Always a smile and a wave and the best coffee in town

Cuba Character’s interpreter, Pip Steel, talked to Deirdre Tarrant, founder of Footnote Dance and Director of Tarrant Dance Studios. Based in the Barber Building at 125 Cuba Street, Deirdre had many memories to share of the studio and being a part of the Cuba community.

Deirdre, tell me about...

Footnote Dance Company dancers rehearsing Vinyl Oven.Footnote Dance Company dancers rehearsing Vinyl Oven, 1995. Ref: EP-Arts-Dance,modern,includes Footnote and Impulse-01.

The red shoes

Synonymous with the desire to dance – these actually were a gift from Mary, Tanya, Marie, Glen, Brigette and Virginia at the end of our Plastic Sandal Road tour. One of the earliest tours and at the very beginning of Footnote coming into being we took to the road on a summer trip to camping grounds and music festivals. We all made up the choreographies and had a lot of fun along the way.

Memorable in this early era was getting completely rained out at the Brown Trout summer festival near Dannevirke and having to abandon the tent in the early hours of the morning! I had dancers and children to contend with and I suspect this should have dampened aspirations to tour dance! Not so as one of my greatest pleasures since has been the travelling and working in schools and communities all over the country.

The studio

If walls had ears and especially the staircase and the sofa which have seen jubilation, trepidation, exhaustion and anticipation and been a daily ritual for thousands of dancers for over 50 years.

One Saturday morning I arrived to teach the littlest dancers – they greeted me with "there's an old man in the studio. He's dancing." Assuming one of Cuba St's more lively personalities had made his way up two flights of winding wooden stairs I went in to gently extricate him...To find Alexander Grant at the barre doing ronds de jambe!

Possibly our most famous ballet kiwi, he had come back to visit New Zealand on a reminiscences holiday and simply walked into the studio. He had studied so many years before with my own original teacher, Jeane Horne. As he left NZ to dance at the Royal ballet during the war and was travelling by boat to London on his 21st birthday, I had great pleasure in holding Sir Alex's 21 party – he was 72!

Two ballet dancers sitting and doing foot exercises.Ballet dancers Alexander Grant and Rosemary Johnston, 1964. Ref: PAColl-8050-03-08.

The street

Such a community and still one of the few places that the owners of the shops and businesses are actually there working pretty much on a daily basis.

The Cuba Street Carnival was a great celebration for the street but got too big and too successful! Last year CubaDupa was born and thousands of Wellingtonians flocked the street for a weekend of food and fun. Much to my family's and student's amusement there was I with my head upside down on billboards and walls all over the street! A great publicity stunt and one that really made me think about how long I have been there!

35 years teaching and with the company and counting the years further as a dancer myself. Never a dull day and always a smile and a wave and the best coffee in town. We celebrated the building by making a film of many memories and shows that had been made upstairs in the studios and projecting the film on to the outside of the building. I actually cried as I stood in the street watching!

Crowd sitting in front of the stage at Cuba Street Carnival.Cuba Street Carnival, 2005. Ref: PADL-000121.

The building

In 1985 there was a decision to change fire escapes and the wonderful iron stairway on the front of the building came down! We used to climb out the window to have lunch sitting on those stairs!

We called the Footnote programme Five Out Front and Dean Zillwood climbed out onto the opposite roof to photograph Scott, Paula, Monique, Samara, Guy and myself literally hanging off the stairs – the day before they were taken down forever. I fought hard to save the interior staircase which is such a feature of the building and is still there today.

The Wellington harriers turned 100 in March this year and came to visit on the day – they had their beginnings at 125 [Cuba Street]. I took over the studios from Dorothy Daniels and Valerie Bayley and still have their original sign hanging in the dressing room.


Cuba Character is open in the Turnbull Gallery until 11 September 2015. Come by and experience both the familiar and the unknown of one of Wellington’s most famous streets.

By Pip Steel

Pip, who spent many years teaching, has returned to study at Victoria University as a student of Museum and Heritage Studies.

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