Concentration, to the exclusion of all extraneous thought, on the acquisition of technical accuracy, of the mastery of a new figure, or of a new concept in line or musical interpretation, is of absolute importance to the competitor. This concentration is most needed during the developmental habit- forming stage.
Inspiration is what one fervently hopes for on the ‘big occasion’ of a prestigious international champion¬ship. Inspiration to lift one, as if by magic, to previously unsealed heights of performance. This, I found, was not something that I could summon up by will-power alone. I could not produce it at a lesser event but I could find it for the British, the International, and other world-class events of a like standard.
Perspiration is the third – equally important – essential. It is the result of total mental and physical commitment to a passionately desired objective.
Perspiration was an ever-present part of my life as a dancer whether practising or competing. If a championship had five rounds I would need to change my collar, which had by then melted, after each round. As a schoolboy I played football and rugby but never did I perspire as much as when I engaged in dance practice sessions. Certainly, I seemed to perspire more than any of the other members of the Blackpool Dance Club. A doctor friend told me that I would grow out of it. I never did! Even at the end of my competitive career I used to literally shower poor Doreen with beads of perspiration when dancing the type of Tango spin which ended in a whiplash flick/stop.
Practice was always of vital importance to me. During the whole of my amateur days, when Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom was my second home, I could be found there from 6.30pm onwards on any night of the week. Practice became an even more urgent part of my daily routine in 1949, the year that Doreen became my partner. Only two or three weeks earlier I had won the British Amateur Championship with Beatrice Lewis but we had then dissolved our partnership.
Naturally hoping to stay in championship finals with my new partner, our practice sessions were conducted with a ruthless determination to go ‘flat out’ in every dance. No question of just ‘walkie-talking’ to music or sitting out every other dance. Our relentless training programme included working on and polishing many of the facets of style, movement and technique which I have explained in this ‘The Making Of A Champion’ series.
For both of us it was a period of intense adjustment. Doreen was slimmer, slightly shorter in stature and had more delicacy of feminine elegance than my previous partner. I realised that this was a bonus; it would make an ideal picture- contrast to the dominant style of dancing which I favoured for myself. With no time to spare, Doreen had to get used to the types of groups I used, to my methods and speeds of moving, to my interpretation of the character of each dance … and our first championship was looming, only 3 months away with other international events following close behind. The concentration and perspiration paid off and the inspiration arrived on schedule at major events to give that extra ‘lift’.
We turned professional the following year – 1950. The first three years of our professional life were spent building up a dance school business. We did not compete at all for the first two years. While still in the North of England, Doreen and I divided our time, as teachers of dance, between the Savoy Ballroom in Cleveleys and the Prince of Wales Hotel, Southport. When we were offered premises in the centre of London, which we took in spite of having no capital, we had to focus our energies on developing a business based on beginners and social dance classes in the evenings, with private lessons during the day, in order to pay the rent and the other business expenses of a dance school.
As the premises were licensed for Public Dancing, we engaged a 4 piece band and held a regular Saturday Night Dance which was open to the Public. (Doreen used to give the pianist dance lessons in exchange for piano lessons.) The Saturday Dance brought us more customers for our classes. Our own practice had to be fitted in whenever the opportunity occurred; i.e. at any break in the private lesson schedule. We were working a 16 hour day!
But we were not advancing as competitors. When, in the Star Professional Championship of 1953 we even failed to make the semi-final (coming 17th or 18th after being the British Amateur Champions in 1950!) we spend three whole days debating whether we would continue competing or give it up completely and concentrate instead on developing our Lambeth School and, eventually, adding other schools to the business.
In our eyes, we had a clear choice between making money or fulfilling ambition.
We chose the latter, deciding that we would stay in competitions until we had either won the top championships of the world or proved to ourselves that we could not do so.
But this would necessitate finding and paying a teacher/manager to run the school in order to give ourselves adequate free time to develop our own dancing.
Having made the decision to stay in competitions, our plan of campaign was (a) to practice in large ballrooms every day (often when they were closed to the public) because the big championships were held in large halls and (b) to ‘practice’ in front of an audience at night; which meant giving demonstrations.
We agreed to appear at the Hammersmith Palais several times a year and were booked at many other ballrooms in London and the Provinces, wherever keen dancers gathered. We were always willing to do reduced price shows for Schools of Dancing; i.e. at a price which they could afford! (It was Schools of Dancing which had started us both on our career, a fact which we never forgot.)
We also built up a busy cabaret business; a great deal of it based on London Hotel Dinner Dance functions. Our London apartment, overlooking St. James Park, was ideal for this purpose as we were within a few minutes watt: from Buckingham Palace and, therefore, only a short car drive from the centre of London’s Dinner Dance world; the Park Lane Hotel, the Dorchester, the Grosvenor House, the Hilton, the Cafe Royal, The Piccadilly, the Trocadero, the Criterion, the Waldorf … to name but a few of the hundreds of establishments which had function rooms for dinner dances and booked an orchestra and cabaret on these occasions.
To impress the cabaret agents we had to ensure that our dances had sufficient emotional content, contrast, drama and excitement for us to be able to hold our own in entertainment value against any of the celebrity stars of television and theatre with whom we might be billed. A positive audience reaction was the
passport to a repeat booking. Technical ability, of itself, was of little or no value when trying to sell our act to these types of audiences. Visual impact, to an audience untrained in the art of dance, was all-important.
On the other hand we could not afford to focus on visual appeal to the exclusion of technical excellence, which we have always regarded as being absolutely vital for any couple aiming at top honours in any of the world’s international championships.
Our reasoning was like this: Although we were scrupulous in allotting time every day for competition practice, in our own school when available, in the Hammersmith Palais, the Orchid Ballroom, Purley or one of the Mecca Ballrooms in London, this was not the same as facing the challenge of having to please an audience (and the agent) in every show. It was also great experience in handling different floor textures; some as sticky as glue, some as slippery as an ice rink; different shapes and sizes of floor, some with pillars or even a fountain in the centre; different tempos and quality of music from orchestras of widely varying standards of skill. (The Musician’s Union did not then permit taped music for cabaret acts.)
Some very important points about the structuring of our cabaret shows, considering that our objective was not only to entertain the public but also to practice for competitions. We kept our ‘Intros’ down to a minimum, usually only 4 bars and never more than 8 bars. Lifts were used sparingly and the main body of the choreography was devised from figures we would use in championships.
Because of this prime objective of preparation for competitions, we ignored all advice to ‘tart up’ our exhibition Viennese Waltz (except for adding a lift or two to the Intro & 1st chorus and a fast spinning ‘Catherine-Wheel’ lift, dropping Doreen straight into full speed Fleckerls), yet it seemed to appeal to all kinds of audience. It was simply two choruses of Turns, gradually spiralling into the centre of the floor, followed by the ‘Catherine- Wheel’ lift and drop into 64 bars of Fleckerls. The music of the last 32 bars were played accelerando, climaxing at 84 bars per minute with a trap-off finish. Now you know how we built up our reputation in the Viennese Waltz. Nothing to it really!
The experience gained in working, under diverse conditions, in cabaret venues of different shapes and sizes to live audiences was absolutely invaluable as practice for championships and in the building of competition confidence; as it also was for the development of belief in our ability to handle whatever potentially adverse conditions with which we might have to deal.