Blackpool, the dance Mecca. By Leonid Pletnev

By Leonid Pletnev

“Dear friend! This time I’m writing to you from Blackpool — the dance Mecca, the sacred place for every dancer…” That was the beginning of my German friend’s letter which he sent to me many years ago from England. My envy of him was boundless for then we could worship that sanctuary only in our imagination. Our Blackpools were still ahead…

The Winter Gardens

A little resort town on the Western coast of England is an hour car ride from Manchester. Waves of the Atlantic Ocean break over its shores and piers that are equipped with attractions of all kinds and are always full of holiday-makers if the weather is good. But it is not entertainments that most of all attract the majority of pilgrims who come here every year at the end of May from all over the world. The powerful magnet of the Blackpool Dance Festival draws them with its magic power to the Winter Gardens –- the site where it takes place.

This building was constructed in the 19th century and today is protected by the state as an architectural monument. The impressive complex includes a lot of rooms: dance halls, auditoria, show-rooms, play-rooms, casinos, bars and restaurants. The biggest hall is the Empress Ballroom. It is here that the main events of the Festival take place. The steps lead from the foyer to it, coming down these steps you get into the atmosphere of truly royal splendor of regular forms, the red velvet of the armchairs, the golden painting of the ornamental pattern that decorates the columns, the ceiling and the balconies of this architectural masterpiece. The soft light of the graceful crystal chandeliers fall over you and you find yourself in the power of the greatness of the feelings that overfill you. And the room comes to life in your imagination…

…In the long twenties the publisher of the popular dance newspaper Dancing Times was Philipp Richardson. It was he that was struck with the idea and who was to become the founder of the major British dance forum. By that time there was no unified technics of standard dances (leave alone Latina). Then people danced mainly Sequence Dance — dances with the repeating groups of figures the structure of which somehow resembled our once obligatory Soviet program. The couples were circling strictly one after another, the referees were standing in the center comparing the skills of the performers. Men partners were wearing white gloves and tail-coats and women partners were dressed in ball-dresses –- that was the atmosphere of a real ball. These dances were particularly developed in the north of Great Britain and that was why a town in the center of the island was chosen for conducting of the first festival. In many respects thanks to the Winter Gardens and a plenty of hotels, Blackpool became that place. It was predestined to go down in the world dance history forever.

The symbol of the town is the famous Blackpool Tower — the construction which distantly resembles its French relative but which was built as though on the roof of the huge complex situated on the quay. Going up in the elevator to its observation square one can enjoy the wonderful view of the town, the ocean element, reach out the wings of the gulls hovering near the tower. But the World of the Tower with its grand ballroom (the site of the Junior Dance Festival) and the famous white organ, attractions and entertainments is a topic for a separate talk.

The Festival

1999 became the 74th year in the history of the Festival. It took place every year at the end of May — the beginning of June, it was not influenced on by either crises in the economics or political cataclysms and only the Second World War became the reason for a five years break in its history.

At first, competitions took place only in the evenings from Monday till Friday. But every year the quantity of the participants grew and day blocks appeared in the program. Then the organizators had to increase the quantity of days. Today the Festival takes place traditionally from Friday till Friday and the competitions now start already from the very morning.

Besides standard and Latin American dances Championships themselves in different groups (youth until 21 years old, amateurs, seniors, professionals, formations) the program of the Festival also includes: the famous World Dance Congress the honour of lecturing at which is given to the best specialists of the planet, the international team meeting of professionals, the tournament on invitations for the performers of the Exhibition genre, conferences and meetings of international dance organizations, cocktail-parties and parties.

And for about ten years at the services of the guests there is a wide-spreading trade and exhibition complex of the industry of dancing: everything from textbooks, periodic and reference literature, video and music to footwear and costumes, evening dresses and adornments, shows of models of dance clothes.

The First British Open Championship on standard dances among professionals and amateurs took place in 1931 and on Latin American dances far later — in 1964 and since then they have gradually replaced from the Festival’s program Sequence performers who now have their own separate competition in October.

Before the competitions took place on the “native” artistic parquet of the room in the middle of which there is laid an enormous brown star. Now during the dance festivals a special parquet covering hides it but it is still visually accessible for the British Tory whose traditional meetings take place in the Empress Ballroom of the Winter Gardens and the spectators who fill it during the concerts of the stars of the world music culture.

The dance platform is surrounded by the rows of spectators’ seats. The tickets to the room are divided into entrance tickets and seat tickets that are ordered and bought out half a year before the Festival. But it is almost impossible to buy a ticket with a seat in the dance stalls. One should deserve this right by winning the recognition of the dance world. They are allotted by name.

