TOTP Annual 1976: It's Tough, Being a Pan's Person
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ITS TOUGH BEING A PAN’S PERSON
Every year, hundreds of would-be dancers write to the BBC, asking how they can join Pan’s People.
It isn’t easy, of course. But miracles do happen occasionally. And every so often, a dancer may leave the troupe, and there is suddenly a vacancy to be filled.
The latest addition to the ranks of Pan’s People is lovely Susan Menhenick. And for Susan, it really was a dream which came true when she learned that she had been chosen to become a Pan’s Person.
Just what is involved? And what does it take to become a professional dancer with one of TV’s top dancing groups?
Susan joined the group in mid-1974. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. There is a great build-up to becoming a Pan’s Person. And when a newcomer is chosen, it’s a team job – with all the other Pan’s girls getting together to agree on whether the new girl is suitable to join them.
First, the group made it known, through publicity, that they wanted a new dancer to join them. And as soon as such an announcement appeared in the Press, they were inundated with pleading letters from young dancers from all over the country, anxious to join Pan’s People.
But there was no rush about it, and the girls in the group – choreographer Flick Colby, Dee Dee Wilde, Babs Lord, Ruth Pearson and Cherry Gillespie – spent several months looking for the right girl to join them. They were determined not to make any hasty decision which they might later regret.
Susan’s name was one of the many they had to consider. Flick visited several dancing schools in her search for the right girl. Let Flick take up the story. “I went to see Susan at her dancing school in London. She was a very good dancer, there was no doubt about that. And she had a lot of potential. She also looked right – attractive, a certain kind of sexiness, and the right personality. But it was a decision I couldn’t make on my own. The other girls had to be in on it too. So we invited Susan to meet the rest of the girls, and we put her through her paces, just to see what she could do.
”As well as being a good dancer, we had to find out if she really hit it off with the rest of us. No matter how well a girl may dance, if she hasn’t got the right temperament or personality, then she’s no good to us.”
Susan was then invited to join the group – “on trial” for a week or two.
Fortunately she turned out to be fine. She immediately got on well with the other girls, and it was the proudest moment of her life, she said later, when she was eventually offered the job with them.
”I was so thrilled,” says Susan. “And my parents were absolutely over the moon with delight. Although I’d worked hard at dancing school, I thought it would be years before I ever got to join a really top professional dance troupe. And Pan’s People seemed way out of my reach. I realised that I was the lucky girl out of a thousand they could have chosen.”
Susan was only 18 at the time. And to go straight from dancing school into one of TV’s most famous groups was a very dramatic move.
But there were a few problems, she admits. “I was terribly nervous,” says Susan. “That was only natural, of course. But dancing in a school is very, very different from dancing with an outfit like Pan’s People.”
”The first time you do a TV show, you immediately begin to realise some of the problems. For a start, I found myself often in the wrong place at the wrong time. I found myself frantically wandering around, looking for the cameras.”
”Learning ballet at dancing school, and then being thrown in with Pan’s People, with their way-out, contemporary funky dancing – well, it’s simply poles apart.”
It took nearly six months, she says, to adapt properly to Pan’s People. “After six months, I was just beginning to learn what it was really all about.”
She had to blend in her youth with their experience. “The other girls had all been dancing together for so long, and they really were a very close team,” she says.
Says Flick: “Susan had to start right from the beginning. And, let’s face it, it can’t be easy, coming in with a team of very experienced professional dancing girls who have been together for nearly eight years.”
Cherry Gillespie was the youngest of the pack, before Susan joined them. Cherry, too, had come straight from dancing school at the age of seventeen, two years earlier.
”I really felt sorry for Susan,” says Cherry. “For I’d had to face the very same problem two years earlier, and I knew just what she was up against.”
”But I knew she’d make it. It’s really only a matter of time, plus experience, before you begin to blend in with the others and adapt the proper style to fit in with everybody else.”
It wasn’t only Susan’s parents who were thrilled when she joined Pan’s People. Her little brother, Peter, then nine, was pretty excited too. “He came along to the studios and met all the girls, and asked them for their autographs,” says Susan. “Then he got in the habit of asking me to get the autographs of some of the pop stars appearing on the show.”
”And I later discovered that he was selling the autographs to his school chums for ten-pence each!”
”It’s very hard work, being one of Pan’s People,” says Susan. “A lot of people think we only work one night a week, when we do the TV show. This isn’t so, of course.”
The girls work a full six-day week. The day after Top of the Pops goes out on the screen, they start rehearsals for the following week’s programme.
Choreographer Flick Colby is told by the producer which record he wants the Pan’s girls to dance to the next week. Flick then gets busy, working out a new dance routine to the record number.
They start rehearsals on the Friday, and then continue with rehearsals right up to the day when they tape the show.
”Sunday is usually our only day off,” says Babs Lord. “Then we usually just flop down, almost dead, and try to catch up on some sleep.”
Away from the TV show, Pan’s People often do two or three cabaret spots in clubs each week. This sometimes means travelling out of London.
”We travel together, mostly by train, because it’s a lot quicker than travelling separately by road,” says Dee Dee Wilde.
”There is only really one real snag to dancing on Top of the Pops,” says Ruth Pearson, and the other girls all agree with her. “We can often spend three or four days rehearsing an intricate dance routine to a certain record. Then, on the Tuesday, when the new pop charts come out, we learn that the record we’re planning for the show has actually gone down in the charts, instead of up . . . so it’s out. Dropped.”
”We then have to do a completely different record number, and go on the programme with maybe only one day’s rehearsal on it. This really isn’t fair on us, because we are judged on our performance on screen. I’m sure viewers do not know that we’ve had to change the number, sometimes only a day before we do the show.”
Fortunately for all concerned, however, this doesn’t happen too often.
The Pan’s People have also branched out into the recording field. They made their first record, as singers, just over a year ago.
”The record didn’t really take off commercially,” says Dee Dee. “Let’s be honest, we’re really not singers – we’re dancers. We would like to make more records, though. But we are essentially a dance group. That’s what we are known for – and that’s what we’ll stick to.”
Working together all the week, the girls, naturally, see a great deal of each other. Two of them, in fact, share a flat together. Susan got together with Ruth to share a house in Chelsea, and Babs also stays there sometimes, to save travelling back home to her parents’ house outside of London.
”All six of us get on tremendously well together,” says Flick. “It’s essential that we all get on socially, as well as in our work. Otherwise, we could never work successfully together.”