The Quickstep construction of Smith-Hampshire is not clever, but perhaps he is clever in not being clever.”
These words were written by Alex Moore, the most widely read dance critic of his time, in describing my 1949 British Amateur Championship win with Beatrice Lewis in glowing terms. Six years later, when we were competing as professional competitors at Blackpool, he was criticising Doreen Casey and I fiercely for being too clever, too avant garde in Quickstep. Nowadays, the avant garde Quickstep which we danced in 1955 has become the commonplace in competitions.
I did not push my teacher, Madame llett, for variations, though many competitors were, even in those days, following the trend set by Wally Fryer & Vi Barnes and dancing figures which bear a strong resemblance to the step- combination figurations popular today.
I could have had tricky variations had I wished. I remember that one of the couples in the Blackpool Dance Club was an obsessive gatherer of variations, asking for new material every lesson. Mrs llett was a creative and very adaptable teacher and gave them what they wanted, even though it was against her advice. This couple were so overloaded with variations that they could have continued dancing for 10 minutes, in each dance, without repeating a single variation. Had they spent the same amount of time on improving their quality of movement, they could have been excellent competition dancers. The fact was that they had no real interest in pushing themselves to ever higher levels. They were quite content in just having a new figure each week. Fine, if this is what you want out of dancing.
Excellence of Style, Movement and Technique were the three goals to which I continually strived. Each had to brought forward in unison. None of the three was relegated to the role of ‘Cinderella’. Until I started to teach, demonstrate and perform in Dinner Dance cabaret as a professional, I was not much interested in the acquisition of more and more material.
Quality not quantity – the how to do each step as perfectly as possible – was the total focus of my concentration during lessons and practice sessions. I commend this attitude and game-plan to all amateur competitors.
Many people think that the Quickstep has changed a great deal since the 1950’s. In some ways it has. For instance, the feet, which should glide over the floor, are now often airborne. But is that an improvement? Consider the ‘modern’ Quickstep which you saw danced at the last competition you attended. In general, you saw a fast moving dance composed of such figures as Syncopated Locks, Scatter Chasses (often an overabudance of them), Pepperpots, Crackerjacks, Woodpeckers, Turning Rondes, Tipple Sways, Coupes…. but just how long do you think these ‘Trickstep’ variations have been around?
Anthony Hurley and Fay were masters of figures like these in their championship-winning days. Going further back, Bill & Bobbie Irvine would remember having danced most, if not all of them, in the golden days of their own dynamic Quicksteps. In fact, way back in 1955, Doreen and I were dancing all these types of figures. Jack Reaveley wrote for Dance News a very graphic account of the excitement in the Blackpool Empress Ballroom when we first introduced our ‘firecracker’ version of the Quickstep.
But my Pre-War competition Quickstep was a very simple affair, based on chasses arid flowing turns such as the Quarter Turns, Progressive Chasse, Cross Chasse to Fishtail, Natural Spin Turn, Running Right Turn, the Basic Reverse Turn, the Zig-Zag, Back Lock and Running Finish. My Quarter Turns and Basic Reverse Turn still ended with a Heel Pivot. Even when my partner, Cis Bryers, and I were selected by audition to dance for the Blackpool Team against other towns in the Lancashire Dance League, (the 1930’s forerunner to the Supadance League), no medallist dance school pupil would have had the slightest difficulty in recognising my every dance step.
Which was why, when I was sent by my Blackpool employers to London, as their representative for several weeks in 1939 and the early part of 1940, I was, on my first visit to a London dance hall, able to partner up with a dancer named Babs Cooper (introduction by Frank Alback, dance teacher / journalist/ photographer) and enter a one dance comp on that very night (at the Paramount Ballroom in Tottenham Court Road) which we won.
In fact, Babs and I had much success as a partnership, often placed among the first three In competitions in halls throughout the boroughs of Greater London. Those were the days when keen dancers – and we were very keen – in the London area could see a demonstration by a well-known professional couple and take part In a competition every night of the week. Just think of the marvellous opportunities for studying the various styles and aspects of good quality professional dancing.
While in London, Babs, who lived in Kingston, persuaded me to go with her for a lesson to her teacher, Alex Moore. He thought my Quickstep needed jazzing up a bit and taught me the Natural Spin Turn to V6. Jazzing up! You could hardly get more basic than the V6 but this gives you an idea of the very basic content of my Quickstep at the time. Yet we were beating couples who often had much more exciting material in their dances. Must be a lesson there!
1947 was the year that I came back into circulation as a dancer after serving in the Second World War. The Blackpool Dance Festival of that year had a dramatic impact on my mind. This was the year that Wally and Vi tied for 1st place in the British Professional Championship with my pre-war favourites, John Wells & Renee Sissons. I did not become a devotee, at first sight, of Wally & Vi’s Quickstep; preferring John and Renee’s calmer style which was more in keeping with all my acquired learning. But the Wally Fryer and Violet Bames high-speed, dynamic Quickstep was the watershed which totally changed the approach to the future development of this dance.
I started adding some syncopated elements to my repertoire; a Tipsy here and a Stutter there but only gradually did I become a convert to this revolutionary Quickstep; this injection of power into dancing. Even when I won the British Amateur Championship with Beatrice Lewis two years later, in 1949 and with Doreen Casey in 1950, my Quickstep construction still had more in common with the Running Right Turn than with the syncopated complexities of the whirlwind Quickstep which Wally Fryer had popularised.
Later, as professionals giving coaching to competitors, Doreen and I naturally had to study all the modern trends in dancing. The easiest way to study Quickstep trends was from the trend-setter, Wally himself. We had him visit for regular sessions in our Lambeth School of Dancing studio, (next to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official residence in London.) Wally was very much an instinctive dancer. He was influenced in his movement interpretation by the melodic structure of the particular tune. When I accused him of using a different timing when dancing a group the second time, he replied indignantly, “Course I did, different part of the music, in’it” He was quite right. Advanced dancing is about the interpretation of the music, not just the beat of the music.
By the mid-1950’s we had created an avant garde Quickstep, using frequently varied speed changes and surprise switches of movement, based on Wally Fryer’s ideas but adapted for the dance persona we wished to portray. An opening group which we devised for the 1955 Blackpool was a most dramatic eye-catcher. It could take us from one comer of the Empress Ballroom, along the long side of the floor, right to the other comer in just over 4 bars of music. We called it the Zipper. Eric Hancox called me the ‘Roger Bannister of the ballroom’ (Roger Bannister was the runner who had broken the 4 minute mile barrier the year before).
The audience of dancers and dance aficionados loved it! Alex Moore did not! But that is another story.