En Pointe, Pirouette, and a Pas de deux – A Tribute to John Rintoul

I remember it like it was yesterday, except it wasn’t.  It was the third week of August in 1979.  John Rintoul approached me between classes with his usual bouncy spirit.  He was delicate, with fine cheekbones, scrupulously clean-shaven, with auburn hair dusted with grey.  He always seemed to have a cheeky smile, as if he knew something you didn’t.

‘Will you do me a favour?’ asked John, a Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College drama teacher.  I should have known from the glint in his eye that not all was as it appeared.  I hadn’t taken drama since it was compulsory in Form 1, six years previously.  At the time, I loved the classes as they resembled an extra rugby session held in the spacious Assembly Hall, as it was called then.  We were encouraged to express ourselves.  How John managed to control our class as we rampaged through acting out a fight scene for West Side Story is beyond me.  But he did, through the force of his charisma.

‘Yes,’ I replied, trying to act like a responsible six former, ’how can I help?’

‘I need you to throw some rugby balls on a stage for a performance at Mary Erskine’s for the Festival.’

‘Go on stage and pass a rugby ball?  On stage, in front of an audience?’ I said, twisting my face.

‘Oh, it’s nothing.  All you have to do is put your 1st XV kit on and play with the ball.’  He paused and fixed me with that grin.

‘I’ve asked Julian Scott, Simon Frame, and Chris Goudie, and they’re all keen to do it,’ he added.

‘Well,’ I shrugged, ‘if they’ve agreed to do it.’

Of course, I found out later they hadn’t and he had used my agreement as a deal clincher in his negotiations with them. 

After Thursday’s rugby training, we had to report to an address in Grosvenor Street, near Haymarket.  I had been nicked by a flying boot at practice and had a small cut above my eye taped up, seeping blood.  I wasn’t in the mood for this venture.

‘Where are we going?’ asked Simon, a brawny lad with chiselled film star looks.

‘We’re to meet Rintoul at this address,’ said Julian, aka Dood, as he pointed across the road at a Georgian façade with a brightly coloured door.  Dood was the rugby team’s captain and had an authority that made you follow without question.

‘I don’t like the look of this,’ replied Chris, a hulk of a man at sixteen years old.  He had enormous hands and arms so long they seemed to scrape the ground.

John Rintoul emerged from the door with that smile.  He ushered us in the door into a large, white-walled room with a polished wooden floor.  Many girls were coming and going, and for a moment, I was distracted.

‘So here we are,’ whistled a man in a tight, all-in-one orange leotard that gripped in a way that left nothing to the imagination.

‘Four of our best, Gordon,’ said John.

I observed Simon’s demeanour; it was full of terror, and I could feel myself edging back out of the door.  We all glared at John, which he brushed off with a broad grin.  Gordon was circling and scanning us from head to toe, lingering on Simon that bit longer.

‘Mmmm,’ he finally muttered, stroking his curly black locks and speaking directly at John, ’have you shown them the steps yet?’

‘Steps, what steps,’ blurted out Dood to a chorus of expletives. 

‘Johnny Campbell, what have you signed us up to?’ said Simon, moving on the spot as if avoiding an angry wasp but was trying to evade Gordon’s admiring glances.

‘Me?  I don’t know what this is all about,’ I replied.  Gordon was now inspecting me.

‘Is that make-up?’ enquired Gordon, pointing at my bruised eye,’ what a fantastic bit of theatre.’

But the dye had been cast.  And then the ‘cast’ joined us.  We were each paired with ballerinas in white tutus.  It turned out that an American who owned a dance school in New York was the daughter of the man responsible for the Calcutta Cup, the annual rugby international match between Scotland and England.  She wanted to showcase ballet and debut for a rugby polka that she had choreographed to commemorate her father.  She needed four males for her ballet, and we were to be the four guinea pigs.  We were shown some basic steps to follow, and the dancers tutted and sighed as we fumbled through our first rehearsal.

‘They’re here, they’re here, they’re here,’ exclaimed Gordon as he sprang into the dance studio at the end of the practice.

‘Who’s here?’ I asked with a resigned tone.

‘The press, the press,’ Gordon replied.

I was ready to run and scanned my teammates for agreement, but their eyes were downcast.

‘Bloody hell,’ boomed Chris, reminiscent of a death knell.

‘Don’t worry,’ said John, ‘it’s only the Evening News.’

‘No, no, the Daily Record is here too,’ chimed Gordon.

John finally gave us a sympathetic look.  We were lined up, the ballerinas on our knees, and the flashbulbs blinded.

The publicity was excruciating, but Dood set the tone.  If we were doing this, it would be with the same commitment we gave our rugby.  Rehearsals now resembled our training sessions, and we were determined to master the polka.  Thankfully, there was only to be one performance.  We waited behind the curtain for our cue, the nerves like that before kick-off.

In the wings, a beaming John put his thumps up and mouthed out, ‘break a leg.’

The swish of the drapes and the sound of the music and we were off.  Our moves were in time, synchronised; we were smiling and responding to the excited squeals from a packed audience.  For a moment, I understood the thrill of the boards.  The music stopped, followed by a roar of approval and stamping demanding an encore.  We obliged and brought the house down.  As we bowed for the final time, ending my career as a ballet dancer, I glimpsed John off stage bent double with laughter.

After the show, John invited us to his home in the Murrayfield area, where we met his wife.  We talked in excited shrieks about our performance and revelled in the draw of the grease paint.  I’m grateful he encouraged me to participate, even if it had been by subterfuge.  I suspect it was the same for Dood, Simon, and Chris.  It was an important event in my life, as it felt like the first time that one of my teachers treated me as an adult. 

John would have laughed had he heard of how I’ve used my performance as a ballet dancer throughout my business life to engage people in complex challenges or to make others laugh.  Unfortunately, our paths never crossed again despite all three of my children attending ESMS.  It was a story I hoped to relay to John at the school’s 50th merger celebration on the 4th of November.  It was with sadness that I heard of his death.

Instead, all I can offer is one of his knowing smiles.