At the start of this series of articles, I pointed out that the most important element in the make-up of a champion was the indomitable will-to-win. Second in importance was practice, practice and more practice and the third, an innate talent fir dancing. This is the dancers’ equivalent of the theological Holy Trinity.
It might seem that talent is the most important of all but talent can be brought out and developed by good teaching, even from the most unpromising dancer, providing the pupil is willing to go through the meticulous stages of thoroughly learning the correct principles which will build up technical perfection from a solid basis of knowledge. Of course, the pupil-teacher relationship has to be a two-way rapport. The teacher must be able to inspire your imagination and engender your confidence. In turn the teacher must be able to recognise the pupil’s strengths and weaknesses as a dancer and as a personality, acting on this insight to bring out individuality of performance.
It is a fact that some dancers are so naturally gifted that they never seem to need practice and it is true that sometimes these fortunate people rise right to the top. It is equally true that most of the outstanding champions if history – in any sport – have got to the pinnacle of their ambition in spite of adversity but through sheer dogged determination and hard work. So if, as you read this now, perhaps in a relatively lowly position in the hierarchy of competition ratings, you feel that others pick up new steps, conquer new movements quicker than you do, do not be disheartened. Remember that those who have become champions may have had the same problem. In fact, remember the old fable of the hare and the tortoise and who won the race.
Another point, I have known many dancers over the years who seemed to be on the road to stardom but who, when observed analytically, had only mastered a superficial perception of the finer points of good dancing; really being not so much good dancers, but dancers with attractive ‘top show’ and a good tailor and dressmaker but built on a shaky foundation.
Theoretically, Juveniles who have been in the hands of a good teacher and learnt all the correct technical ramifications of the Restricted Syllabus should be well positioned to move up into the Junior ranks without feeling too much overshadowed. A sensible teacher or coach would add to their knowledge by feeding new concepts to them slowly and letting them master each new idea before introducing the next variation. The worst thing that could happen, and usually does, is when they are allowed – even sometimes encouraged – to throw overboard the hard learned principles they have acquired (through only being allowed the Restricted Syllabus as Juveniles) in exchange for the dubious merits of the quick-fix — the ‘complete do-it-in-a-hurry programme’ — a flowery, mix of sway-every-which-way choreographed routine of complex syncopated variations.
In my formative days int he Blackpool Dance Club int he 1930’s I did not have this problem. (Juvenile and Junior sections did not exist. This was a phenomenon which did not emerge on a national scale until after the War.) Anyway, I was 15 when I first entered a competition but I was quite happy to accept Madame Ilett’s authoritive decree that I would learn best by building up a sound basis of technique, by physically knowing through muscle-memory everything possible about each step, each figure, before moving on to the next. On the surface, this appeared to mean slow progression.
Yet, having joined the Dance Club in 1937 and in spite of having fewer and simpler steps than most competitors in the Club, my partner Cis Bryers and I danced our way into the No.2 spot in the four-couple team representing Blackpool, which engaged in competitions with other towns in Lancashire. A place in the Blackpool Dance Team had to be earned through and audigion which was adjudicated by a celebrity dance professional brought to Blackpool expecially for the occasion. The first four couples became the Team. The fifth and sixth placed were the Reserves.
My partner and I had displaced more experienced dancers, one couple in particular whom I admired for their wide range of (as it appeared to me at that time) spectacular steps and showmanship. Though I could hardly believe this unexpected uprating, this was when I first began to dimly perceive the meaning of the phrase which my teacher was fond of repeating to me: „It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it!”
The War which started in 1939 took me away from competition dancing for 7 whole years, starting just after the Blackpool Dance Festival of 1940. I had volunteered for the Air Arm of the British Royal Navy. Though on active war service, when I had time for reflection, I initially missed dancing a great deal, especially when I read in the ’Modern Dance & The Dancer’ of couples I used to beat becoming big names in British dancing. (Though the Blackpool Dance Festival was suspended after 1940 for the duration of the War, many other dance events continued to take place.)
However, by the time I was demobilised in 1947, though I joined the Blackpool Dance Club again, I doubted that I would take it up again with the same serious intent as before the War. Cis Bryers, the lady with whom I danced in the 1930’s now was too small for me but we entered a few competitions in various towns in Lancashire, but it was after an event at Levenshulme Palais that I finally decided to give up competition dancing. We were having no success. Being selected for the second round of these events had been our best result. In addition, a partnership in a travel agency – Luxitours – where I was putting in a 10 hour day, was occupying my attention and enthusiasm. But as the Winter Gardens was only across the road from my Topping Street premises I still continued to visit the Blackpool Dance Club regular meetings in the Empress Ballroom, dancing socially only, with different girls. Beatrice Lewis was the right height and seemed to suit my style of dancing.
Just for a bit of fun we decided to enter for the Boyle Trophy in Warrington. On earrival we found that it had attracted a large field which included most of the best dancers in the north of England. Totally unworried about the result, we cruised around the floor in each dance and we were delighted to get into the 3rd round; a round further than I had been getting with my ex-partner. I thought this was as far as we would go and couldn’t believe it when we were selected for the semi-final but it was when we were called out for the Final that we could not believe it was really happening. We were still in euphoric daze when the Final ended.
Now this is an important point! We had absolutely no picture steps in any dance, such as the Oversway and the Contra Check. Although these were in vogue they had yet to appear on my agenda. We had no syncopated trickery in the Quickstep except for a simple Tipple Chassr to Right as an ending to the first three steps of a Natural turn. I was still dancing Heel Pivots ending to the Quarter Turns, which had long been abandoned as being too elementary by all those couples who had been able to carry on dancing while I had been on active service in the Fleet Air Arm. We did not have the remotest idea of a routined approach to dancing. I just led Beatrice into whatever figure next came into my head. The final ended. The other five finalists were established “names”, who regularly appeared in Finals, and I would have been very happy, even ecstatic, to settle for 6th place. In that Final I was only concerned in cutting a clean, upright style and moving with the utmost smoothness possible.
One of the major turning points in my life was hearing Beatrice and me being declared the winners of this important Amateur event, and this on our first outing together.
I had been fully determined to involve myself in building up the travel agency business (the concept of mass foreign holiday travel was just in the embryonic stage of opening up and I could see the great future potential). But this win changed everything! I was once again fired with dance ambition; with the desire to see how far I could go in competitions. If we could win this Trophy against a strong field, couples from Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, etc., a coachload from Blackpool – about 60 or more starters – with so very little, almost casual, preparation, what were the possibilities…? Once again, I was hooked on dancing!
The important definitive lesson here, which I want to make absolutely clear, is that a sound training in the basics: Stance, Hold, Joint Setup, the basic Technique, the basic principles of dance; are infinitely more important as a foundation than the most selective collection of attractive dance figurations in the world.
source: Dance News newspaper Edition No.1505
Harry Smith-Hampshire, Making of a Champion series