The most honorable first row by the parquet is indicated by the letters AA; it is followed by row A, and then come row 1, row 2 and so on. The history of these indications is of interest. Before the numeration of rows began from the first row but then with the growth of the quantity of spectators row A appeared before it, and then another especially comfortable one with double wide velvet seats-sofas which therefore was called AA. To sit in this row is an exclusive privilege of the former champions, the heads of the major dance organizations and special representatives of the dance press. We know a story about one very rich lady who on getting the refusal to purchase seats in row AA “whatever it costs” threatened to purchase the whole company that organized the Festival. And notwithstanding the fact that due to space saving the seats-sofas disappeared long ago the seats in this row still cost a lot of money!

The Organizers

Gillian McKenzie reigned over many memorable Blackpool events

For already eighteen years the irreproachable Gillian MacKenzie has been carrying the heavy burden of the organizator of this biggest in the world dance Festival. Her fabulous memory, accuracy and obligatoriness cannot but arouse admiration. Always staying unnoticeable she as the conductor of a huge orchestra calculating everything to the minute manages the play. One is not given to see here fuss, lack of coordination and discrepancy in the work of the services. Here it is — the right side of the many years’ tradition.

Editor’s Note: Sandra Wilson is currently the organizer, taking over after Gillian retired in 2004. Sandra joined Gillian in 1996 after working at the Tower for 18 years.

The Irwen Tidswell orchestra which was permanent in the last years, the constant quartet of stewards walking several miles around the dance parquet every day, the returning board of the best British scrutinizers processing thousands of the referees’ protocols – they all contribute their irreplaceable mite into the work of this sophisticated mechanism. And of course the Festival compere who is at the same time the Chairman of its Board of Referees, a legend person, 13 times Champion of the World included into the Guinness Book of Records, a member of British High Society Mr. (Bill Irvine, M.B.E.) For the present generation of dancers he is a visible symbol of Blackpool.

22 years ago in 1978 the former organizator of the Festival the famous Aida Ilett whomeverybody called just Madam Ilett, a lady of the strictest rules suggested that he should be the head of the Referees Colleague work and become the compere of that action. “She was respected, taken seriously and afraid by everybody,” recalls Bill. Then this suggestion became a great honor for him. And since then each day of the Festival he enters the stage to start another historic evening with the words “good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” His voice is the voice of Blackpool, his intonations are the intonations of Blackpool, his greatness and devotion to dancing are the greatness of Blackpool.

The referees

During the Festival’s more than seventy years history Mr. Irvine became the fourth Chairman of the jury. Trusting the best Blackpool does not betray its choice. Long before the Festival the organizator and the Chairman of the jury confirm the list of referees. Since this is a British Festival that is held according to the rules of the British Dance Council, BDC, it is refereed only by the British. But these are always the best specialists.

In the past they all were prominent dancers (with the achievements not lower than the semi-finals of the major international competitions) and today they are the best English coaches whose services are sought by the leading couples of the whole world. They all devoted themselves to the service to Its Majesty Dance, they were acknowledged the best in their generations and today they decorate by themselves the referee teams of Blackpool. Each of them is a whole epoch. They were and remain dance idols. At that the invitation for each of them to referee at this most prestigious competition is a great honor and unbelievable responsibility. And the first invitation there is a memorable day forever. Excitement overfills both the referees and the dancers, for the Festival the best evening dresses and costumes are got made or bought, traditional English bonnets are ordered. On Wednesday, the evening of the professional Latina, the men judges wear white dinner jackets according to the tradition and lady referees wear colored dresses. But the most beautiful is always kept in the wardrobe until Friday — the most important and final event — the British Championship among the standard professionals.

“You are invited to referee in Blackpool because we respect you weighty professional opinion. You should referee without fear and reproach without regard to achievements and ranks. The dancers who are the strongest in your opinion should win.” This is approximately how the Chairman of the jury and the organizator of the Festival address the referees every year. The referees to the evening team are selected especially thoroughly because it is this team that makes the Decision, returns the final verdict.

The greatest prestige of the Board of Referees is the guarantor of the many years’ popularity of the Festival in the past and its pledge in the future. Noone will have the heart to blame the referees with incompetence. Everyone understands this and that is why every year they come here again and again.

This is the only tournament on the planet where all the best dancers and specialists of the planet come. Noone calls and invites specially here, people come here themselves to feel themselves a small part of this magic Great world of Dance, to touch the Eternal, to bow to the Sacred. Here friends meet, new duets are created and blessed. New born children in perambulators are brought here to share the happiness and introduce possible new champions to the world. This is the place of unprecedented take-offs and ruin of one’s hopes, sweet tears of happiness and bitter tears of disappointment.

The quarter-finalists of Blackpool are known by name, the semi-final is an object of worship. And to reach the final and all the more to win Blackpool is a dream of every dancer:

One goes half of his life to it,

To remember it half of his life afterwards.

The Title

The first in Blackpool are really the best among the best. To win there means to go down in history forever.

