Festival waltzes its way through 90 years

Blackpool Dance Festival, Empress Ballroom, 1985
Blackpool Dance Festival, Empress Ballroom, 1985
  • In last month’s event, 60 countries were represented. The first festival was 1920, but five years were missed due to the Second World War. The Dance Festival has grown and changed over the decades.
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Over the years, it’s seen hundreds of thousands of couples from across the globe glide their way across the dance-floor.

The Blackpool Dance Festival, the largest of all the five Blackpool festivals, has recently celebrated its 90th year.

The ballroom and Latin American dancing extravaganza takes place in the magnificent Empress Ballroom in the Winter Gardens.

Every year, men and women don their sequins and tango, foxtrot, waltz and quickstep their way into trying to impress the judges and be crowned the dancing king and queen.

In 2015, 60 countries were represented, there were 2,903 entries in the 12 events.

It is thought the idea of the festival came either from Harry Wood, the musical director of the Winter Gardens, or Nelson Sharples, of Sharples and Son Ltd, the music publishers of Blackpool who published all the sheet music for the novelty dancers invented by the MCs in the Empress and Tower Ballrooms. In the early days, the dances in the ballrooms consisted mainly of sequenced waltzes, the lancers, two steps and many novelty dances.

Blackpool Dance Festival, Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens

Blackpool Dance Festival, Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens

The first Blackpool dance festival was held during Easter week, 1920, in the Empress Ballroom.

Modern ballroom (English style) and Latin American dances had not fully evolved and this festival was devoted to three competitions to find three new sequence dances in three tempos – waltz, two step and foxtrot.

There was one competition each day and on the fourth night, one dance was chosen as the winner, its inventor being presented with the Sharples Challenge Shield.

The first chairman of adjudicators was James Finnigan, later to become the co-founder and first president of the UK Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dancing.

Mr and Mrs T Onoe of Japan, in May 1991

Mr and Mrs T Onoe of Japan, in May 1991

The format of new sequence and novelty dances continued until 1926, although in the 1922 stage, country and Morris dancing were introduced. The stage dancing flourished, but the country dancing was dropped after two years.

Following a change in management at the Winter Gardens, it was announced there would be no festival in 1927. The Dancing Times stepped in, however and held the stage dancing section as usual, but only included a north of England amateur foxtrot competition. It was decided to revive the Blackpool Dance Festival in 1929.

During this time, dancing began to change and people became interested in the English Style of dance.

The Blackpool Dance Festival relinquished its northern image in 1931, with the inauguration of the British Professional and Amateur Ballroom Championships.

In 1937, the Skating System for competitors’ marks was introduced at Blackpool and is still used today all round the world.

After war broke out in 1939, there was a limited festival in 1940, then everything closed down for five years, re-opening again in 1946 when stage dancing events were dropped entirely.

The same year, resident MC at the Empress Ballroom Bunny Hayward died. He had been compere of the festival since 1929. He was also co-principal, with Mrs Ida Illet, of the Blackpool School Of Dancing.

This meant Mr P J S Richardson became the compere, as well as chairman of adjudicators for the festival. Mr W H H Smith became the festival secretary and in 1954, Mrs Illet was made the first official Dance Festival organiser.

Because of the popularity of the sequence competitions, the Winter Gardens Company decided to hold an old time ball in October 1950 and this was considered to be the first Blackpool Sequence Dance Festival.

The original Blackpool Dance Festival continued to grow, and in 1953, the competitions were the North of England Amateur and Professional Championships, a Ballroom Formation Dancing Competition , the British Amateur and Professional Ballroom Championships, plus a Professional Exhibition Dancing Competition.

A major change was the introduction of Latin American Dancing, which had a great impact on the dance world. In 1961, a British Amateur Latin American Tournament was held, followed by a professional event, in 1962.

These two events were upgraded to championship status in 1964.

Mrs Illet died in August 1978. She had developed the festival into the most famous event in the world. Her husband, Bill Francis, took over the organisation of the festival, but with failing health, he retired in 1980. He was succeeded by Gillian MacKenzie, who retired after the Blackpool Dance Festival in May 2004. The festival organisation was taken over by Sandra Wilson.

Possibly the event which has the greatest crowd appeal is the annual Professional Invitation Team Match, which started in ‘68. It started with two teams – Germany and Great Britain – dancing 10 dances, but for many years there have been four team invited.

Teams from Germany, Japan, Italy, the USA, Australia, Russia and Scandanavia have danced in this team match.

• Words courtesy of Blackpool Dance Festival, www.blackpooldancefestival.com