What is it About Blackpool?

A compilation of a variety of excerpts from Brigitt Mayer’s book Ballroom Icons regarding the magical appeal of the historic Blackpool Dance Festival.

This is a compilation of a variety of excerpts from Brigitt Mayer’s book Ballroom Icons regarding the Blackpool Dance Festival (Copyright ©)

“Blackpool’s magnetic attraction for dancers everywhere amounts to an irresistible compulsive obsession! The British Open titles were always, and still are, the championships that you, I and every other competitor, past present and future, wanted or wants to win more than anything!”

The British Open titles were always, and still are, the championships that you, I and every other competitor, past present and future, wanted or wants to win more than anything!”

Harry Smith-Hampshire summed it up!

The significance of the Blackpool Dance Festival is enormous and has not been surpassed by any other dance festival in the world. In its first four decades it drew dancers from all over Britain, but relatively few from overseas. Now, it’s completely the opposite.

Harry continued: “But if Blackpool is important to DanceSport, then equally, DanceSport is important to Blackpool. More money is spent in the town’s hotels, boarding houses, shops, restaurants, etc., each year by this open-to-the-world dance festival than by any other function including main party political conferences.”

Early years

The earliest championship, which produced winners like Alec Millar and Phyllis Haylor in the late 1920s, was The Star Championship in London. It was launched in 1925 and was undoubtedly the most prestigious until after the war.

The significance of the Blackpool Festival increased gradually with the change of its format over the decades. In the early years it was very much a North of England Championship with considerable accent on stage and sequence[1] dancing. It was not until the postwar period that overseas interest began to develop and spread so greatly.

The Tower Ballroom in Blackpool was built between 1897 and 1898. It was commissioned by the Blackpool Tower Company in response to the opening of the Empress Ballroom in the Winter Gardens, which had its grand opening in 1878. The Tower Ballroom is still one of the most magnificent ballrooms in the world. Each crystal chandelier can be lowered to the floor to be cleaned, which takes over a week.

The BBC televised the Come Dancing series from the Tower Ballroom for many years and it also hosted shows from Strictly Come Dancing (Dancing with the Stars in the US). The Blackpool Junior Dance Festival has been held each year in the ballroom since 1964.

It’s not quite clear anymore who the original brainchild of the Blackpool Dance Festival was, Mr. Harry Wood, musical director of the Winter Gardens, or Mr. Nelson Sharples, music publisher of Blackpool. Mr. Sharples published all the sheet music for the Tower and Empress Ballrooms. It doesn’t really matter today. The important thing is, it happened.

During Easter week in 1920, the first Blackpool Dance Festival was held in the Empress Ballroom of the Winter Gardens. The dances were sequence dances like waltzes, lancers and two-step, and many new dances emerged. All the big ballrooms had in-house masters of the ceremonies who dressed in tails, and “ruled” the ballrooms. They invented novelty dances at least one a year, decided what dances were played, and watched for inappropriate behaviour in the ballroom. But they are not to be mistaken for the chairman of the adjudicators. The first chairman of the adjudicators for the Blackpool Dance Festival was James Finnigan, Julie Laird’s great-grandfather. He did it for two years and then his daughter Ethel for another two.

In 1928 the Blackpool Tower Company merged with the Winter Gardens and Pavilion Company and embarked on a policy of improvement and expansion. The Dance Festival took on the North of England Championship, and by 1931, the British Professional and Amateur Championship titles were inaugurated. During the war, there was only a limited Festival in 1940 and everything was closed thereafter until 1946.

In 1946, P.J. Richardson became the first emcee and chairman of the adjudicators (in one person) and this stayed the tradition from then on.

P.J.S.Richardson, OBE

Henry Jacques and Mavis Deeming were one of the famous couples of the 1930s and ’40s. They caused a sensation at the newly established British at the Dance Festival in Blackpool. After extensive renovations to the Blackpool Winter Gardens in 1931, the Empress Ballroom had a whole new look, and the first Blackpool Dance Festival, larger now than in previous years, took place. The coveted British titles came into being, and what had been exclusively a North of England Championship (including Scotland 1920-’30), was now “open” to the rest of Great Britain and in fact the world; although no competitors from abroad came. The first international entries were seen in 1934.

