- Sandra of the Secret Ballet/ Sandra of the Castle Ballet –
First Appeared: Judy: #01 (06 January 1960) – #62 (18 March 1961)
- Art: Paddy Brennan
Sandra Wilson lives with her stepmother, who works her hard and is quick to put down Sandra’s dream of being a ballerina. She intends to send Sandra to work in a factory but things change for Sandra when she is performing at a local concert and is watched by a veiled woman. After the concert the woman grabs her, blindfolds her and bundles Sandra into a car. The woman tells her she is in no danger, that she has seen talent in Sandra and she is going to join her secret ballet. She takes her to a castle on island. Sandra is first greeted by a girl of her own age, Rose Gray who introduces her to the six other girls in the castle. The woman enters the room, unveiled and Sandra recognises her as Madame Nina Sierra, a great ballerina. Madame Sierra tells her she has looked all over Britain to find girls with natural talent and she has taken them from orphanages and bad homes in order to train them to become great ballerinas.
While Sandra quickly makes friends with Rose, she has problems when another student, Pearl Novar, who is jealous of her. Pearl causes problems for the whole school, as she is not happy at the school and intends to runaway. After a failed attempt to escape on a boat, she manages to send a message out, that ends up with Mark Larsen of the Missing People’s Bureau. Mr Larsen visits the island and meets Sandra and Rose, Sandra tells him her name is Olga and that it is a private island. He returns later with a search warrant. Madame Sierra has hidden the other girls in the dungeons, just when they think they will get rid of Mr Larsen, Pearl breaks free from the girls and yells for help. They convince Larsen they are happy here but he still has to arrest Madame Sierra as by taking the girls she has committed a crime.
At the court the girls convince the judge that they are better off with Madame Sierra and the Judge agrees to let Madame continue train them. Even Pearl has a change of heart and asks Madame if she can come back to the island. The group figure they can continue to practice their dancing with no worries now, but they continue to encounter more problems, dramas and adventures.
After the court case, reporters are still interested in story and come to the island Madame Sierra chases them away but slips and hits her head. Afterwards her teaching methods become harsh and she even strikes Sandra when she suggests Madame needs rest. She locks the girls in their dorm room, and Sandra and Rose have to escape in order to get a doctor for her. They manage to get her help (after nearly getting hit by a boat!) and Sandra takes charge while Madame recovers in a nursing home. After Madame returns her trouble isn’t over as she may have to sell the castle because of lack of money. The girls decide to enter a competition to win a £1000 with the help from composer Sir Albert, an old friend of Nina.
Soon after that another old acquaintance of Madame Sierra arrives and strange things begin to happen. The man, Boris Rambine, is a famous dance teacher and also has other talents. He is able to hypnotise the girls into forgetting things he doesn’t want them to see, such as blackmailing Madame Sierra. Sandra and Rose investigate him further and find out that years ago he hypnotised Madame Sierra to steal a precious diamond. When Boris catches them snooping in his room, he tries to hypnotise them. Sandra is able to resist the hypnotism, but he locks her up when he finds out he can’t control her. Sandra escapes and tells Madame Sierra everything, and also hides the diamond from Boris. Madame Sierra confronts him and strikes a bargain with him. She tells him he could be a great teacher instead of a cheap crook. She asks him to write a ballet for the girls and help train them for a festival in Monte Carlo, where he can return the diamond to the rightful owners. If he does this she will not go to the police. The ballet is a success and after a few obstacles the girls are are able to return the diamond.
Back in the castle the school resume their lessons. When Sandra goes for an extra practice she finds a mysterious girl dancing in the room. The girl runs away when Sandra tries to talk to her. Later Sandra and Rose are able to follow the girl to her hiding place within the castle. She introduces herself as Alicia a runaway queen of Ruthenia along with her nurse Sergiana. She tells them a revolution in her county forced her to hide away and now the current dictator wants to kill her. His secret agents tracked her down to her last hiding place, which was a castle based on the the same plans as the schools. The girls help Alicia and Madame finds out. After seeing Alicia dance she agrees to help and also lets her join the dancing lessons. The agents do track Alicia down and kidnap Sandra in the hopes to exchange her for the queen, but the girls manage to outsmart the men. The men won’t give up easily though and eventually capture Alicia. It turns out that Alicia is not really the queen but had taken her place after the real queen died. Sandra having learned this story from Sergiana tells the kidnappers they are wasting their time with the girl. They release “Alicia” whose real name is Margot and she is happy to be able to join the school.
The school is in upheaval again when Madame Sierra goes missing and the woman who comes to monitor school hates ballet. Sandra leaves the school and sneaks onto a boat going to Spain in the hopes of finding her teacher. On the ship she meets Ramon, a dancer who teaches her Spanish dances and also convinces his father, the captain, to let her stay on board. In Spain Sandra has to dodge the authorities as she has no passport, she also has to avoid the rough looking Spanish men she believes are involved with Madame Sierra’s disappearance. In between her investigation and dodging people, she still has time to join with a dance group and perform at shows. Eventually she tracks down Madame Sierra, dancing in the mountains. Some Gypsies, led by Felix, have kidnapped her brother, so she will perform a secret Gypsy ceremony called the Dance of the Flaming Sun. After a Spanish Gypsy King dies, a great ballerina must dance all night and at sun rise throws down a torch and the man who catches it becomes the new king. Sandra says dancing all night would kill Madame Sierra and so when she sees her teacher falter she runs up to take her place. At sun rise Sandra tosses the torch towards a friend Don Stefan and he becomes the king, ruining Felix’s plan.