The title “British Champion” or the finalist in the dance world quotes not lower and possibly higher than the title of the Champion or the finalist of the World Championship because only two best couples from each country participate in the World Championship and Blackpool gathers all.

The experienced audience of Blackpool award with the “standing” ovation their idols who manage to dissolve the barrier of evaluating looks, to turn them into the looks delighted with highest mastery, the liberated talent, the depth and fury of passion. The spectator in Blackpool cannot be bought with a cheap trick, cheated or deceived. The spectator in Blackpool stands up only before the great!

The best couples of the world traditionally conclude here their emulous carrier, saying good-bye to the audience and friends – competitors, they kiss and wash with tears of gratitude the sacred parquet of the Ballroom.

29 May 1999 Marcus & Karen Hilton, M.B.E., nine times Champions of the World and seven times winners of Blackpool among professionals of standard dances came out to the competition parquet for the last time. For fifteen (!) minutes the audience were standing and thanking their idols, two Ambassadors of Dance, minions and gods, thus paying the deepest tribute to the Great Dancers. The Empress Ballroom has never seen such a long ovation during its almost two centuries history! And their last waltz…


Two bodies, two souls

In one embrace

Merged forever – favorites of fortune.

And the life having measured off glories and damnations,

Hang down in a drop from the edge of the lip.


The limit of the possible,

The volcano of the magic passion,

The explosion of emotions – the carnival of charisma.

The spirit is leaving and the flesh is breaking into pieces,

Tearing the chains with one movement.

We see them,

The famous actors,

Dancing their life on the razor.

And we will turn grey with them in the dance.

I am singing glory to the God’s gift!


Ever Popular

The popularity of the tournament continues to grow from year to year. Recently the organizators had to make a unique for the tournament practice decision to limit the participation of amateur couples by only one age category (now they can dance only either in the group till 21 years old or in the main group – from 21 till 35 years old, or in the seniors group from 35 years old). The last year before the decision was made there had been received more than 600(!) applications for the main amateurs group and the tournament was threatened with becoming too cumbersome.

Blackpool is loyal to its traditions and people of the Dance are loyal to Blackpool. “This year we are dancing here for the 32nd time,” my lovely row neighbors in the stalls seniors John & Mary Corfield, who are already well over sixty, say with the unconcealed pride. And sitting before Len Colier danced here for the first time in the long 1936…

The Festival in Blackpool is the only big tournament in the world where in the Championships of professionals every dance is estimated separately and the winners in each of them are announced separately. A great achievement is to reach the final of all of them. “Stay on the floor!” is a legendary phrase of Bill Irvine saying that all the couples of the previous final are qualified also to the next one. “Stay on the floor!” — and the partners congratulate each other. “Stay on the floor!” — and the more experienced and venerable embrace the novices of the final. “Stay on the floor!” — and one cannot check his tears of joy…

The last pages of the thick booklet — program contain the names of the winners of all the previous Championships starting from 1931. Blackpool values its history and carefully keeps it. Blackpool is a parade of history, a parade of traditions.

Friday is the last day of the festival. In the evening the culmination of the Championship, the competitions of the professionals of standard take place. The room is full, people are even standing on the projections in the walls behind those standing on the floor, they are hanging down from the bar counters. The happy partner is proudly swinging fans. It is already past midnight.

The Ballroom Clock

“The final tour will start at 0.56 on the ballroom clock,” – announces the compere. “On the ballroom clock” — is another legendary expression of Blackpool originating from the times of the famous Alex Moore, M.B.E. And it really means that sharp at 0.56 Bill Irvine will announce the participants of the first final in Slow waltz. And the last waves of this dance ocean will start raging and after the end of the storm the audience will learn the names of the new winners. But before announcing them Bill will present and thank everyone who made this Festival possible and successful as always. The impatient standing audience will award with applause the modest fairy Gill MacKenzie and her numerous assistants and the referees of the competition to cast afterwards their last ovation over the Champions…

For a long time after that the congratulating and saying good-bye people will be crowding on the parquet, flashes of cameras will be flickering and the languages that have become so different after the Babylon will be heard. And after that those speaking them will leave for their countries, far and near, to return here again in a year. Certainly to return! One cannot fail to return!

…Glory to the Great Tradition!

Leonid Pletnev

2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. In the 1960s, as former Australian Amateur competitors we bought tickets with the letter A on them. Thought they were front row.
    Imagine our embarrassment, when sitting in front row, we were so kindly removed by stewards !!!!!!!!
    Ohhh !! THE SHAME OF IT ALL !!
    Now, 60 years later & my dear Ron long gone, i have a chuckle at this TERRIBLE mistake …Ha ha ha !! Worse things DO happen !!

    • Hi Pat, I don’t know if you will remember me from my name but I send you greeting from those day long ago.
      Hope you are well

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