charisse – "I only found out later that she was the lady in the headband."

In 1973, perhaps Mr Gayle's greatest legacy began. Founding the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars, he had enormous ambition for the annual summer school.

"I wanted to bring the best in the world to work with the most talented young dancers we could find," he says.

Fulfilling his ambition, the list of teachers who have appeared at the seminars – still going strong under the eye of Marguerite Porter, is extraordinary.

Dame Alicia Markova, Dame Ninette de Valois, Wayne Sleep, Madame Irina Baronova are just some of the names David lured to Yorkshire, bringing the best of ballet to youngsters in the North.

Although he left the seminars in 2005, David keeps up to date with his legacy.

"The wonderful thing has been to see people come through the school and go on to have a great impact on the dance world. Kevin O'Hare, who went on to be a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, David Brintley, who is now running the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Russell Maliphant who runs his own company, the list is endless."

And, if he takes the advice of the "original Billy Elliot", young Keenan could be following in those famous, very elegant footsteps.

A DVD of Dame Ninette De Valois and Dame Alicia Markova in conversation, recorded at the Yorkshire Ballet Seminar in 1985, is being produced, along with a booklet of a talk given by Dame Ninette De Valois at the seminar in 1981. Profits from the sales of the DVD will go to the Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund and sales of the booklet will go to the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School scholarships. Details will be available next spring, 2011, on the Dancing Times website.