PHOTOS: Remember Unanderra's Williams dance school?

From the 1950s to the 1990s the Williams School of National Dancing taught Highland dancing to hundreds of students, many of whom will gather at a reunion in May, writes LOUISE TURK.

The late Joan Williams was so passionate about teaching national dancing that she continued to instruct students from a seated position in a wicker chair, aged in her 80s.

She taught for more than 40 years and her dance school was like no other.

Mrs Williams gave lessons from a room in her home, the historic Nudjia which is perched high on the hill in Cummins Street, Unanderra.

The students were treated like family. When mothers arrived to pick up their children, they would often bring a plate, come into the house, and join the Williams family for supper around the kitchen table.

'We want this to be a chance for Mrs Williams' pupils to renew old friendships and to reminisce about the old times.'

Hundreds of girls and boys attended the Williams School of National Dancing between the mid 1950s and the late 1990s. The school produced multiple champions, teachers and adjudicators.

As well as entering competitions, the students were encouraged to be community-minded and they performed at school fetes and street parades, and at hospitals, churches and nursing homes.

"Students were able to learn and foster lifelong friendships in a friendly home environment where they were treated as part of the extended family," recalls Annette Williams of her mother's school.

"The cost of the lessons was always kept to a minimum staying at 50 cents (if you had it) for most of the 40 years."

Those connections are being reignited with a reunion of former students planned for Saturday, May 3, from 11am to 4pm at Nudjia.

"We want this to be a chance for Mrs Williams' pupils to renew old friendships and to reminisce about the old times," says Annette.

"All we ask is that everyone come along for an afternoon of fun and laughter and bring a plate. Kilts are optional."

The legacy of Mrs Williams, who passed away in 2002, has been preserved by her children Patricia (Pat) Rumble, Judith and Annette.

Annette owns and lives at Nudjia, which was built in 1874 by Warren William Jenkins and his son William (Bill) Jenkins.

An exhibition on the Jenkins family - who received one of the first five land grants in the Illawarra - is on display in the 1839 Nudjia Museum, which adjoins the main house.

Annette, who has a keen sense of the importance of history, has maintained the "dancing room" exactly as it was for all those decades.

The Williams' daughters have also kept their mothers' dancing swords, original tape recorder, award cups and trophies, attendance books, newspaper clippings, and a trunk full of competition costumes including kilts, waistcoats and Scottish pumps.

The story of the dance school began in 1950 when Mrs Williams and her late husband Stan, an accounts manager at the Port Kembla Steelworks, bought Nudjia and moved in.

The homestead appealed to them because it was set on a very large block of land and Mrs Williams, an accomplished horse rider, wanted to keep horses.

Yet the couple had to do quite a bit of work to restore the house to its former glory.

"It was run-down, vandalised and no one was living in it at the time they moved in," says Annette.

"There were broken windows and no floors so dad had to bring it back as close to the original state as he could."

Mrs Williams - who was related to American actor and dancer Ginger Rogers - was also a former national highland dancing champion.

"Our grandmother Hebe Singleton was a dancer and then mum was interested in Scottish dancing as a very young girl and then she became a champion," recalls Annette.

"We've still got all her cups and medals and she was very well respected around the country as a Scottish dancer."

Mrs Williams loved to share her stories of dancing and competing with her eldest daughter Patricia.

Patricia then asked her mother to teach her some highland dances.

In 1956, a 10-year-old Patricia performed her Scottish dancing routines at the Wollongong Eisteddfod and brought home a trophy.

The youngster started competing in eisteddfods around NSW with great success.

Patricia's achievements spurred on her mother to take on more pupils which led to the establishment of the Williams School of National Dancing, attracting children from across the Illawarra and Southern Highlands.

Good elevation, co-ordination and balance are essential to Scottish dancing - especially for the famed Scottish sword dance in which the dancer crosses two swords on the ground in an X shape, and dances around and within the four quarters of it.

"You had to be very fit and disciplined to do well at Scottish dancing," says Patricia.

"You had to practise if you wanted to do well."

Patricia danced in eisteddfods until the age of 19.

"Mum used to come with me around NSW and I had my grandmother Hebe in the audience a lot of the time," she recalls.

Judith and Annette also began learning Scottish dancing and the school grew in numbers.

Several of Mrs Williams' students went on to become dance teachers and adjudicators of national dance at eisteddfods.

Annette and Patricia remember their mother as a friendly people-person who enjoyed having a house full of students and music. Most of the time they danced to music played from a tape recorder but sometimes a piper would play live music.

"This house would rock with pipes, let me tell you," says Annette.

The lessons were conducted on weekday nights and weekends and Nudjia was always a hive of activity. When Mrs Williams became too old to execute the jumps, she would instruct from a chair and ask the senior students to demonstrate the steps.

It was a second home for most of the students, recalls Patricia.

"The girls felt very connected here because they were treated as family," says Annette.

"There's been a few students who have passed away, since mum stopped teaching, so we have bought a chair for the reunion, in memory of mum and past students.

"The reunion is mainly about getting together and reconnecting and networking and celebrating our past."

Annette and Patricia are no longer highland dancing yet it is very much part of their identity.

"As soon as I could walk I was 'sword dancing' over knives and forks," says Annette.

The sound of bagpipes is still moving for the sisters.

"They make the hair on the back of my neck stand up," says Patricia.

The dance school was affiliated with the Illawarra Pipe Band for many years with the dancers performing with the musicians at numerous public events.

Annette says while their mother was a teacher of dance her greatest legacy was inspiring others to work together.

"Mum was generous in terms of her volunteer work and she was very community-minded.

"She had very strong ties to the community and her church, where she arranged the floral displays in the church every week.

"That has really made an impression on us because we grew up with those values".

Those wishing to attend the reunion should email or call the organisers on 4227 2183.

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