Returning to the school, Madame Sierra’s money worries arise again and she has to sell the castle to Charlie Pickford who intends to turn the castle into a holiday camp. He will allow the ballet stay, as long as they perform for the campers once a week. He brings with him his daughter Marion, who is confined to a wheelchair because of a weak heart. Marion has a love for dancing and convinces the girls to allow her to dance with them as she thinks she has recovered and is strong enough now. Madame Sierra has a doctor check her out and satisfied she agrees to let Marion continue to dance with the girls. But when Charlie finds out he is mad and tells the school they will have to leave, a performance with Marion in the lead soon shows him the error of his ways.
At this point the story name changes to Sandra of the Castle Ballet, which makes more sense as it really hasn’t been a ‘secret ballet’ for quite some time. The girls find benefits with the holiday camp being on the island, a new swimming pool is built for residents which the girls are also able to use. This displeases Madame Sierra as swimming uses different muscles than for ballet and she fears it will affect their dancing. When Madame forbids swimming, Sandra breaks the rules in order to help a young girl Betty learn to swim. Betty’s mother drowned and her father didn’t want Betty in the water. When Madame finds out Sandra was swimming, she expels her. After a boating accident where Betty saves her dad, Mr Brennan explains everything to Madame Sierra and Sandra is delighted to be let back in the school, thinking she will always stick to Madame’s rules from now on.
Ballet stories were always popular in girls comics, particularly in the early years and a lot of comics had a long running story with a ballerina protagonist. Bunty had both Moira Kent and Lorna Drake, Debbie had Lisa Blake (the lonely ballerina) and Judy had Sandra Wilson. While the setting would revolve around ballet, as demonstrated above, the plots were wide ranging from trying to win money to save the school, to hiding runaway queens from secret agents!
“Sandra of the Secret Ballet” is the first story in the first issue of Judy, and it is quite a good set up. Sandra has to deal with a cruel stepmother, shows a love of dancing and is then is taken away by a mysterious woman. After this I don’t think it continues to be as strong, it has some interesting plots but it also has some very unrealistic resolutions. Any time they need a person to change their opinion about something one performance can sway the person, i.e. the judge, Charlie Pickford. Past actions are quickly forgotten about, Pearl who starts out quite antagonistic and unhappy in the school, very suddenly decides she wants to stay and becomes very friendly with Sandra. Even more puzzling is Boris, who hypnotised the girls, forced Madame Sierra to steal and locked Sandra up, quickly becomes an ally after he is exposed. Then there are some major coincidences such as “Alicia” knowing about all the secret passages in the castle because she previously hid in a castle made of the exact same plans. Why she pretended to be the Queen in hiding doesn’t make sense either as once its revealed she is a peasant girl, the secret agents lose interest in her and there is no attempts to overthrow the dictator, Margot just joins the school and that’s the end of that! Think she could have saved herself a lot of trouble before that by just saying she wasn’t the queen.
Sandra certainly seems to land on her feet after been taken by Madame Sierra, she never hears from her cruel stepmother again and is soon the star of the class. The focus is so much on Sandra that the others in the class don’t even get named for quite some time. Rose as her loyal friend and Pearl are the only two that show any bit of personality, the rest seem to be merely there to fill the background. This did get a bit better in later stories. Although the girls may not be named the art makes it easy to distinguish between them. As well as the well drawn characters, the backgrounds and costumes are also well done. As for the dancing it looks good to me, fluid and pretty, but not being very knowledgeable of ballet I cannot vouch for its accuracy.
Despite some problems the story can be a lot of fun, ballet stories aren’t a favourite of mine but I actually liked when Sandra was having her own adventure in Spain and I quite liked when the holiday camp came to the castle. Sandra’s first run lasted an impressive 62 issues and then she was temporarily replaced by another ballet story “Anya at Ballet School”. Sandra returned in “Sandra and the Runaway Ballet” which is an enjoyable story and it is reprinted in Lucky Charm #2 along with the “Sandra of the Castle Ballet” storyline. While I think the name change from Secret Ballet to Castle Ballet was suitable, it is strange that it was only for the last 6 issues of the first run. Sandra had continuously changing titles after the first run including Sandra and the… Blackmailed Ballet, Dancing Doll, Frightened Teacher, Stranded Ballet, Sultan’s Ballet. (For full list of appearances, see the next page). It was interesting to see her actually grow up and leave the school and join other ballet companies.
Not only was she popular enough to return in new stories, The Secret Ballet was reprinted in colour as the cover story in 1966. I always feel that colour works best when it was intended to be colour in the first place, I think some of the detail can be lost when switching over from black and white. If it’s done well though it can be nice. I still prefer the black and white but the person who did the colouring for this strip was quite good and it certainly led to some more vibrant panels.