FOR the past six decades, she has taught generations of youngsters to dance. They have all known her as Miss Hilda Riches - a name that is legendary in dance circles across the district.

At the age of 85, Miss Hilda is still teaching several classes a week, and this month she celebrated the 60th anniversary of her Bradford dance school. Not bad for a lass who initially preferred football to ballet...

“I started dancing when I was about seven. I didn’t really want to - it was too feminine for me. I was a bit of a tomboy,” smiles Miss Hilda. “My dad did the football training at Manningham Mills, they had their own team. I liked to kick a ball around but my cousin, Ethel Riches, who ran a dance school on Dale Street, thought I should take up ballet. I wasn’t bothered about it, but you didn’t have a choice back then. You did what you were told.”

Miss Hilda went on to take ballet exams, and qualified as a dance teacher when she was 21. She opened her dance school in 1960.

Today the Hilda Riches School of Dancing is on Little Horton Lane, close to the city centre. But her first premises were at Unity Hall on Rawson Square, where she opened the doors on February 13, 1960.

She later moved to Textile Hall on Westgate, and recalls a dramatic night in 1981 when fire ravaged the building.

“As soon as I heard about the fire I went straight down there. I didn’t even get dressed, I was bare foot. I just knew I had to rescue my dance certificates, they meant so much to me,” says Miss Hilda. “The firemen were hosing the place down when I got there. They said, ‘You can’t go in there, Madam.’ I said, ‘Do you want a bet?’ I marched in, in my bare feet, and got my certificates and whatever else I could that was still in one piece.”

After a short stint above a jewellers on Godwin Street - “the tap dancing set off the fire alarm so we didn’t stay long” - the dance school moved to its current premises in the 1980s.

Born in Manningham, in the shadow of the mighty Lister’s Mill, where her father and brother worked, Miss Hilda went to Drummond Road Infants then Green Lane School. Over the years she has danced in shows and presentations, and on the Alhambra stage she led the the corps de ballet in 1958/59 pantomime Dick Whittington, starring singer and radio star Ronnie Hilton. “There were two cats. I was Cat Number 2,” she recalls.

“I was always the biggest girl at ballet class, so often ended up playing the principal boy. I trained in ballet, stage and tap. I taught tap night classes at Shipley College. I still like to tap dance. I used to do back-flips and the splits - I wish I could still do that.”

Miss Hilda married her late husband, Ronnie, in 1958 and they had a son, Robert. “I danced the Can Can in a Catholic Players show when I was pregnant, and did the splits. I asked the doctor if it was safe and he said, ‘Yes, you’ll be fine’,” she says. “When I six months pregnant, I was a principal boy at a dance display at Co-op Hall.”

Today she teaches ballet to youngsters, from infants upwards, and adult tap classes. Some of her students have gone to enjoy professional dance careers.

“I have about 30 pupils a week, aged five to 82,” she says. “I knew from being 13 that I wanted to be a dance teacher. But it was just a hobby - it wasn’t meant to be my business for 60 years. I can’t believe all that time has gone by. I’ve had fantastic help, especially from Fiona. She’s the daughter I never had.”

Fiona Waller started going to Miss Hilda’s ballet classes aged four, and became a teacher at the school. She has worked alongside Miss Hilda for 30 years. “My mother, Heather Waller, trained at Ethel Riches’ dance school with Miss Hilda,” says Fiona. “It feels like a big family here. The children love Miss Hilda. She has a gentle approach and she talks to the pupils and listens to them. She’s devoted to them, and to the dance school. I have never known her not to be here. Whatever the weather, she comes to class. She is very special to us.”

Have popular TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Greatest Dancer led more youngsters to take up dance? “Oh yes, it’s had quite an influence, but there has always been a strong dance tradition in Bradford,” says Miss Hilda.

“When I set up my dance school I made a promise to my dad that I would keep the classes affordable. I came from a working-class family; I grew up in a back-to-back terrace with an outside toilet. Learning to dance changed my life.

“Dance teaches life skills. It’s good for confidence, deportment, fitness. All children should learn it.”

She adds: “The syllabus has altered, but the biggest change has been behaviour. I’m a disciplinarian - you have to be when it comes to ballet - but some children don’t like being told what to do. You have to be a bit firm sometimes. But they still come in and throw their arms around me. It’s like a big family.

“Without Fiona, my pupils past and present, and the parents, I wouldn’t be where I am. I want to say thank you to them all.”

Miss Hilda has the energy of a woman half her age, and retirement isn’t on the cards. “What on earth would I do with myself,” she smiles.