Sunday 18 August 2019

'Sitting on your backside is a waste of time' - world champions Betty (71) and John (61) on dancing into their dreams

World champion dancers John and Betty prove that age is no barrier to success

John and Betty are returning to Paris next month to defend their title
John and Betty are returning to Paris next month to defend their title

Kathy Donaghy

When John Francis and Elizabeth Kelly met on the dancefloor, a partnership was forged that would lead them to becoming world champion ballroom dancers. As they prepare to defend their title in Paris in the weeks ahead, they both agree age is no barrier to dancing into your dreams.

As you watch John (61) from Dublin's inner city and Betty (71) from Tallaght glide across the dancefloor, age doesn't come into it: the grace and ease with which they move is a joy to behold.

And while they make it look easy, behind the scenes the pair dance six days a week with Tuesday being the only day in the week they don't take to the floor.

John's dancing career began at the age of 14 when he followed a girl he liked to a dance. At that age he simply enjoyed it as something to do. But joining the Army Reserve at 17 he was taken away from the world of dancing. Many years later when he went to pick up one of his three daughters from her ballroom dancing class, John recognised the teacher from his own dancing days. As if by fate, he found himself drawn back into the scene even though he professes he was terrible at the beginning.

A construction site manager by day, John says his dancing transports him to another world and is great for helping him to forget the woes of the day. "My job is quite a hard job - there's escapism involved with the dancing," he says.

Ten years ago, he met his dance partner Betty and the two were put together to see if they would be suited to one another. John says he'd seen Betty dance and knew she was what he calls a "class act".

It wasn't long until they were competing at the highest levels becoming world champion ballroom dancers in the Amateur League of the Fred Astaire World Dancing Championships in the over 60s category last December. They return to Paris next month to defend their title and are currently working hard on perfecting their routines for competition.

Preparing for this big competition has become something of a team effort. John's daughter Ciara graduated from her early childhood dancing classes to running her own dance school and she trains John and Betty in her Dance Elite dance school. John's wife Colette acts as their manager, often ferrying them around to functions and dances all over the country.

Betty says her and John's dance partnership wouldn't work if it were not for the love and support of committed spouses. When her husband Colm passed away in 2015 after 43 years of marriage, Betty credits Colette with being one of the most fantastic people in her life supporting her in her grief.

"John and Colette didn't let me give up and they didn't let me get morbid. They said 'out you go'. At times you do feel like you can't do it anymore but Colm wouldn't want me to be like that - he was very supportive. Now when the music starts, I just want to dance," says Betty, who only started dancing at the age of 50 when she accompanied her mother Elizabeth, now 86, to dances.

Dancing has allowed Betty to keep fit and if she's not dancing she's running around after her five grandchildren. And while people are encouraging of her dancing life, she does find society's attitude to ageing very negative.

"I think we have a bad attitude. People think they have to slow down but age is just a number. My attitude is don't look back. If you're upset or you've been affected by sickness or bereavement, take a deep breath and go. You have to keep going - don't keep thinking about things," says Betty.

"Just get up and go. Say to yourself 'it's done, it's happened' and get on with it. It can help you forget about things and get on with it. Some people can't do that and they get ill and life is gone before you know it".

"I always say don't look back and keep thinking about things, it will only bring you down. Things happen but you can't dwell on them. If you find yourself over-thinking, get out and meet people," says Betty.

John says while he was stubborn in the early days of getting back to dancing, he only stuck to it because ultimately it was something he enjoyed and he says this is the secret to his longevity in dancing.

"Nobody stays with anything if they don't like it. I love the competition, the movement, the music, the technical qualities and the training. I can't single any one of them out - you need all the pieces together," he says.

In preparation for competition he and Betty perform five dances; the slow waltz, the ballroom tango, the Viennese Waltz, the slow foxtrot and the quick step. One must be as good as the next and the pair practise every evening except Tuesday. Stamina and staying power is important and John says even if they're tired, they would normally go to a social dance or a competition on a Sunday to make sure they're on top of their game.

Their Monday night's training session is based around stamina and when you realise that in completion each of the dances is the equivalent of a 400 metre race with couples expected to dance over 30 times in a single afternoon, you can see why this kind of training is important.

As well as that they work with their teacher Ciara on choreography, performance and all the technical aspects of the dance.

In the World Championships last year, John and Betty's goal was to make the final. When they got that far, they realised they had a real chance at winning the overall competition. "Young people always ask me for advice and I always tell them there are two names on the trophies. It can only be won by partnership. Two people have to do well together. If the partnership doesn't work, you can see it. If the two people are not happy, you see it. With Betty it took me five minutes to realise it was going to work," says John.

"The two of us have the same commitment and we have the support of other people. There's no point in going to competitions and not being ready for them. The fact we are the ages we are is no deterrent in preparing for major competition. We sit down with our teacher and we plan for our events and we train," he says.

"I believe that age is in people's minds. Someone has convinced a lot of people that there's a slow-down period and that you should give up what you're doing. I see people at social dances who are in their 80s and 90s and still going strong".

John believes sometimes people use their age as an excuse not to do things and society's attitudes with ads targeting over-50s for "special holidays" is all part of the problem. "What's wrong with wanting to be competing at an activity no matter what age you are? What's wrong with people wanting to be the best they can be?"

John believes that being active into your retirement and being involved in a sport or voluntary activity is life affirming and will only increase a person's longevity. And he says people should never let fear stop them from trying something new regardless of their age.

"People look at dancing and say they'd love to do that. It takes time to get used to just walking out in front of people. You get used to it. You have to train yourself to do it. There's no magic wand," says John.

"Sometimes the fear of failure takes over from the joy of winning. But so what if it goes wrong? The fun is giving it a try. Sitting on your backside is a waste of time for anyone. If people have a desire to try something, they should do it. People shouldn't say 'if only'. There's some club or some organisation that would help you to do it. You've only got to knock on the door," says John.

● This article is part of a series of profiles of people who are redefining later life. If you know someone who may fit the bill, email

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