Quantum leap from ballet barre to truckie dramas on Europe’s highways and byways.

FROM dancing to driving heavy truck and trailer units across Europe, Pam Shanks' life's spanned the extremes.

As a child all she wanted was to dance, at 12 she started ballet lessons. By the time she was 42 she was behind the wheel of thundering juggernauts, fending off Romanian gypsies attempting to plunder her cargo and meeting her fair share of bent border guards.

Her truckie years are well behind her but dancing's remained constant.

She's so well known hereabouts it's almost superfluous to say Pam and Amjazz are synonymous. She's lost count of the number of youngsters she's tutored, some are not so young; her present roll includes a 68-year-old tap dancer. Pam no longer teaches the physical part of dancing, that's overseen by daughter Nicola (Nicki).

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A "buggered" knee and being riddled with arthritis has put paid to her leaping across the stage but she continues to demonstrate the technicalities of dance in less energetic ways.

Blame dance for that 'buggered' knee.

"Five years ago I landed the wrong way, tore a cartilage; the arthritis comes from dancing's wear and tear on the joints but, gee, you just keep moving on."

Some fancy footwork on Our People's part gets her memories moving on her career of polar opposites. She debuted as a ballerina in Waipukurau.

"When I first began to crave to dance my parents couldn't afford lessons. When I did start I was thrown into a class of 6-year-olds, I didn't care, I just wanted to be like the ballet dancers we couldn't afford to go and see."

By high school Pam's dancing ability had outgrown Waipukurau. She began taking twice weekly lessons in Dannevirke.

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"But in the fifth form the school wouldn't release me in time to catch the 3pm bus."

She joined Waipukurau's operatic society and, at 16, met her first husband Don Blackledge there.

"The rugby club made its boys dance, they were fine on their feet."

She was 18 when they married and Don transferred to Hastings; the birth of three daughters sidelined her dancing days but when Nicki was 4 she took her to the local ballet school.

Pam Shanks runs AmJazz Dance Studio but spent some time a few years back driving big rigs across Europe. Photo/Stephen Parker.
Pam Shanks runs AmJazz Dance Studio but spent some time a few years back driving big rigs across Europe. Photo/Stephen Parker.

"Adults were doing modern jazz, I joined, did shows . . . in one I danced with all my girls."

Another move brought the family to Rotorua.

"I didn't know anybody, saw auditions advertised for The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, was cast as one of the whores . . . I've become very good at whores and witches."

Whorehouse led her to the Mary (Pixie) Evers dance studio; Pam became assistant teacher.

This is one of those "hold that thought" moments; there are a few years to fill in before we return to it. Pam and Don separated, she took up aerobics at the then Hyatt Hotel, was soon assisting instructor Bruce Graham.

"Then he took off to drive trucks from London to Turkey, asked me along, the girls stayed with their father. I had to get my heavy traffic licence, I wasn't very good at backing truck and trailer units but passed. I'm now licensed to drive hearses, army tanks; I'm still waiting for that opportunity."

A British passport sped her entry into the ranks of Europe's long-distance lorry drivers.

"We'd load up with anything and everything, wine, heavy machinery, catch the boat to Belgium and keep on going until we reached Ankara."

Sounds straightforward? Hell, no. With electronically-enforced seven-hour spells at the wheel, Pam drove while Bruce slept and vice versa.

"He was at the wheel when a gun was put to his head. They wanted our load, I opened the curtains, went ballistic, he [the gunman] thought he had no witnesses. At one border post I handed in our passports, mine didn't come back for two days, I think they wanted to sell it on the black market."

Stopping in truck parks had its perils. With women so thin on the ground, Pam became 'almost' used to being mistaken for a hooker.

"It was right back to my Little Whorehouse days. In one country, I've forgotten where, these guys tried to pull me out of the truck because they couldn't believe a woman was driving, Bruce was frantically hauling me back in."

Her Romanian run-in with gypsies was movie script material. "They were swarming over the load, slashing the side curtains to drag it out. Once we'd fended them off we spent hours with a needle and thread, our responsibility was to keep what was left of the load secure."

Forget TV's Ice Road Truckers, Pam's had her own hairy moments on black ice.

"You'd see the 42 tonne, fully laden truck in front of you sliding off the road. It was a lesson well learned, she didn't lose traction, but she did score the task of fitting precautionary chains "because my hands were small, even then it'd take a couple of hours".

Not all bribery and corruption was one-sided. "There were times in the poorer countries we plied [border] sentries with diesel, Coke and cigarettes so they wouldn't steal our load. You can get thrown in jail for that [bribery]."

Ten months of highway high drama was sufficient. "I just had to come home to my girls."

With no truckie jobs going, Pam found work at the Vet Club. Rejoining the operatic society meeting present husband Gordon White. It's here we return to our "hold that thought" instruction. Well before she remarried, she was back teaching with Pixie.

"She was diagnosed with breast cancer just as we were putting on a show; she said 'you're doing it', I had no choice, it became a tribute to Pixie, we staged it the day we buried her."

Pixie bequeathed Pam her Eruera St studio and 60 students. She doubled student numbers in a year, now operating as AmJazz out of her third studio.

"I've had a lot of learning curves in my life, driving taught me independence, that if things fall apart you just try again."

PAM SHANKS:
BORN: Waipukurau, 1953.
Education: Waipukurau-primary and secondary.
FAMILY: Husband Don White, three daughters, four grandchildren.
INTERESTS: Family, dancing "I'm one of those fortunate people whose job's their hobby", gardening "when I can get into it", sci-fi. "Painting and photography will come next."
PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY: "If you don't like the door you're shown, change the door.