We had first given our new Quickstep its debut at a competition at the Savoy Ballroom, Southsea, followed the next day by another comp at the Town Hall, Torquay. At both events the crowd went wild with enthusiasm. I do not exaggerate. As Alex Moore was later to write, “Smith- Hampshire and Casey get almost hysterical applause for their version of the Quickstep”.
The Blackpool Festival had a different format in those days. It was a five-day event, starting on the Monday with the North of En19.gland Amateur Cham¬pionship and finishing on the Friday, as now, with the British Professional Modern Cham¬pionship. In between there was the North of England Professional Championship on the Tuesday, for which, as born in the North, we were eligible. We decided to dance in the North of England Professional of 1954 as well as the British Professional and entered for both events in that year.
We were already firmly established among the top six professionals in the world, having broken into this elite group at the first International Championships at the Royal Albert Hall in 1953 and had since never been out of any championship Final. The winning of the North of England Championship should have been almost a formality. But unknown to us, opposition to our avant garde Quickstep had hardened! In the first round, our Quickstep was greeted with great vocal enthusiasm by the audience, the ‘almost hysterical applause’ as Alex Moore had described it.
Jack Reaveley, who was a spectator at that 1954 Dance Festival, took over a whole page of Dance News with his vivid description of the scene as It looked to the audience on the Tuesday …and the sequel on the Friday’s British Championship!
We lost the competition, being placed second to Bernard Knight and Christine Norton, a very competent Midland professional couple. (Bernard was a fine trainer of girl partners – he trained several during his career.) Though we had won three dances out of four we were relegated to the last place – 6th – in the Quickstep. It was not long before news filtered through to us that Alex Moore had not marked us from the first round in the Quickstep. This now is a part of the story of our ‘Blackpool Quickstep’ which has not been previously revealed. We had two days to think about the implications of this defeat before dancing in the British Professional on the Friday. As we saw it, our new version of this dance was definitely not going to take us into the Quickstep Final. (As everyone connected with dancing knows, each dance in this Blackpool event is treated separately for advancement to the next round.)
In fact, as we debated during the whole of Wednesday and Thursday the implications of the adjudicators’ treatment of our Quickstep, we could see the possibility that we could even be left out of the Quickstep at an earlier stage of the competition if we persisted with the type of Quickstep in which we had invested so much time, energy and sweat.
Should we ignore this possibility and just carry on with our Quickstep. Leave it to a battle of wills between the audience (itself composed largely of experienced dancers) and the adjudicators? Should we change some of the timings of the figures?
During this intervening period between the Tuesday and the Friday we heard that the rumour going round was that “we had danced out of time”. Not true but I agree that we had used some unorthodox timings. (Later we were able to prove the legitimacy of our ‘advanced’ timings to Alex in his old Kingston studio above the Zeeta Cafe.)
But supposing we did use more orthodox timings, would this change be noticed in just the few seconds that the judges have
As, clearly, we were still using the same groups, would it not be ‘like a red rag to a bull’. Clearly, we would have to produce something very different in appearance. Our discussions went on and on. We went into the Empress Ballroom for the practice sessions in the interim days but did not dance Quickstep.
We had, as one option, discussed dancing basics and semi-basic variations, but I always liked – was this a weakness? – to ‘get the crowd’ rooting for us! If we took the zip and whoosh out of our Quickstep then I knew that the dynamic, popular Australians, Alf Davies & Julie Reaby (who had been known to use such startling effects as to drop into the splits and bounce right back up again while he and Julie were moving at high speed down the floor) would have things all their on way on the Friday. This point – though it may seem irrelevant to our problem – was on my mind at deal during this intervening x between the Tuesday and Friday.
Even as we drove to the Winter Gardens on the Friday we had still not finally settled on a plan of action. Only Doreen and I walked onto the floor for the first round Quickstep did I say to her “Let’s start with basics.”
I led Doreen, who had absolutely no idea which steps I was going to use, into the Running Right Turn, Natural Spin Turn to Progressive Chasse turning to diagonal centre, Quick Open Reverse Turn with chasse ending and Forward Lock, all in basic timing, not a single split beat anywhere ….and repeated it….and repeated…. I heard applause for Alf & Julie. Then the hall quietened to silence except for the music. I felt the adrenalin rush. It seemed that we were flowing, flying as though on wings. I decided to carry on dancing repetitions of this basic group. The crowd broke their silence and erupted into music¬drowning applause.
The circuit of the Empress Ballroom brought us near Alex Moore. My mind seemed to be working at the speed of light. For a split second I toyed with the delightful thought of dancing the most basic of basics just in front of him; a Quarter Turn with Heel Pivot ending into a Slow Zig-zag and Natural Turn with Heel Pull ending. I resisted the Idea.
The volume of spectator appreciation for us continued unabated. We were still dancing repetitions of the group described
when the music stopped. We saw people rising to their feet, well-known professionals among them.
We were getting a standing ovation for a first round dance. We felt very, very emotional!
Even today, as I look back on a long life crowded with memorable highlights connected with my experiences in dancing, even including all the world-class championships that Doreen and : won, this remains as the most vividly emotive highlight of our lives.
As the rounds progressed we slipped in one or two more of our ‘avant garde’ groups but even in the Final Round of the British – yes, we were included – half of our work was basic. There are two lessons to be learnt from this tale. One is that it takes time for the avant garde to become accepted as the norm.
The other – more important – is that the basis of the dance, the strength of the foundation, the underlying technique is the one element that cannot be dispensed with. The most flowery of variations, the most exotic of movements, can be left out with impunity.
We could never have worked on the crowd’s emotions like this if we had not spent so many years polishing and honing every aspect of technique.
The more perceptive reader might think, with justification, that the public reaction was predictable, given that most had booked seats for the week and had seen us lose when giving a virtuoso display and would be quick to see that we were, in effect, saying to the judges, “If you reject the complexities of syncopated timings and figurations, then do what you will with basics, the other extreme”.
But as Alex Moore said of our dancing basics in a report (and this is the key): “Some of their co-competitors were critical of them dancing only basics in aSmith-Hampshire and Doreen Casey stood out like a bright light on a dark night” and “They danced pure basic work but with superb style and perfect technique.”
One or two of my present day colleagues in the profession – but who were not around to see this episode in the 1950’s – have intimated to me that given a choice between artistic flair and technique they would choose the former. This is fallacious reasoning as far as ‘The Making Of A Champion’ is concerned. Artistic inter¬pretation and Technical excellence are of equally vital importance to the Complete Dancer!