Big Business in Ballroom
Novelty dances were big business in Ballroom and Dance Halls around the turn of the 19th-20th century. As the First World War began to loom, the demand for escapism and entertainment grew and Blackpool, most certainly delivered.
To attract the crowds, ballroom band leaders had their work cut out for them. It wasn’t enough to simply repeat the same music over and again throughout the weeks, and especially not during a period of time where the resort was host to multiple dancing events every night of the week during peak season.
As wireless radio and gramophone paved way for the ability to listen to music in your own home, it meant that the dancing bug was spreading like wildfire.
There was a high demand for new Novelty Dances which were not only being composed and created in the town but also exported by local music publishers like Lawrence Wright.
Blackpool sheet music was being purchased to be played at home on pianos and other musical instruments and soon the accompanying dance steps for each song were being printed on the back of the scores. Not quite TikTok, but dance fever was starting to take over.
The Blackpool Walk is one of the most famous songs by Lawrence Wright. The video is of a recording of the song from further ahead in our timeline (1938) but I thought it would be great for you to listen to it. Check it out! (It also comes with some lovely historical footage from across the years including a very vintage Blackpool Pleasure Beach!).
If you’d like to try out the Blackpool Walk dance moves, take a look at the next video, which gives you a step-by-step run-through.
1920’s and the Jazz Era
During the rise of the jazz era, the Ballroom scene was bursting with new, exciting and lively dances with one of the most famous being the Charleston.
The Charleston rose to fame in mainstream dance music over in the United States when a song by the very same name was composed by pianist James P. Johnson for the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild and you can hear it here. Following the shows run between 1923 and 1924 it became one of the most popular hits of the entire decade and ensured that The Charleston as a dance, hit public notoriety at its peak in 1926.
The dance was highly energetic, involved kicking up the heels and was characterised by a fast paced, joyous and often comedic performance. But despite just how much fun people were having with dance, others were simply not a fan of the rapidly changing styles in ballroom. A gathering of 200 dance teachers was called by Philip Richardson, editor of The Dancing Times. Top of the agenda: eradicate ‘freakish’ and ‘ugly’ dancing and restore the good name of traditional ballroom!
Luckily however, the Charleston and many of the other more energetic, free-moving and fun loving styles weren’t erased from history. But the formation of this new committee did lead to the standardisation of the steps of the waltz, tango and foxtrot. Rules and techniques for what would become known as the ‘English Style’ were created then published and circulated in a series of books and newspaper articles.
The Charleston is still very famous even in 21st Century Pop Music. One of my favourite songs to sample the original is Bang Bang by will.i.am. Its creation was definitely inspired by the Electro Swing scene, take a look at the the vintage inspired music video.
The Blackpool Dance Festival
In 1920, something wonderful happened – the creation of the first ever Blackpool Dance Festival in the magnificent Empress Ballroom of the Winter Gardens.
The first festival was held during Easter week in 1920 before Modern Ballroom and Latin American dances had even evolved. In its earliest days the festival was devoted to three single competitions set across three tempos of dance – Waltz, Two Step and Foxtrot. The aim of the competitions was to find three new Sequence Dances and ultimately crown one of them (and of course its dancing couple) the winner.
Throughout the first 7 years of the festival’s life, it saw new dance styles be dropped from the programme just as quickly as they were added. In 1927 due to a change in the management at the Winter Gardens, the usual festival did not go ahead and instead ‘The Dancing Times’ stepped in to fill the void. In June 1929 the Blackpool Dance Festival was revived and has ran ever since with the exception of a 5-year hiatus between 1941 and 1946 following the breakout of the war.
In 1954 Mrs Ida Illett of the Blackpool School of Dancing was made the first official Dance Festival Organiser, a role that she would excel in, developing the festival across some 24 years to become the most famous Ballroom Dancing event in the world.
When Mrs Illett sadly passed away in 1978 her husband, Mr Bill Francis, took over the organisation of the festival for two short years but was forced to retire due to ill health. His successor was the wonderful Mrs Gillian MacKenzie who stayed at the helm of the festival for 23 years until her retirement in 2004.
