When Stephen Nicholls travels to New Zealand from his home in Brisbane, he makes a special pilgrimage to Dannevirke to put his arm around a woman who made a special impact on his life.

"I grew up in Taupo, but travelled to Dannevirke for dance lessons with Miss Joan Irvine and since she passed away whenever I'm here I always stop and sit on the seat in Gordon St dedicated to her and put my arm around her," he told the Dannevirke News. "This is a special place for me."

The memorial bench celebrates the lifelong contribution to the town the grand dame of dance made to this community during 68 years of teaching.

Last Friday Stephen and his wife Megan were back in Dannevirke remembering the remarkable dance teacher who helped shape Stephen into the principal dancer for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company from 1980 to 1988.


"Miss Irvine - she was always Miss Irvine - was ahead of her time and she was teaching boys dance when most shied away," he said.

"Although I lived in Taupo, I would come to Dannevirke for dance lessons with Miss Irvine and I can remember some occasions when I flew down in a small plane, landing at the aerodrome.

"It was 1978 and I was just 14 and I remember Miss Irvine as being very prim and proper. She was a perfectionist and sometimes formidable. She put up with none of our nonsense and was very, very strict - a fantastic teacher who worked to nurture us.

"She is also someone still very alive in our memories."

Dannevirke's Matthew Lawrence, who now lives in the Shetland Islands, was Stephen's classmate and they both went on to dance with the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company.

"When you are learning, your ballet teacher is very important and Miss Irvine had that unique and special quality," Stephen said. "As a dancer it's your teachers who give you grounding. Miss Irvine had a special style."

Stephen's pilgrimage to Dannevirke isn't complete without a stopover at the Vault Cafe, where his wife Megan commented that the toilets are simply the best.

And last Friday Stephen and Megan also visited Miss Irvine's former dance studio in Allardice St.

"Remarkably, I live in Allardice St in Brisbane," Stephen said.

Life after dance for Stephen is in IT sales.

"One moment you are at the top of your game and then you think, now what do I do," he said.