Fortune found in her feet

TARYN UTIGER
Last updated 07:33 07/05/2013
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JONATHAN CAMERON
Val Deakin took centre stage at her dance studio in St Aubyn St as she celebrated 40 years of dance theatre.
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Val Deakin took centre stage at her dance studio in St Aubyn St as she celebrated 40 years of dance theatre.

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World War II had finished and Val Deakin's father had not long returned home from serving in the airforce when the young girl's home life changed forever.

Deakin's mother had managed the family grocery shop in her husband's absence, and felt as if she had finally gained some power and perhaps some independence.

The return of her husband after the war marked the end of her time at the helm of the business and the feeling of loss was more than she could cope with.

In 1949, after suffering from depression, the wife and mother left the family.

Val Deakin was a child at the time of her mother's early departure and can remember crying her eyes out.

The budding ballerina said she felt as if her heart was breaking, not only because her mother was absent but also because she was lamenting the loss of handmade dancing costumes.

"I remember crying and asking my father, 'Who will make my clothes? Who will make my costumes?'

"He said, 'You will'.

"The next day a sewing machine arrived," she said.

Deakin begun sewing clothes for herself and her father, John, and started making the costumes for her dance routines.

That sewing machine has travelled the world with Deakin.

The respected dancer and choreographer used the machine and her skills as a seamstress to fund her tuition in Wellington and her studies in London.

Last week, the Val Deakin Dance Theatre celebrated its 40th anniversary, but the woman at the forefront of the company was never meant to be a professional dancer.

"I was supposed to go to university and study phys ed, but just before I was meant to go, my path was changed.

"An adjudicator [of dancing competitions] told the organisers that she wanted to see me at the end of the week. She said to me, 'I have a dance studio in Wellington. Would you like to come and train with me?' "

Known for seizing opportunities, Deakin packed up her sewing machine and moved to Wellington to begin full-time training as a dancer. Deakin soon began searching for new challenges and a bigger stage.

"Two male dancers in her studio said, 'We are off to England. You should come too.' "

It took 4 1/2 weeks on a boat to get to England from New Zealand, but Deakin didn't let that deter her from her dream.

In England, she studied at the Art Educational School and the Royal Ballet School, where yet again she used her sewing machine to make enough money to live.

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"That sewing machine sustained me. Not only did I make things for myself, but I made things for other people and that gave me an income," she said.

Deakin was overseas for 18 years and during that time she performed with and directed some of the most well-known companies in the world.

"It's called self-determination. That's what you need. Dance has provided me with the ability to move, the ability to express myself, experience travel and to meet many very interesting people," she said.

Having danced in London and Turkey, Deakin made the trip to the United States in 1967, where she met Jane Roseman, an American dancer who now lives in New Plymouth and dances with the Val Deakin Dance Theatre.

Roseman followed Deakin back to New Zealand in 1972, when the woman who was born and raised in New Plymouth decided to establish her own dance academy.

"I have lived in four different countries, but New Plymouth has always been my home. I was always drawn back to the mountain and the sea," Deakin said.

In 1973, the dance theatre opened and Deakin began what has become a 40-year tradition of excellence.

The dance theatre has presented a wide variety of dance performances in New Zealand and England, ranging from small modern and jazz works in art galleries, to full-length classical ballets in large theatres.

The Val Deakin Dance Theatre is the second longest-running dance academy in New Zealand, behind the Royal New Zealand Ballet, which was formed in 1953.

Over the 40 years, the dance theatre has given more than 515 performances of various different works.

While Deakin, who has been staging her own shows since she was 10, said she could not pick her favourite ballet, she did remember her first experiences with dance.

When she was young, her father, who, she says, encouraged her every step of the way, used to stand her on top of his feet and dance with her around the house.

"My father was a big believer in doing everything with rhythm and used to always say to me, 'Your fortune is in your feet'."

Deakin's father was a champion boxer and an accomplished ballroom dancer who let nothing stand in the way of his children's dreams.

"I remember telling my dad I wanted to fly a plane and he told me I could, because women could do anything.

"He was certainly a great teacher," said Deakin, who was awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal in 1993.

"For me, dance is about all about rhythm and expression. I feel like I am in the right place when I am dancing," she said.

Over the last four decades at the dance theatre, Deakin, who has made costumes for countless shows, has watched on as more hired costumes appear on stage.

"Not a lot of mothers know how to sew or have the time to.

"It's a shame because the quality of work in the hired or bought costumes is not the same," she said.

In 1981, the trust purchased the old Methodist Church building in St Aubyn St, New Plymouth, giving the company a permanent home.

Deakin, who would not reveal her age, said she would dance for the rest of her life, as well as continue to make costumes.

"When I left school, my father was dying with the big C.

"You didn't tell people your father was dying, and you didn't tell people your mum had left. You just got on with things.

"I started sewing to support myself, and here I am now.

"If anybody, male or female, puts their mind to it and gets an education, they can achieve anything," she said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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