LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now

Dancing through the Years -

Doris Dowsett-Muench


Date of photography: 1st November 2017

Doris survived the Blitz, became a refugee from London, survived hardship, hunger, class discrimination, and many a romantic entanglement, but it was dance in all its forms that became her life’s passion, her salvation and her guiding light.   Dance has sustained Doris throughout most of her very long, full, and eventful life, a life that some would describe as extraordinary, though she is too modest herself to make any such claim.   Everyone who meets her and gets to know something of her remarkable past will clearly discern that, despite the difficult circumstances and the many obstacles that life has thoughtlessly tossed in her path, almost everything she has achieved has been done through her own strength of character, her determination and her sheer joie de vivre;  it is this that has kept her young, kept her going, and at 95 now, kept her dancing still.


The full story:

I met Doris Dowsett-Muench at her flat in south-east London, where I planned to photograph her, dancing;  yes, she might be 95 but she’s still dancing!   Dance and movement have been an important part of her life since she was a young woman and so they have continued to be, right up to the public performances she gave at the Greenwich Theatre and at Sadler’s Wells when she was already in her nineties.   She had an unfortunate fall last year and her damaged shoulder has not yet fully recovered, but once the camera is pointing in her direction and the music starts, Doris is on her feet.   She is back in her element and starts dancing, moving beautifully, with extraordinary grace.   For Doris, while there is life, the dance must go on;  you might fairly say that dance and movement have been the essence of her existence, the medium through which she expresses her love of life.


Her body may now be getting frail, but her mind is as clear and as sharp as ever it was, and she talks about the good things and the bad things in her life with equal and astonishing candour.   At 95, Doris would like to be remembered both the way she was and how she is now.   Without fear of judgment, she says:  “Milan, I have lived an interesting life, through some turbulent and some exciting times;  often surrounded by the most interesting people, I have done so many extraordinary things.   And I was no observer;  I was an intrinsic part of it all.   I made quite sure of that and there’s very little I regret!”


Doris has indeed lived a very long and full life, a life that some would describe as extraordinary, though she is too modest herself to make any such claim.   Everyone who meets her and gets to know something of her remarkable past will clearly discern that, despite the difficult circumstances and the many obstacles that life has thoughtlessly tossed in her path, almost everything she has achieved has been done through her own strength of character, her determination and her sheer joie de vivre.  


Born into a family of social reformers, Doris grew up in the slums of London’s East End.  She saw both her own family home and her school destroyed during the Blitz, a bombardment that so cruelly devastated great swathes of East London during the Second World War.   She was married twice, to men who were not only handsome but also just a little unorthodox.   A mother to five children, she knew what passion was and she knew all about rejection, but mostly, she prefers to talk about the good things in her life, about her association with the dance and the inspiring people she met, and how the medium of movement allowed her to channel her feelings and creative instincts.


Doris begins her story:  “I was born in Bromley-by-Bow, in East London, and socially, my parents were diametrically opposite:  my mother’s family had originally been wealthy and prosperous but the premature death of my grandfather had left my grandmother so bereft that she took to drowning her sorrows in alcohol and gambling away the family fortune.   She became increasingly ineffectual as a mother and all five of her children, including my own mother, were taken into care.   Though as a young woman, my mother was obliged to enter domestic service, working in wealthy households, just as hers had once been, she always aspired to the lifestyle of the middle and upper-classes.   On the other hand, my paternal grandfather and my father like him came from a solid, working-class background but they belonged to that generation of Labour Party pioneers who were closely associated with the early days of the Trade Union Movement.”


These were the days when George Lansbury, the famed politician, social reformer, and leader of the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935, strove to promote social justice, women’s rights, and world disarmament.   He was a man of strongly-held convictions, for the promotion of some of which he was jailed, twice:  the first time, for supporting the Suffragette Movement in 1912;  and the second time, for his involvement in the Poplar Rates Riots of 1921.   Doris’s grandfather, Robert Palmer, was Lansbury’s right-hand man for over 25 years.

