116 years of having a ball on famous floor

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Once again last weekend, all eyes were on Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom, as Strictly Come Dancing came back to town.

It has now become something of a tradition for the show to feature at least one episode per series broadcast live from the famous venue, with its spectacular architecture - dubbed by many the Mecca of ballroom dancing.

Over the years, the iconic and stylish ballroom has hosted countless charity balls, concerts, tea dances, dance festivals and competitions, and the BBC TV series Come Dancing.

It’s even licensed for wedding ceremonies.

With its Victorian elegance, the ballroom has no doubt been the scene of many a romantic meeting over the years.

The 120ft by 102ft dance hall was built between 1897 and 1898, to the designs of Frank Matcham, who also designed the Grand Theatre, and was opened in 1899.

It was created because of the rising popularity of public dance in assembly rooms, including in Bath and Cheltenham.

The first Wurlitzer organ was installed in the ballroom in 1929.

From 1930, until his retirement in 1970, the resident organist was Reginald Dixon, and in 1935, the original organ was replaced with one to his specifications.

The dance hall, with its floor made up of 30,602 blocks of mahogany, oak and walnut, became world-famous after Reginald’s performances on the mighty Wurlitzer were broadcast across national radio stations.

The ballroom’s traditional afternoon dances, accompanied by the organ, saw new dances from the Americas join the traditional waltz and polka, including the tango and later the foxtrot and quickstep.

In the ballroom of the early 1900s, dancing was interspersed with variety entertainment, moving picture shows, and aerial gymnasts.

Ernest Broadbent took over as organist in 1970, and retired in 1977 due to ill health. He was succeeded by Phil Kelsall.

The ballroom has had a number of resident dance bands over the years, including Bertini and his band and Charlie Barlow.

Originally, dancing was forbidden on a Sunday, when instead, sacred music was played.

And there were strict rules which governed behaviour in the dance hall.

Gentlemen were not permitted to dance unless with a lady and “disorderly conduct” meant “immediate expulsion”.

Strictly’s immensely popular predecessor, Come Dancing, which saw every-day couples battle it out on the dancefloor, was born in Blackpool Tower Ballroom, in 1949.

It ran until 1955, but the ballroom continued to host daily afternoon dances to amateur dance enthusiasts who travelled from far and wide to enjoy the atmosphere and dance to the organ music.

The ballroom has gone through several facelifts over the years, though it has always stayed largely faithful to its original look.

The floor was entirely relaid in 1934, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of accurately-fitting parquet flooring.

In December 1956, a devastating fire tore through the ballroom, destroying the dancefloor along with the restaurant underneath.

The restoration, using plans, sketches and photographs of the original dance hall, took two years and cost £500,000.

Interior designer Andrew Mazzei, who was also responsible for the Baronial Hall and Spanish Hall in the Winter Gardens, came out of retirement to work on the redecoration.

Murals on the 90ft high ceiling had to be repainted, soot cleaned and the ballroom floor completely rebuilt.

The restaurant became the Tower Lounge.

The Gazette, in September 1957, reported: “Life is rapidly returning to the Tower Ballroom. It was reduced to a charred and blackened shell by the fire of December 1956.

“What was a tragic ruin, is now resuming the familiar, well-loved shape of the ballroom known to millions.”

New steel work and fire-resisting concrete was used in the new floor, with the parquet flooring on top, and hundreds of springs to give it resilience – and the ballroom fitted with a sprinkler system.

What may not be noticeable to those who see the Tower Ballroom through the television this weekend, are some of the subtle historic features which give the dance hall its characteristic elegance.

There is an inscription above the ballroom stage – “Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear” – a sonnet by Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis.

And the names of 16 composers, including Bizet, Wagner, Verdi and Bach, appear around the room.