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How the tango saved George Melly’s widow: Diana turned to dancing to face dementia, heartbreak and the death of her daughter

  • Diana Melly took up ballroom dancing in a bid to prevent dementia 
  • She finds dancing helps her to deal with life’s traumas 
  • Helen Brown says this crisp book is proof the foxtrot can keep you young


Helen Brown For The Daily Mail

16:53 EST, 19 November 2015

18:01 EST, 19 November 2015




by Diana Melly

(Short Books £10.99)

When Diana Melly’s son died of a heroin overdose, aged just 24, she got so drunk on the day of his funeral that she forgot to view his body.

Then, she had a nervous breakdown and spent three months in a specialist clinic.

So when her husband, writer and jazz musician George Melly, died in July 2007, after suffering from vascular dementia and refusing treatment for his lung cancer, she decided to dance her way through grief.

Diana Melly is pictured with her third husband, jazz singer George Melly who died in 2007, at their London home

Diana Melly is pictured with her third husband, jazz singer George Melly who died in 2007, at their London home

She was in her mid-70s and had type 2 diabetes, which put her at greater risk of dementia.

An Alzheimer’s expert advised that, while crosswords or sudoku could help prevent the mental unravelling she’d witnessed in her husband, ‘the best way to avoid dementia is to take up ballroom dancing’.

In this terrifically crisp little book – small enough to slip into a clutch bag – Diana Melly offers herself as proof that learning the foxtrot can keep people feeling and looking younger.

Studies show that levels of the brain’s happiness juice – serotonin – can be boosted, warding off depression and sleep disorders. The physical contact with another human warms the soul, and is not as awkward as she had feared.

The frocks are fun: you can get them on eBay and alter them. Tea dances are affordable, entrance usually costs around £5 (including tea and cake). And the music is great: ‘Sinatra, Crosby, Ella,’ she swoons, ‘singing songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein. Who could ask for more?’


Litres of fake tan used in each series of Strictly.

Lovers of Latin moves will be delighted to hear that some doctors are making ambitious claims for the Argentine tango, using it to treat everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to phobias and marital breakdowns.

‘My marriage to George nearly broke up several times,’ writes Diana. ‘Instead of rows and tears, perhaps we should have hurried down to the local milonga [tango dance].’ In the last two years of his life, Diana had been stressed and often angry with her husband. According to her incredibly frank memoir, Take A Girl Like Me, she had felt that way for much of a stormy, 47-year open marriage during which they both took lovers – although the charming, eccentric, infuriating George was far more promiscuous, and nearly left Diana for a long-term mistress she will only refer to as ‘Greckle’.

Although she had a job as a ‘dancer’ in the early Fifties (paid to let men press up against her teenage body in the Cabaret Club, where she sported a G-string on stage), Diana says she never cut a rug with the crowd at her husband’s early jazz gigs.



‘He preferred me to stand at the foot of the stage and gaze up at him admiringly.’

Diana’s relationships with her dance partners are less fraught.

She doesn’t rate the professionals she meets on a cruise but, back on dry land, the popularity of Strictly means there’s no shortage of teachers. Lessons cost £20 to £30 an hour, although one man will only let her pay by treating him to dinner afterwards.

Her main teacher, Ray, is 66 and a former champion. He is stingy with his praise, but becomes a good friend. He is ‘an accomplished flirt and does a very sexy rumba,’ she says. ‘In spite of these attributes, we have a purely platonic relationship. There are advantages in being 77…somehow it’s easier to have a heterosexual male friend when sex is not an issue and, anyway, in many respects, Ray is like my gay friends. He will discuss clothes, make-up and hairstyles, the best boiler and other domestic issues.’

But there’s an awkward moment when she dispenses with his services by email and he replies, rather dramatically, that ‘whilst my head can understand, my heart doesn’t want to listen’.

The reader’s own heart will struggle later on, as Diana reveals that she’s not heel-turning her way through grief for her husband alone. Her daughter, Candy, was diagnosed with terminal cancer three days after giving birth to Diana’s granddaughter, Nancy.

Candy was given five years to live. During that time, Diana became her daughter’s chemo partner, watching the drugs trickling into her, then dashing off to tea dances in Camden.

She died aged 52. In the ten days between Candy’s death and her funeral, Diana went on a dancing holiday to Majorca organised by a dance teacher she nicknames Mr Wonderful. ‘The space needed to be filled with something,’ she says. ‘Anything.’


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