This competition is officially called the Blackpool Dance Festival, but is also referred to as the British Open or just Blackpool. Henry and Mavis were third in the 1930 North of England Championship. In 1931 at the first British Professional they placed second to another brilliant couple, Maxwell Steward and Pat Sykes. The 1932 Championship became a sensation when it was announced by chairman P.J. that Henry and Mavis and Timothy Palmer and Kathleen Price were tied and had to “dance it off.”

P.J wrote that “the applause was so deafening, I doubt if the dancers could hear the music. Timothy and Kathleen won the re-dance. The following year Henry was in Australia, but in 1934 he came back into the fray, and for three successive years he and Mavis were the undefeated British Professional champions.”

“The applause was so deafening, I doubt if the dancers could hear the music. Timothy and Kathleen won the re-dance. The following year Henry was in Australia, but in 1934 he came back into the fray, and for three successive years he and Mavis were the undefeated British Professional champions.”

Growth after the war

Len Scrivener and Nellie Duggan became finalists of seven British Open Championships from 1946 to 1948 (1941-45 no competitions were held). Charles Thiebault and Doreen Beahan were first, Wally Fryer and Violet Barnes second, Len and Nellie third and Arthur Norton and Pat Eaton fourth. In 1946 and ’47 John Wells and Renee Sissons took first place ahead of Wally Fryer and Violet Barnes. Victor Barrett with Doreen Freeman came third, Len and Nellie fourth and Bobby Henderson and Eileen Henshall were tied with Eric Hancox and Betty Wych for fifth position. By 1949 Len and Nellie were second after Wally Fryer and Violet Barnes and they won in 1950, ’51 and ’52. In 1953 they retired from competition and travelled the world to teach, demonstrate and adjudicate.

Eric Hancox and Betty Wych 1955

Eric Hancox was North of England champion in 1947, ’48 and ’49. One of his teachers was the “Great Scrivener.” They were both finalists at the British Open from 1947 to 1952 when Len and Nellie Duggan came first, Hugh Carter and Hazel Willis second, and Eric and Betty Wych third. After his retirement from competition he trained and coached many champions. He was commissioned to teach, judge, and perform in Germany and the U.S. and became like an ambassador for American couples in England.

Mrs. Ida Ilett, co-principal of the Blackpool School of Dancing, became the first official organizer of the Festival. Before that the various company secretaries ran it. She developed the Festival into the most famous ballroom dance event in the world, comparable to the Wimbledon for tennis. She started in 1954, and continued until her death in 1978.

After the Second World War when life became easier again, ballroom dancing was to British youth what skateboarding and rollerblading are to the adolescents of today. The years between 1946 and 1962 brought forth an “avalanche” of successful partnerships such as Charles Thiebault and Doreen Beahan, John Wells and Renee Sissons, Wally Fryer and Violet Barnes, Victor Barrett and Doreen Freeman, Len Scrivener and Nellie Duggan, Sonny Binnick and Sally Brock, Harry Smith-Hampshire and Doreen Casey, Benny Tolmeijer and Sylvia Silve, Bob Burgess and Doreen Freeman, Peter Eggleton and Brenda Winslade, and the Australians Alf Davies and Julie Reaby.

Norman (Sonny) Binnick dominated the professional competition scene for almost a decade from 1950 to 1958, following in the footsteps (pun intended) of the greats Len Scrivener and Nellie Duggan. He had several partners, but the most notable one was his wife Sally Brock, with whom he won five firsts and a second place in the British Open.

They became British Open Professional Ballroom Champions in 1953 and 1954 (tied with Alf Davies and Julie Reaby, Australia) and in 1955 ahead of Alf Davies and Julie Reaby who took their medal in 1956. Then Sonny and Sally won it back again in 1957 and ’58.

