Lifelong love affair with dance is celebrated as Hampstead legend turns 100

A woman whose connections with the dance world saved her life and who went on to perform at the highest level has celebrated her 100th birthday.

Stella Mann, who has just had a top dance studio named in her honour, was born in Vienna on January 24, 1912 and has lived in Finchley Road for more than 50 years.

As a Jew, she fled Nazi persecution to pursue a career in dance first in Brussels and then in London.

Dancing would inspire her marriage, her career, the friendships which saved her life, and it continues to inspire her today.

“I started to dance when I was 12,” recalled Mrs Mann. “My uncle was a dance teacher and he gave me lessons. And from then there was no holding me back. “And when I became a dancer my father wasn’t very pleased. But after I made a success of myself he was pleased.”

At the age of 15, Mrs Mann had lessons alongside the “fabulous and spellbinding” Gertrude Kraus who later became world famous.

She turned professional at 17, but was forced to flee Nazi persecution in 1938 and went into hiding in Brussels, where she was sheltered by her pupil, Daisy.

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Mrs Mann lost her parents during the Nazi atrocities and her sister in a car crash, but found solace dance.

After working in an orphanage for Jewish children she met Derrick Ashby-Mott, “a brilliant ballroom dancer”.

In 1946 they married and moved to his native England where Mrs Mann would establish the House On The Hill dance school in Netherhall Gardens, Hampstead, and later the Stella Mann School of Dancing in Finchley Road.

The school became a beacon of artistic excellence during its 39 years and produced a host of famous dancers.

To this day Mrs Mann continues to receive accolades for her lifetime’s work in dance teaching.

Four years ago she was personally decorated by the Austrian Minister of Culture and recently received her highest honours.

“One of the proudest moments was a few weeks ago when one of my best pupils got into the Royal Ballet,” she said. “I also learned that the Imperial Society have named a studio in East London in my honour. This pleased me most of all.”

In her heyday Mrs Mann ran her dance school in Finchley Road and a leotard company all at the same time.

She claims that this passion and activity is the key to her long life.

“I loved life and I loved dancing and I loved everything I did. Maybe that is the secret,” she said.

The sprightly 100-year-old, whose husband died in 1991, still goes to shows whenever she can, and enjoys painting and poetry.