Having grown up in a guest house here in the resort, just minutes away from the Winter Gardens and Empress Ballroom, the Blackpool Dance Festival inadvertently became an enormous part of my upbringing. Every year our hotel on Charnley Road would be filled with Ballroom Dancers and dressmakers every year of the festival. I have such amazing memories of the hotel being filled with the most wonderful and glamorous people from the world of ballroom from all across the globe.
When I was very young, I used to collect feathers, sequins and stones that had fallen off of dresses as dancers hurriedly made their way out of the door to their competitions. I would hide them away for safe keeping like precious jewels in a box that was given to me by my great granny. I remember the thick smell of fake tan, perfume, aftershave and hairspray in the air. It was a wonderful time and is beautiful memory.
But most of all, it is the stunning and exquisite dresses that I remember. Each morning after breakfast was finished and the dancers made their way to the festival, the dining room would be turned around and transformed into a dress making studio where designers would be putting the finishing touches to their glistening gowns. I remember being very small but getting to help ‘Sookie’, one of our guests from Japan, to finish an enormous ball gown trimmed in ostrich feather and encrusted in Swarovski crystal that she had created ready to be taken to the Winter Gardens to be sold in the festival stalls. I bet it was worth an absolute fortune!
In my late teens I made a lot of new friends, but it wasn’t until my early 20’s that I found out that my fantastic friend James was in fact the son of Mrs Mackenzie, who at the time had just retired from organising the festival.
One summer when I returned home from a season performing overseas on ships, she invited me to the festival as her guest and it was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had in my hometown. The atmosphere was electric. The dancing was like nothing I had ever seen before. The costumes were mind blowing. But the most impressive thing was Mrs Mackenzie herself.
Wherever you went throughout the building, every room, hallway or space, there was not a single person who did not stop to thank Mrs Mackenzie for her work, service and devotion to the festival and ballroom dance as an art form in general. She was always in the highest of demand and was treated like royalty. As she entered a room, conversations around tables would stop, bottles of champagne would be presented and people would turn to catch even the smallest or shortest moment with her. It was awe inspiring to see how thankful ballroom’s leading industry talent were to Gillian and how much respect everyone holds for her.
The Blackpool Dance Festival is now headed up by Mrs Sandra Wilson who continues to ensure that it retains its unrivalled, international reputation. It is the world’s first and most famous annual ballroom dance competition. In recent years it has seen in excess of 2900 couples from 60 different countries compete in a single year and has been the training ground for some of the world’s most prestigious and famous dancers.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has meant that the festival has been forced to face some rescheduling issues, it will most certainly be back to continue its now 101-year-old tradition just as soon as it is safe to do so. And I for one will be doing everything I can to attend the most stylish and elegant nights in town.
Videos don’t do the festival any justice in communicating just how beautiful, glamorous and exhilarating it is, but you can watch the professional final from 2019 to get an idea by clicking this link.
I feel like I could write for days and I have only just scraped the surface of a small portion of Blackpool’s dance history today in this article. Blackpool continues to inspire and nurture talent both you and old across multiple artforms to this day. But it is with Dance that Blackpool has had one of its longest romances.
The resort today is home to a multitude of dance schools and performance companies dedicated to the artform in all of its different disciplines. From ballroom to ballet, contemporary to tap, gymnastic dance to street and hip hop, there really is something for everyone to get involved with, and at every level. The Grand Theatre regularly plays host to shows from some of the world’s leading dance companies and has a dedicated season for bringing world-leading contemporary dance to the resort and its full-time residents.
The Blackpool Tower Ballroom is showcased every year on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and remains a pinnacle in the series with celebrity contestants desperate to remain in the competition long enough to have the chance to dance there.
Dig deeper and you’ll find a multitude of dance centric events in the town that cover everything from Northern Soul to Musical Theatre and back again. Blackpool really is the seaside town that has it all, what’s not to love?
So as Tess and Claudia (and our beloved Brucie before them) say, “Keep dancing!”
- The music can be found on the website.
- Film your dance moves whilst playing the music and send it in on www.getdancing.uk or across social media using #MyBplDance and #getdancing.
Ballroom Dance History source: Research from Showtown, museum of fun and entertainment. 100 Years of Ballroom Dance
Header photo: The Empress Ballroom at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool – From a 1938 programme for the Winter Gardens Complex. as pictured by FORTUNINO MATANIA, R.I.
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