Doreen Freeman-Burgess danced her first British Open Professional Championship in 1947 with Victor Barrett, and came second after John Wells and Renee Sissons, and Wally Fryer and Violet Barnes who were tied for first place. She also placed first in one of the early World Championships in that same year.

In 1953, Bob Burgess’s wife and partner Margaret Baker, sadly, died while undergoing minor surgery. In 1947, they had placed second in the British Open Amateur Championship and were finalists in the professionals in 1952 and 1953. After a couple of years, Bob returned to the dance floor with Jeannette Wilson and for two years made the finals. He then danced with Eileen Henshall again for two years, and they split-up at the end of 1958.

Now Doreen started to dance with Bob over 10 dances at the same time as Bill and Bobbie Irvine, Peter Eggleton and Brenda Winslade and Walter Laird and Lorraine. In 1962 they came second in the World Championship in Australia behind Bill and Bobbie, opened a studio, (the Starlight, later owned by Bill and Bobbie) and led the typical life of professional dancers. Travelling and being in the studio until late at night hasn’t changed much even today.

Benny Tolmeijer was finalist in the British Open for seven years, and a much beloved mentor and coach with an illustrious career that spanned three decades. His first professional final with Sylvia Silve was 1955.

The 1960’s

Harry Smith Hampshire and Doreen Casey won ’59, ’60 and ’61 and after that the era of Eggleton/Irvine began: By 1961 Peter Eggleton and Brenda Winslade were third in the British Open Standard Championship after Harry Smith-Hampshire and Doreen Casey and Bob Burgess and Doreen Freeman, ahead of Sammy Harris and Pearl Rudd, Bill and Bobbie Irvine, Benny Tolmeijer and Sylvia Silve and Eric Donaldson and Edna Barnett. In 1962 Bill and Bobbie won, Peter and Brenda were second and Bob and Doreen were third. The biggest rivalry of that era had begun. Irvine versus Eggleto. It would go back and forth for about five years, and the public loved the excitement it created.

“It was a friendly rivalry though, Peter said. It was always very close. They would win and we were second with all the firsts in waltz and foxtrot and they had all the firsts in tango and quickstep. But then we had one third place in the tango and lost the whole thing.

“We both knew that we became better dancers because of this and we worked harder to win next time. And we always used to kid around. I remember one year Bill Irvine said ‘You have no chance tonight, my mother is here watching!’ So as we danced the quickstep somebody was shouting ‘Go Bill go.’ When I passed Bill during the dance I asked ‘Was that your mom?’ ” So we had fun, and of course you want to beat the other couple. Why else be out there?”

The great success of the Blackpool Dance Festival is partly due to such great rivalries and the excitement this created amongst fellow competitors and the audience; people wanted to find out who would take the title home this time. The festival got bigger and bigger.

Tribute to the organizers

Gillian McKenzie

Gillian MacKenzie was Blackpool Dance Festival organizer from 1981-2004. When Gillian started, the professional field alone already had about 150 to 180 couples. During her “reign”, changes needed to be made as in the decades before. For example, when the amateur field grew to approximately 590 couples, something had to be done! There wasn’t enough time available to have them all dance, and Gillian made the decision to have all couples stay in their age categories. They couldn’t dance in the under-21 category and two days later enter as amateurs. She applied the same “treatment” to the senior category.

Inevitably, Gillian’s reign also came to an end with her retirement in 2004. Her successor, Sandra Wilson joined Gillian in 1996 after working at the Tower for 18 years.

Many wonderful annual events have grown over the last decades in different countries and many more will come in the future, but Blackpool is Blackpool and only those who have been there truly understand what Kit Hallewell meant when he wrote:

“The fascination is there for all, and it is an indescribable feeling to step once more down the stairs behind the West end of the North block for yet another festival. Age cannot dim nor custom stale its infinite variety, nor its infinite familiarity.”

(1) Sequence dancing is a form of dance in which a predetermined pattern of movements is followed. It had its origins in London in the early 1900s

Brigitt Mayer, Canada, author of Ballroom Icons ©

All rights reserved. No part of this book/piece may be reproduced in any form, by print, microfilm or any other means without written permission from the author.

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