BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
By Jane Labous
Producer: Simon Coates
This edition features pieces on the theme of far-reaching change, but begins with Jane Labous on the trail of an elusive, Pied Piper-like figure on the Dorset beaches near Poole.
Like any rare creature, the beach dancer of Poole is hard to track down. When the sun shines he appears at low tide on the velvety white stretch of sand that runs between Branksome and Sandbanks. Here, on a hot day, the views across to Studland rival the Mediterranean; the slice of azure sea glimpsed through the fragrant pines, the drowsy hum of summer insects, the crackle of the sub-tropical palms in the ornamental gardens at Canford Cliffs. And here, if you peer down from on high, you’ll spot the beach dancer jiving and twirling and spinning along the shore with a smattering of tango; a shimmy of salsa; a hip-jigging, thigh-wiggling, shoulder-shaking groove of disco.
Unfortunately hot days are rare this summer, and I eventually spy the beach dancer on a single sunny afternoon in June as he gambols along in the dazzling light, eyes closed in a sort of ecstasy. I run up and venture a hello and he comes to with a dreamy look, pulling one white headphone from his ear. He’s sinewy and tanned and on the later end of middle-age, with a silver grey beard, sunglasses, a baseball cap, an old adidas tennis shirt and trainers worn and frayed by salt water. ‘Dance like no-one is watching’ reads a sticker on his right headphone. He scribbles his email in my notebook, but when I ask his name he shakes his head. ‘Just call me the beach dancer,’ he murmurs. Then with a smile he rocks on, his left hand fluttering balletically out towards the sea.
‘Oh yes, he brightens my day,’ exclaims one lady jogger on the promenade. ‘He seems not to have a care in the world. It really makes me smile.’ ‘We need more people like him to spread joy!’ calls another sunbather who’s been watching from afar. ‘He’s such a legend.’
The second time I meet the beach dancer is by appointment; four o’clock, he messages, we can talk when I finish. I spot him gyrating along the shoreline, followed Pied Piperesque by a trail of barefoot children who are diving, writhing, pirouetting behind him. They copy his every twist and turn, occasionally pausing to collapse with delighted giggles.
The beach dancer stops and the children gather around, flushed with excitement. ‘He’s the best dancer I've ever seen in my entire life,’ exclaims one eight year-old, flicking his hand like a rapper and sprinting back to his parents to show off his new moves. ‘He's a geezer,’ adds a little girl, casting him an awestruck expression.
Turns out the beach dancer is 63, a retired business consultant with a passion for dancing inspired by watching West Side Story when he was fifteen. ‘Later in life I used to spend evenings practising in front of the mirror,’ he says, ‘trying to do things I'd seen on TV.’ He boogies to Ashanti, KT Tunstall, Alicia Keys, Dido and Simply Red, his style a hotch-potch of techniques he admires. ‘There's a bit of hip-hop, a touch of ballet, even something from figure skating, jazz moves from Bob Fossy and whatever the hell bubbles up from my sub-conscious.’
I ask the beach dancer what he thinks about as he whirls along. ‘Nothing,’ he says, fiddling with the cord of his old-fashioned CD walkman that’s slung in a bumbag around his shoulders, along with first aid equipment for when he hurts his knees. ‘Being without thought, without all those words in your head, is a form of meditation.’
There’s only the music and the sea, the shifting sand beneath his feet. Every so often he notices people smiling, waving and pointing. ‘Sometimes people take photos of me close up without saying a word, as if I’m a force of nature, like Old Harry Rocks.’ If he doesn't go dancing he gets anxious, peering like a child from the window of his lounge, waiting for the rain to stop. When September dwindles he flies to Spain, and somehow I’m not surprised that the beach dancer is a careless summer grasshopper, ill-suited to cold weather.
After we’ve talked, I watch the beach dancer walk back along the promenade. He’s a slender, low-key figure against the spreading ocean and the late afternoon mackerel sky, with a grace and a lightness of foot even at rest. He settles his headphones back over his ears and skips up the steep stone steps behind the beach huts towards the snaking path to the cliff gardens.
And just like that… he’s gone.