My best teacher - Arlene Phillips

17th October 2008 at 01:00
The Strictly Come Dancing judge found inspiration through a gentle teacher and her mesmerising voice

They say that school years are the most formative of your life. Mine certainly were. I went to Manchester Central High School for Girls and I believe that my experience there accounts for some important elements of my personality today. I wouldn't be the same person if I'd gone somewhere else.

Take, for example, the rather high demands that I make of myself and of other people. At Manchester High, you were judged every day by your ranking. You needed to be in the top stream (I, unfortunately, was in the stream that was one from the bottom). And in every class and every subject you were marked and ruthlessly categorised according to your position.

I remember vividly that I once came bottom in an art exam and the ins and outs of why I'd done so badly had to be discussed in front of everybody in minute detail. No subject, it seemed, was ever done just for the fun of it. Even PE lessons were graded.

At morning assembly we'd all stand in lines according to which stream we were in. So everybody knew their place in the pecking order. I'll never forget the sneering expressions of those girls in the A stream. They treated the rest of us as though we were slightly simple; absurd when you think we'd all passed the 11-plus to be at that school. So we couldn't have been that thick. But later in life those feelings of inferiority can come back when you least expect them. You have to remind yourself that, hey, you haven't done so badly after all.

I can't say I loved my time at Manchester High. Oddly, perhaps, for someone who went on to become a dancer - one of the most disciplined professions on earth - I rebelled against the proverbial "rod of iron" approach. I'd been to ballet school from the age of eight and I understood instinctively that there was a purpose to the discipline there. But at Manchester High it just seemed harsh, unkind and pointless.

Our geography teacher, for example, would order us to keep our hands on the table. She'd pace the aisles with a ruler in her hand and wrap our knuckles for the slightest error or misdemeanour. Then again, almost every teacher seemed to teach by shouting at pupils or humiliating them. Fear and domination were the keys to their method.

It's no wonder, then, that I have such fond memories of one teacher who was the exception to the rule. Miss Silverman, my English teacher, was a lovely, gentle soul. She was young, small and dark and very quietly spoken. She had a kind of dreamy delivery that I found enchanting. Even back then, at the age of 11, I was the kind of person who couldn't sit still for a minute, but in her lessons I felt a sense of calm descending and I wanted to listen to her. I was mesmerised by her softly spoken ways.

She was passionate about her subject and her passion was contagious. I already knew about the power of performance through dance, but she opened my eyes to the world of drama and how those two disciplines can work together.

Even now when I'm choreographing a London stage show, such as Flashdance or The Sound of Music, I occasionally think back to the plays Miss Silverman cast me in at school. I understood through her that dance is inextricably linked to drama. It doesn't work otherwise.

I also thought about her when I came up with the idea for the ITV drama, Britannia High, which is centred on a performing arts school. Miss Silverman, I thought, was exactly the kind of teacher you'd want in a school that fosters the talents of young people.

Sadly, she was my teacher for only two years. There was never anyone at that school who I liked or respected as much. I've no idea what happened to her or anyone from the school. When the time came I literally danced out of those gates and never looked back. But I'll always be grateful to Miss Silverman.

Arlene Phillips, dancer and choreographer, is a judge on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. She is the choreographer behind the new ITV drama, Britannia High. She was talking to Daphne Lockyer.

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