“As I’ve already mentioned, my father, Philip Palmer, very much followed family tradition:  while working in the local Bryant & May match factory, he was deeply involved in the Labour Movement and in the frequent fights for the betterment of workers’ rights.   To be honest, what with his work and with all his Labour Party commitments, we saw very little of him at home, so engrossed was he with the demands of so many Labour causes.   That was the time when some of the earliest welfare provision was established for Britain’s industrial workers, including access to a dentist, and for years, my father organised and managed a working men’s ‘Sick Club’.   While he fought strenuously for equality and for improvements to people’s dismal lives, my mother tried desperately to maintain within the home the high moral and social standards she had inherited from her family - she was determined that, despite our modest circumstances, we would be seen to be different from the majority in our neighbourhood and we would behave differently too.   I was one of three daughters and, from the beginning, I was considered to be the bookworm, the brainy one in the family.”


I asked Doris if hers was an unhappy home, considering the fundamental difference between the aspirations of her parents.   Unhesitatingly, she replied:  “No, not really,  though I vividly remember that my mother sulked quite often, not speaking, sometimes for days.   She must have been a deeply unhappy woman and clearly never felt comfortable amongst her neighbours in East London.”    


Initially, Doris attended the Marner Primary School in Bow, progressing from there to the well-known and, at that time, quite pioneering co-educational Bow Central School, an institution that had already developed a reputation for high standards.   Doris remained there until she was just over 15.   In recognition of her obvious intelligence and her clear interest in learning, Doris was labelled as a potential high achiever, and she was twice awarded scholarships, to the Blue Coat School in Westminster and to a local grammar school, but both of these opportunities had to be turned down - her family simply did not have the surplus cash to purchase the obligatory school uniform.   With two other children around, the conditions for learning at home were not ideal either, so Doris had to do her homework in the Poplar Borough Library.   At Bow Central School, elocution lessons were offered to all aspiring pupils - having an East London accent was seen as a distinct disadvantage when searching for suitable employment, unless this was to be manual labour or domestic service.


“My first job was with Stapley & Smith Ltd, at 128 London Wall;  they were suppliers of ladies’ and children’s garments and I worked there for almost three years, receiving twelve shillings a week.   I loved it.   From there, I was sort of ‘poached’ for a job at George Brettle and Co. in Wood Street in the City of London, where I was paid over 35 shillings a week, a quite significant improvement.   The firm, based in Belper, Derbyshire, was the largest manufacturer of hosiery in the country and the London outlet had the enviable reputation of selling a variety of woollen garments of the highest quality to its monied customers.”  


“Then the War started and bombs began to rain down upon London.   I was only 18, yet I had to witness places I loved and places I’d worked in being destroyed and burned down.  I saw my old school, Marner, in flames in 1940 and our own home was completely destroyed by a direct hit.   In one great flash, we lost almost everything we had, though we did manage to rescue a wardrobe my father had built - it was so well-made that it supported the ceiling when the roof of the house fell in.   I still have it;  it connects me to the past and it’s where I keep the clothes I treasure most.   The whole of Bromley-by-Bow, indeed most of Poplar, was flattened during the Blitz.   Of course, the docks that lined the Thames were the primary target for these relentless arial attacks and Poplar was unfortunately very close to the river.   These were truly dark days for all of us but luckily, we all survived.”  


The War, of course, was never only about horrors and destruction;  it was also the time when many Londoners pulled together, helping one another to survive.   Since bombs are not very discriminating about whose homes they destroy, people of all classes and backgrounds met up in the public air-raid shelters, the only places of relative safety where one might survive the arial attacks.   And new life springs from despair:  new romances flourished;  children were conceived and born.  


Doris continues:  “Milan, I was almost in my twenties and, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in sex - I knew nothing at all about it.   My father sort of arranged my marriage for me.   Bill, my husband to be, was 23 and was at that time still serving in the British Army;  tall and handsome, he was certainly a dashing figure in his uniform - he was part of the force that liberated Denmark.   Though our two families were known to each other, I really knew nothing about Bill, the man I was going to marry.   I remember being mesmerised by his silences and mistook them for a sign of his intelligence, when in fact they were probably more of a sign that we had nothing in common and thus very little to say to each other.   Anyway, we got married during the war, in 1942;  I was just over 20 years old and we were to settle in Epping.   I wasn’t a maternal creature really and we didn’t have our first child until I was 26.   The War was over by then and a degree of normality had started to return.”


