22. Characterization

CHARACTERIZATION! What does this word mean to you as a dancer? Well, you could say that it can also be spelt characterisation and you would be right. But is this a subject that you and your dance teacher take seriously? Do you research the history and development of a dance in order to get the feel of its traditional character? Do you attribute a separate character¬ization to each of your competition dances?

If you are a coach/ trainer/ teacher/ choreographer of dance – whether all or one of these – do you critically examine the types of figures you are teaching to ensure that they fit within the framework of ‘authentic’ characterization? (Or do you poach from the other dances, perhaps even from ballet and jazz dance for your ideas?) Even if you have a flair for the innovative, do you not want to ensure that your figure-creations remain ‘in character’ ?

I started thinking about the characterization of dance early in my career. When, in the years of 1937 to 1940, I was a young amateur dancer in the Blackpool Dance Club, the highlight of my year was the Blackpool Dance Festival. I competed with only limited success but I also watched with avid interest, almost afraid to blink in case I missed something of importance, as the big names of the ballroom swept around the floor.

It was John Wells, (brother of Elsa Wells, presenter of the International Championships), who first captivated my imagination with his highly skilled, superbly swinging Waltz movement and commanding upright style. Feet were then closed on the 3rd beat of most bars of music in marked contrast to the pseudo-Waltz choreography which is prevalent today. The key to this dance was – and still is – the best possible representation of the perfect rise and fall arc of a pendulum. Due to the simplicity of the choreography of those days it was possible for me to position myself and my partner behind John Wells (and his partner, Renee Sissons) when they were rehearsing and try to copy their action. My young mind was like a sponge soaking up information.

Whereas the addition of the three-quarter ‘diagonal’ natural and reverse turns (popularized by Victor Silvester in the early 1920s) with their basis of pendulum swing action, established these turns as foundation actions of the new ‘English’ Waltz, the generic Waltz has a history going back hundreds of years based on the theme of rotation. The dancer who most impressed me with his control in the performance of all types of spin was Julie Laird’s father, Frank Gibson, the ‘King of Spin’. I never had lessons from him but he, unknowingly, was another factor in my developing view of dance characterization.

I had watched Henry Jacques in 1936, when he and Mavis Deeming won the British Professional Ballroom Champion¬ship at Blackpool for the third consecutive time, before I even started to think about joining a Dance Club. Even untutored as I was, the sheer beauty of the style, flow and polish of his and Mavis Deeming’s classic Slow Foxtrot was one of the influences which changed my life by being the catalyst which drew me into competition dancing.

Although I was to become much better acquainted with Henry Jacques and his wife, Day Allen, in later years, long after he had withdrawn from demonstrating and competing, his residual skills of dance performance were such that he could still outshine the then current top ranking dancers who all flocked to his studio for tuition.

The character of Slow Foxtrot, developed by pioneers like Josephine Bradley, Victor Silvester, Frank Ford and carried on by Henry Jacques and others who came later, remained true until cross-breeding – the switching of steps between dances – started to infect its purity of character.

I was brought up in a world where each dance had its own individuality, where the boundaries were not crossed. Right to the end of our competitive, demonstration and cabaret career, Doreen and I endeavoured to maintain the separate identities of the dances in our performances. As a teacher/coach I hope that I was reasonably effective in passing this message on to those professionals and amateur competitors who came to take lessons at our Lambeth studio in the 1950’s and 1960’s and, later, to the various halls where I taught.
But to go back in time. It was in 1947, having been away from my home town during the War years, that I saw Len Scrivener and Nellie Duggan dancing Tango in that year’s British Pro. This, for me, was characterization par excellence. You could see the very essence of this dance from South America in their body styling and movement. Many of their figures were of the non¬progressive type. Certainly, there was no rushing around the floor. In his mind, (as he later told me) Len became a famous matador, showing off his prowess on the dance floor with his favourite girl after the life-and-death ‘blood and sand’ drama of the afternoon’s corrida de toros. Len and Nellie did not win the British Professional Championship until 1950 but I had already placed them in my list of dancers who were worthy of study for being so outstanding in their charafcterization of a dance or dances.
The Quickstep is possibly the most difficult dance to categorize.

At a time when the midway tempo of Foxtrot music was both slowing down to become the Slow Foxtrot but, for other tunes, was being raised to the faster tempo, the ‘Quicktime Foxtrot’ became the predecessor of the present day dance. When the Charleston became all the rage in the mld- , 1920s, the faster moving Foxtrot I offshoot became the Quicktime- I Foxtrot-cum-Charleston and, f finally the Quickstep.

The Quickstep, before Wally Fryer & Violet Barnes, was a relatively smooth, elegant, rather restrained, upper-class type of dance (at least in appearance), even with its portion of Charleston ‘Flickers’. As an example of this character, imagine you are present at a round of the Quickstep in the British Professional Ballroom Champion¬ship of 1939. Coming down the centre of the Empress Ballroom are Timothy Palmer and Ella Spowart. The audience erupt into spontaneous applause as they dance a new variation. It was, subsequently, to be named the ‘Drop Lock’.

The action; a rise onto the toes on the step preceding the Lock, then, with almost the slowness and lightness of a feather drifting downwards, the feet were crossed into a wide lock position.
That was IT! Just a new interpretation of a lock step. But danced with beautiful style, polish and delicacy of movement. Every time they performed this figure they were rewarded by thunderous applause. (Incidentally, Ella Spowart was the lady who was renowned for the most flawless of heel turns and was never known to spoil one by even a fraction of an inch. To this day, the benchmark she set for ultra- polished footwork has rarely, if ever, been equalled.)

But the watershed of Quickstep characterization was the emergence of the London ‘Cockney’ spirit of Wally Fryer & Vi Barnes as professional competitors. They were the pioneers of the dynamic, high¬speed approach to Quickstep which set the template for everything since then. Nevertheless, the basic elements of Quickstep technique have remained unaltered. The main family of actions which seem out of character in today’s dance are the off-the-floor airborne steps. Ballroom floors were polished, specifically to allow the feet to glide and skim across the surface!
The Viennese Waltz is the only dance which has escaped the unwelcome attentions of the mongrelisers, the cross¬breeders of the dances. Yet, during by far the larger part of this 20th century of inter¬national competitive dance, the most outstanding champions – the winners of the ‘Grand Slam’ top titles of the world – have been those who took characterization seriously.