As young professionals, we had no urge to copy any single one of the famous dancers of the past or present. It was always our aim to create our own personalized form of presentation. But on the way to the top we selected particular attributes of the best dancers we had seen. Henry Jacques was the person whom I most admired for his polished style generally but there were others whom I valued for special elements. The spins of one, the swivels of another, the lightness and flow of a third, the clarity and tone of footwork of a fourth and so on. Doreen had her own favourite lady dancers.
My body-clock rhythm in relation to movement was oriented towards the slower dances. From my earliest days as a competitor I felt more natural affinity with the Waltz and Foxtrot than with the character of the Tango and Quickstep, which I found more elusive.
This was not so much a problem during our amateur career. We had been quite happy with our smoothly flowing, uncomplicated version of the Quickstep and indeed it helped us to win several champion¬ships. But we began to feel that it was a relatively weak dance when we moved into the professional ranks. We felt that we had to do something about it but were not even sure what we wanted. We went to a number of different coaches to try out their ideas on Quickstep but none seemed to be an improvement on what we already had.
When we booked Wally Fryer, it was as a last resort He and Vi had such different personafibes to Doreen and me that we did not realty have coof-oence that his approach to this dance would work for us. However, with nothing to lose, we invited him to come to our Lambeth School of Dancing – just diagonally across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament – and kept several hours free so that we could work uninterrupted.
That first lesson was a revelation! The steps themselves were not particularly new to us. We had seen the Fryer-Barnes demonstration several times. But it wasn’t just the figuration which excited us. We loved his graphic expressing of the effects he wanted us to achieve. “Gather extra speed in this figure, create the body impetus to swoop up into a hover, hold it for a fraction of a second longer than normal, then accelerate away in a surge of body movement. Let it fly!”.
He showed us body throw entries into sycopated tipple turns, demonstrated fascinating play with unorthodox timings and surprise whip-crack switches of direction. Ideas came flowing out fast. Just like his dancing!
Above all, there was this fundamental element of dynamic Body Drive, the way a runner comes off the starting blocks. But and this is a very important point. There was almost a magic about the way Wally achieved speed of movement; vivid acceleration seemed to be realised without apparent effort. Taking each of us in turn, he virtually flew us across our ballroom without seeming to exert any force!
Wally did not teach routines. Nor did we want them! He showed ideas of how certain figures could be made to look more eye-compelling. It was up to us to build up our own personalised groupings. In competitions we would always choose for our Quickstep Opening group – i.e. the first 8 bars – from the most dramatic and effective step-combinations in our repertoire. “Start with the best”. Doreen and I would prepare two or three alternative Quickstep opening groups for competitions, in order to take full advantage of clear floor space, depending upon circumstances.
If the majority of the other competitors seemed to be setting themselves up to start diagonally to wall (to dance a natural grouping around the perimeter of the floor), we would open with a group which started diagonal to centre and then zipped at high speed along a line parallel with the centre line of the ballroom. Nor, when we walked onto the floor, would we want to take up our starting position in the middle of a cluster of competitors.
Most competitors would use the four bar introduction to the music to have their partner march up to them, take up the Hold and make ready to move off. Without any of these unnecessary preliminaries, I would take Doreen in my arms before the music started, watch the bandleader and as soon as he raised his baton, we would be off as though triggered by a starting gun, our first step synchronized with the very first note of music.
Before anyone else had moved as a couple, we would be three-quarters of the way along the ballroom floor with the high probability that some of the judges had already noted our number!
Control is the equally Important opposite side of the coin to speed. The ability to thread one’s way between the other couples or stop, virtually on a sixpence has to be developed hand-in-hand with this exciting freedom of movement.
Be eye-catching. Don’t be a clone! Learn to listen, really listen, to the music. Be more aware of the melodic accents and emphases and respond to their message. Stutters, Crackerjacks and other intricacies of Quickstep footwork should vary in treatment according to the melody being played. Do not be afraid to be different in choreographic arrangements; in using contrasting speeds and timing combinations. According to the melody being played. Do not be afraid to be different: in choreographic arrangements; in using contrasting speeds and timing combinations.
But never, never take liberties with the technique. Stay within its parameters. Stick to your partner as though glued together. Use perfectly aligned, scissoring leg tracking, with the insides of the legs and feet brushing in passing. Cultivate educated, toned, parallellism of foot placements, feet in movement flashing reflected light like black mirrors. Be proud of your artistic use of footwork.
The reason for using attention-grabbing ploys – like our zipping over the floor on the first beat of the first bar of music – is NOT that being fastest is necessarily best. It is to attract attention, to show off your artistic talents and technical skills. This means, of course, unremitting practice in the endless search for perfection.