“By the time my first child was 6 months old, I started to think that being a wife and mother was not all I was willing to be, so I took the initiative to do something physical and joined some local Keep Fit classes.   When I was a girl, I had watched my two sisters dance - unlike me, my sisters were allowed to be frivolous, so one of them had dancing classes, while the other got away with murder.   I was considered the brainy member of the family, so I had to be the serious one.   I was also discouraged by my mother from doing anything that might be seen as showing off, and dancing was certainly seen as showing off.   My mother considered such things vulgar.”


Not only did Doris enjoy her Keep Fit classes but she also soon discovered that she had a seemingly natural facility for copying the moves with great precision, and it was not very long before she started to improvise and to create routines of her own.   At the same time, Bill and Doris were navigating the choppy waters of married life, as most people have to do, eventually having three children, two boys and a girl.   Bill was quite an unconventional man in more ways than one.   Following the conclusion of his Army service, he didn’t seem greatly interested in developing any kind of career for himself;  he would have been perfectly happy staying at home, attending to domestic duties and looking after the children.   But this was the 1950’s and, of course, in those days, the notion of a ‘househusband’ would have been virtually inconceivable.   He did manage to hold down a job as a signalman, on the railways, but Doris was the person who brought in the money that the family lived on.   Doris observes:  “Milan, I never saw what money he actually earned.   While he was capable of great warmth and kindness, he could sometimes be extremely insensitive.   One just accepted these things because one assumed that they happened in other marriages too.”


Doris did so exceptionally well in her Keep Fit classes that she was soon invited to take classes herself.   This was the time of post-war housing expansion in the suburbs and North London was no exception.  With the arrival of thousands of young families, the demand for Keep Fit classes, mostly for women, grew exponentially.   At that time, Doris was working almost full-time to provide services to four different local education authorities, as well as running her own private company.   But life in the suburbs, seemingly the home of dull routine for many folk - lots of people washing their cars on Sundays and spending their evenings in the pub - was never without interest for Doris:  she was an active member of a local amateur dramatics group, taking part in many performances and even becoming a leading lady.


Having mastered all the modules and begun to teach Keep Fit classes to others, not unsurprisingly Doris wanted to expand her dance horizons;  for three years, she attended classes in German Rhythmic Movement, called Medau, held at Kings Cross in London and, as a chorus member, she made her debut public performance at Wembley Stadium.  It was also there where she came across the performing team of the then well-established Margaret Morris Movement (MMM) and that company became the new focus of her attention.


The Margaret Morris Movement is still very much with us today and they claim:  “MMM gives an understanding of how correct breathing can increase stamina and range of movement, how working on posture can improve health and vitality, how using the body’s natural opposition can strengthen muscles, all this as well as balance, agility and co-ordination leading to being able to free the body to dance and the mind to be creative.”


“I joined MMM classes in Whitechapel but, in 1959, I  also went to their summer school, held at Kings College in Taunton, where I immediately excelled.   I was encouraged to take their 3-year course, and I did - not easy to manage alongside being a mother, giving Keep Fit classes, and coping with the journey from Epping to Barons Court.   I pursued this training during 1960-62 but never did the third year because the course closed.   Then, I started to perform with the MMM team on television.   We also performed at the Chelsea Arts Club.   I clearly had a natural talent, which some people resented but which the more generous-minded recognised.   Lots of people are able to dance, but I was told that I had the ability to put emotion into the dance.   I am still a diploma teacher of MMM - there are only two of us left from that original course.”


Doris didn’t keep still:  when asked to help with the development of dance for disabled children, she took on the task very seriously.   By then, she well understood how life-enhancing movement and dance could be for everyone, from the very young to the very old and for all those in-between.   Doris’s family was now well-established and the children were growing up;  marriage to Bill became, as is the case in lots of marriages, just a routine, almost a habit.   However, Doris continued with her dance classes, never seeming to tire of them.


