This article first appeared in a series called Perfect 10 in Dance Today (www.dance-today.co.uk)
By Claire Saul
Social trends, fashion, music… just three of the factors that have shaped hold, tempo, style and many other aspects of dance over the years. We have already heard how in 1914, vaudeville performer Harry Fox gave his name to the “Fox’s trot”, adapting his complicated two-step routine to create a more manageable rhythm for his lady partners and simultaneously providing an antidote to the increasingly popular but rather suggestive “animal dances” of the ragtime era.
The foxtrot was to become the most popular dance of the early 1920s
The foxtrot was to become the most popular dance of the early 1920s. But increasingly, perhaps inspired by the fast and furious pace of the decade, enthusiastic dance hall bands would display a tendency to up the tempo. The large, open steps of the foxtrot became something of a struggle.
Disappointingly (for the sake of a good story) there was no “Mr Quick” to step forward and do the honours but rather, in the UK, the evolution of a new dance, which retained this faster tempo and also incorporated elements of a new dance, called the Charleston, which was taking Europe and the US by storm. The quick-time foxtrot and Charleston’s tempo was 200 plus beats per minute, distinguishing it from the 120 beats a minute of what was now considered to be the “slow” foxtrot.
The great shift in London society habits that decade, which saw social dancing increasingly confined to hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, meant that “serious” ballroom dancing, which required large spaces, became increasingly side-lined to the more spacious suburban dance halls.
“By the middle of the 1930s, when the old class structure in this country had not yet totally disappeared, to become suburban in this way meant social death,” explained Belinda Quirey in her 1970s book May I Have The Pleasure?. “Serious” modern ballroom was becoming more of a cult activity as the popular dances of choice fell under the influence of our jitterbugging North American wartime allies.
Frank Ford and Molly Spain first performed the quickstep at the Star Dance Championships, 1927
But in that dedicated ballroom world, the quickstep had fully established itself and it was flourishing. It had been introduced into the competitive arena by English dancers Frank Ford and Molly Spain, who first performed it at the Star Dance Championships of 1927, including its classic chassés and syncopated steps but excluding the Charleston knee actions and high kicks. “This dance, when performed well, can be as attractive to watch and as much of a ballroom dance as any we have,” wrote Victor Silvester at the time. “I, for one of many, hope it has come to stay…”
By the late 1920s the dance became known by the rather less tongue-twisting title “quickstep”. The year of 1929 saw the formal standardisation of the dance at London’s Great Conference and a clear distinction from its foxtrot roots.
A little light and shade was added to the rhythm of the dance with the influence of swing music from the US in the 1930s. New step innovations arrived in the late 1950s when leading couples such as Harry Smith-Hampshire and Doreen Casey started adding hops, skips, jumps and the pendulum action to their routine. Along with couples such as Bill and Bobbie Irvine and the Australians Alf Davies and Julie Reaby, they created a totally new effect for quickstep and, at the same time, something of a stir in the ballroom world.
It really got the ballroom crowd buzzing,
explains internationally acclaimed ballroom dancer Marcus Hilton MBE, who with his wife and partner Karen won nearly every major dance championship over their 14-year Professional career. “Yet quickstep hasn’t really evolved that much further since.
“Karen and I started competing together in 1978 and retired in 1999 and I can honestly say that the quickstep with which we won our last British and World Championships in 1998 was probably very similar to the quickstep of our first Amateur title in 1983. We didn’t feel the need to do any more than a small degree of chop and change because we were good at what we did and people would try to emulate us and our type of choreography.
“We did seek inspiration in our choreography from other dances though, including one step, which we became well-known for, that originally came from the jive, but we always ensured that the theme of the quickstep was clear. And that’s what couples competing today need to bear in mind; do take influences but your dance must always be readable as quickstep.”
So, what is sought by the adjudicators of today, 85 years on from the birth of the quickstep? “When adjudicating we look for a variety of all the quickstep elements, so all along with the swoop and swing we look for hops, chassés and so on,” explains Marcus. “We also want to see that the choreography suits the couple. A small, slim couple will look good doing tricky, effective choreography, while a couple who are maybe slightly heavier and taller would suit more of the swing and turn type of action. But everyone needs to mix it up a bit and find a balance, rather than just solely focusing on one or the other. We also look for clarity of shape, timing and ease of movement.
“Some choreography, especially in the Amateur World DanceSport Federation league, seems to be more geared towards sport and therefore it’s the couples who have the most gimmicks, such as those who move around the floor the fastest, who get the benefit of the doubt and the best results.
We need to ensure that we retain the ethos of the dance.
“While I think that quickstep, along with all dances, should be allowed to evolve over time and we should look to improve everything, we need to ensure that we retain the ethos and main character and idea of the dance. Gimmicks are good as long as they are done with taste and don’t overpower the whole of the choreography.”
The result of an amalgamation of fast foxtrot and Charleston, and having absorbed influences from other dances along the way, the quickstep has an undoubtedly convoluted pedigree. But as audience-pleasers go, its lightness, speed and vibrancy mean that the cheery and dynamic quickstep is a class act that’s hard to beat.
© Claire Saul