Tribute to well-known Belfast and Newtownabbey dance teacher

Marie pictured on her 90th birthday.Marie pictured on her 90th birthday.
Marie pictured on her 90th birthday.
It was with great sadness the community learned of the passing of Marie Johnston on November 16 after a short illness.

Marie was a very well-known figure in the Rathcoole and Newtownabbey area and especially in the Valley Leisure Centre where she taught for over 40 years.

Rose Marie Ives was the youngest of six children born on May 23, 1927 in Quetta, Pakistan, to Sgt Major George Ives and his wife Sara while stationed there with the East Lancashire Regiment.

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When her father retired from army life, the family came back to live in her mother’s hometown of Sydenham and this is where Marie grew up and went to school.

Autum Leaves featuring Marie (far right).Autum Leaves featuring Marie (far right).
Autum Leaves featuring Marie (far right).

She left school at the age of 14 and worked for a brief spell in Short & Harlands.

She always loved to dance, and one day went with a friend of hers to audition for the ‘Barry Babes’ a children’s dance troupe run by Norma Barry. This was the start of her career in the Empire Theatre which used to occupy the site now home to Victoria Square in Belfast.

From the ‘Barry Babes’, Marie progressed to the ‘Barry Young Ladies’, a troupe of 10 dancers who staged seven shows per week. Her flair and versatility for all forms of dance resulted in her quickly becoming the troupe’s ‘Head Girl’.

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Marie stayed in the theatre until she met and married Desmond and had four children, Terry, Jackie, Mandy and Mervyn. They moved to Rathcoole in 1956. Sadly, Terry passed away just six days before her.

Marie, pictured in 1945, had a flair for all types of dance.Marie, pictured in 1945, had a flair for all types of dance.
Marie, pictured in 1945, had a flair for all types of dance.

Her passion for dance never waned however and in the 1960s she started a dance school with her former ‘boss’ Norma Barry in the Clarence Place Hall in Belfast.

In the 1970s she was approached by The Belfast Co-Operative Society who asked her to set up dance schools in Belfast and Carrickfergus. Marie continued to hold classes for the Co-Op for many years, each year staging shows in June and December for both classes, arranging everything from the routines to the costumes and music.

Her choreographic skills were in demand and she was asked to help out with a local gymnastics club which led to her becoming a qualified gymnastics coach. She also regularly choreographed the dance routines for the Dove Theatre Group’s annual pantos.

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During the 1980s Marie was asked by Newtownabbey Council if she would run children’s dancing classes in the new Valley Leisure Centre. This was the start of a long association with The Valley and her popularity soon saw the addition of keep fit and line dancing classes.

Line dancing class.Line dancing class.
Line dancing class.

At one stage, Marie was teaching children’s dancing, keep fit, line dancing and gymnastics at the leisure centre every week. The staff there just looked on her as part of the furniture and she was a very familiar figure walking up and down the short route between there and home.

She continued to stage children’s variety shows twice a year, first of all in the leisure centre itself and then in the Courtyard Theatre in Ballyearl.

She was awarded the Belfast Telegraph ‘Making a Difference’ award in 2004 for her services to the leisure industry, a well deserved accolade her family are very proud of.

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In 2015 Paul Reilly from Ulster Television made a short film about her keep fit class and found an amazing woman who demonstrated that she could still do high kicks at the grand age of 87!

Marie going through her paces in1988.Marie going through her paces in1988.
Marie going through her paces in1988.

It is estimated that during her career, Marie taught nearly 5,000 children from the age of 4 to 18. Just before she retired, she found out that she had actually taught the grandmother of one of her new recruits! Marie loved all ‘her girls’ and looked on them as extended family.

In all her 92 years, Marie touched the lives of so many people in so many different ways. From the children in her dance and gymnastics classes to the ladies and gents in her keep fit and line dancing classes and her friends and neighbours. Everyone who met her just loved her and immediately took her to their hearts. To say she will be missed is a huge understatement.

If ever anyone deserved the accolade of ‘making a difference’ it was surely Marie.