It was around this time when Doris became close to the second man in her life, Harry.   He was divorced (after 30 years of marriage) a retired businessmen, a musician, and a charismatic individual;  he was an opportunist and “a bit of a con man too”, Doris says with a broad, knowing smile.   She shows me a photograph of him as a young man, in his British Army uniform - a handsome young soldier with an irresistible, cheeky smile.   When Doris met him, he was in his late fifties and he had obviously maintained much of his charm and his good looks.   Now in her mid-thirties and bored with her marriage, Doris fell for him and a year later, in 1965, her daughter Mari was born.   I enquired how Bill, with whom she still lived, had responded to these developments and she told me:  “He wasn’t much bothered.   We had drifted apart by then and, Milan, you might be amused to know, Bill took to Harry immediately and actually liked him very much.   Life has so many unpredictable twists, doesn’t it just?”


Like other strands of her life, Doris’s dance career also had a tendency to take the odd, unexpected turn and so it did once more, this time into Indian Classical Dance.   Her daughter, Mari was then just two years old.


“Milan, I am so pleased you asked me about this, it was such a significant period in my dancing life.   The world-famous Indian film star and apostle of Indian dance and song, Surya Kumari, was performing in London and I managed to get myself smuggled into one of her overbooked performances.   I was mesmerised by the beauty of this form of dance but I also secretly hoped  that I would be able to learn it too.   To my utter amazement, Surya picked me from the audience and invited me to perform alongside her on the stage.   She was deeply spiritual and she felt that I was a special person:  as a believer in reincarnation, she maintained that I must have been an Indian dancer in one of my former lives."  


"Surya was a Brahmin, a person of the highest caste, and that was reflected in all her conduct with others.   Many also perceived her as very autocratic and, when I joined her classes, she certainly demanded that I copy everything from her, so I did.   We danced and she hardly spoke.   But after only eight lessons, I was dancing in full costume at the Commonwealth Institute, in front of the Indian High Commissioner, and in 1969, we were touring the UK, including a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and a number of other prestigious venues.   Surya liked to maintain her distance but later on, we became close friends.   I was an associate with her company from 1967 onwards and I was with her before she died, in 2005, when she told me that we would dance together again.   She gave me a unique Indian name, Dayeswari, which means ‘Queen of Kindness’.”


On many occasions, Doris performed alongside traditional Indian dancers during their visits to London.   She never experienced any resentment or discrimination from these visitors;  she could easily have been seen as an imposter but instead of that, she was respected and the other dancers were proud of her skills and admired her graceful performances.


Through Surya, Doris was introduced to the dance company that was part of the Indian Cultural Society.  They performed mostly North Indian (Punjabi) traditional dance and music, called Bangra, and with this group she toured Devon and Cornwall.   She even performed on one occasion in Kensington Barracks to an audience of fifteen hundred soldiers.   The company also performed on television, appearing on Opportunity Knocks and The Generation Game.  


After a few moments’ reflection, Doris continued with her story:  “There came a point in my life with Bill when my instincts told me it was time to leave, I just had to get away.   We had been married for 28 years and we parted.   I was 48.”


“Harry had bought a large house in West Mersea, in Essex, and I moved in with him, taking my two youngest daughters with me - my eldest daughter joined us later on.   We lived there for a number of years before moving back to London, this time to Woolwich.”

In addition to restarting her dance tuition and classes, Doris acquired an Indian restaurant in Woolwich as well as part-owning and helping to run an Indian-owned clothes boutique;  this didn’t do too well until she substantially upgraded it - her high-quality, up-market boutique was soon employing eight shop assistants and acquired a prestigious nickname, the ‘Mini-Harrods’.


