Belle of the ballroom

TELEVISION PERSONALITY: Gwenethe Walshe and Dimitri Petrides. Walshe was dancing with the stars long before the popular television programme of that name.
TELEVISION PERSONALITY: Gwenethe Walshe and Dimitri Petrides. Walshe was dancing with the stars long before the popular television programme of that name.

Years before Dancing with the Stars was even thought of, a gracious, elegant and petite redhead from Wellington was among the pioneers who brought the delights of watching ballroom dancing on television into English homes. Her name was Gwenethe Walshe.

When she returned to Wellington briefly in 1951, accompanied by her first husband and dancing partner, Dimitri Petrides, she spoke about their televised ballroom dancing experiences.

"Television demonstrations are really very strenuous, although we enjoy them," she said of the appearances on Victor Sylvester's Television Dancing Club.

"The lighting in the television studio is so intense that in our first programme my turquoise taffeta frock was faded almost white by the time it was over."

Walshe and Petrides were Britain's first Latin American dancing champions, and became fellows and examiners of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (Latin-American branch).

While in Wellington, they appeared at the Majestic Cabaret in A Latin American Fantasy, where wearing evening dress was essential for admission, and judged New Zealand's first amateur Latin American dance championship.

The winners were Kevin Langfield and Whetu Tirikatene (later Tirikatene-Sullivan).
Tirikatene-Sullivan said her award was her first from what she called her "year of dancing".

She recalled Walshe had a beautiful, alabaster-like complexion and was approachable and professional, a tiny woman who spoke in a very English voice.

In an interview with New Zealand Free Lance, Walshe said most of her dancing frocks were made by Hilda White, a friend from Wellington who had lived in London for 15 years. They choose the materials together, with each at times getting the idea for the design.

"For dances which are strictly Latin American, we choose taffeta in all colours or satin," she said. "The taffeta frocks usually have flounces in different vivid colours, such as cerise and gold, and with one satin frock which is adorned with yards of silk fringe, I wear a frilled waist petticoat in cerise net."

Gwenethe Mona Walshe, the oldest of Thomas and May Walshe's three daughters, was born in Wanganui on February 5, 1908.

She took ballet lessons from the age of three, and at 19 opened The Gwenethe Walshe Studio of Ballroom Dancing in Willis St.

Her studio's after-hours phone number was in her mother's name and connected to the family home on The Terrace, where she lived with her parents and sisters.

During that era it was common for unmarried children to live at home.

In 1937, she went to live in London, and established a studio in Baker St the following year.

During World War II, she worked by day as a Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) nurse, and at night taught dancing at the Palace Hotel in Lancaster Gate.

Her later career included co-authoring Ballroom Dancing with Phyllis Haylor and Peggy Spencer, and acting as dance adviser for the 1992 movie L'Amant (The Lover).

Only a few years ago, Walshe retired to Australia's Gold Coast to be with family members. She died there on January 21, 2006.