Harry was a complex man, capable of great charm and kindness and, indeed, great generosity but he could also be quite ruthless at times.   He always seemed to have money and it was evident that only a fraction of this could have come from his pension.   He owned boats and spent lots of time on the Thames maintaining them, staying away from home, sometimes for days.   At one point, he made an impromptu purchase of a large property in Deal, on the Kent coast, and spent a number of years restoring it.   He also expected Doris to manage aspects of it too, so Doris dutifully commuted between Woolwich and Deal, balancing the competing needs of several businesses, with little time left for her dancing and creative life, though she did manage to establish a dance company called, The Sacred Dance Group, in Deal.   This company performed all over Kent, even at Canterbury Cathedral itself.   While Harry’s affection for Doris and for his daughter, Mari, remained undiminished, Doris discovered for the second time in her life that she had a husband who was effectively leading a double life.  There was never a dull moment for Doris!   Eventually, she and Harry separated amicably and he died in his early 70’s, on his boat, alone, but seemingly not having been unhappy with his lot - he certainly lived a memorable life to the full.


Now in the late autumn of her years, Doris still lives independently in her own flat, acquired in the 1970’s.   Her children are all middle-aged now, of course, and lead their own independent lives, but Doris is not one for sinking into an indolent old age.  Her creative spirit, her desire for self-expression and dance were energised once again in 2014:  at the age of 92, she joined both the Woolwich Singers, a community choir, and also The Tramshed Theatre Company in Greenwich.   With Teatro Vivo and Greenwich & Lewisham Young People's Theatre, Doris played the role of a refugee in Bertold Brecht’s most famous anti-war play, Mother Courage and her Children.   To critical acclaim, they performed at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, on the streets of Lewisham and Greenwich, at the Albany Theatre in Deptford, as well as a number of other venues.   Unsurprisingly, Doris was the oldest performer in the company.  


In this connection, I recently had the privilege of meeting Judy Gordon, herself a dancer, choreographer and artistic director.   In 1998, she formed a charity, the Montage Theatre Arts Company, in Lewisham, specialising in developing programmes of drama, music and arts for the young but also for elderly people.   Judy’s work was very much based in the tradition of ‘physical theatre’ and Doris found her way of working very stimulating.   Judy observes:  “As soon as Doris arrived in my class, I could see she was a born performer;  she moved her body with astonishing grace, she communicated emotion very effectively, and above all, she memorised the moves and repeated them with remarkable ease and accuracy.   And she could improvise too, interpreting the meaning behind every movement.”


Within weeks, Montage held public performances of a new piece called, Winter, at the Greenwich Theatre, with Doris very much a part of it.   In another piece, entitled Shed,  performed at the Greenwich Theatre, Doris delivered two separate, highly memorable monologues.   That very same year, they also performed at Sadler’s Wells as part of the Elixir Festival.   Doris was in the spotlight once more, this time at the glorious age of 94!     


Judy concludes:  “Very rarely do you get someone turning up to work with you who has such intelligence and wit, and also the genuine sensitivity that Doris has.  She has almost an innate understanding of what the work requires, together with the ability to interpret meaningfully the story that underlies the piece.  She has a very rare talent indeed and it was a joy to have her involved with my company.”  


Doris concludes her interview a little tearfully:  “Milan, to be honest, I genuinely enjoy public performances;  I always knew that I was good at dance and good at projecting emotion;  and I also knew instinctively how to hold an audience’s attention.   But above all, I mostly loved learning new pieces, mastering new movements, and interpreting the complexity and joy of life through the medium of dance.”  


As well as portraying them on stage, Doris has surely lived through the complexities of life in the literal sense of that word and she says, in conclusion:  “I survived the bombing, I became a refugee from London, I survived hunger, class discrimination and many rejections but I tell you, emotional unhappiness is the worst thing of all.   Whenever I had to face it, I danced, and I always will!”  


On 18th March 2016, the Royal Borough of Greenwich presented Doris, at the age of 94, with its Civic Arts and Entertainment Award in appreciation of her outstanding contribution to the social, economic and physical wellbeing of the Royal Borough.   The Citation made particular reference to Doris’s “distinguished career in the art of creative dance” - a most fitting commendation in recognition of her wonderful, lifetime contribution to the worlds of movement  and dance.


Edited:  27th November 2017

Page modified: 22nd April 2019