Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Blackpool Dance Festival - 2011

The greatest and most famous ballroom dance competition in the world is held yearly in an unlikely town called Blackpool, England at the end of May to early June.   That’s where the best of the best on earth come to compete in order fulfill their dreams to become living legends the instant they are branded a Blackpool champion.  They can wear this designation on their shoulders for life and gain the respect of the masses of dancers and non dancers alike.  As important, it becomes a marketing tool that opens a flood of opportunities that continue to pour in throughout life.

Having been to a number of national and international competitions, I can say emphatically that this is truly the best quality dancing I have ever seen in my life.  Day after day……the week long Blackpool Dance Festival had the most splendid display of International Standard and Latin dancing. From young to not so old (senior’s are considered over 35!!!), the level of dancing was spectacular!

And a trove of elegant and beautiful dancers; men and women who look so perfect and prepared (even the men wore makeup) begs the question of how - when as many as 12 or more couples hit the dance floor to compete in any one heat - that they can be judged fairly over the minute and a half period of observation when each judge has to score every competitor.  Even if I had the skills to judge, my eyes would fall victim to severe exhaustion by the nystagmoid movements of my eyes bouncing back and forth across the competition floor trying to attempt to do so.

My experience can be summed up by the following poem that I lightheartedly wrote in the first few days after arriving in Blackpool.  These words are not meant and should not be taken literally.  After a while the town grows on you and has its own particular charm that you grow to appreciate.  It was not the cleanest town but does not deserve the rhymed designation below.  Likewise, most of the locals were decent and friendly….

Another day in Blackpool
They should have named it cesspool
Fish and chips
Drunkards and misfits

Still the festival is exceptional
The atmosphere was intentional
Every great dancer in the world was here
Not just those dancers who live very near

To test their skills and compete
They started all upbeat
They would not think to retreat
They have learned to take the heat

The Venue:  We are told that Blackpool is a seaside resort of historical significance to England, although it is hard to believe this by being here.  A rich history including a role in the aerospace industry (in the 40’s), but mostly as a destination that the Brits seek for relaxation and to enjoy the seaside beaches and amusement parks.  There are lots of shops selling nothing worth buying but amusing and to spend time widow shopping in, small restaurants kind to the American digestive tract except perhaps for the fish and chips, and loads of bars and entertainment centers.   Signs are displayed all over the streets selling fish & chips and a pint….of course its understood that a pint is a pint of beer just as its understood a quid is a British pound……no not squid, quid. 

Not to burden you too much with boring history, I’ll just mention three places of interest.  First the dance festival is held in a well maintained building complex (unique considering how poorly Blackool is maintained in general) called the Winter Gardens, which houses a ballroom, enough room for the international amalgamation of vendors selling every conceivable ballroom dance item to both amateurs and professionals alike, and shops and restaurants well suited for the event.  The ballroom is beautiful and old and colorful, ornate but not gaudy, rising three levels into the sky for spectators to enjoy albeit lacking any capacity to control the ambient temperature (yes, it got uncomfortably hot especially when the ballroom was filled to capacity), and a picture indeed is worth a thousand words.  (I have to apologize for the internet quality of all of the pictures…Indeed, I took my own but wanted to publish this before I had time to sort through them and pick the most appropriate)

We stayed at The Imperial Hotel which had it origins in a syndicate, the Blackpool Land & Building Company formed in 1863 which would make this hotel just under 150 years young.  Called the jewel in the crown of Blackpool hotels, it sits overlooking the seashore only 10 minutes away from the down town area.  Pictures do not tell the full story of this hotel which has been frequented by most of the British royalty and even Charles Dickens.   Included in the list of VIP’s must also include our Divino Ritmo dance group from the US….ha ha….  Well, the Imperial Hotel has continued to ride the tide of a reputation long gone as it has not kept up with it moral obligation to maintain such an elegant historical structure.  Service is poor, the phones don’t work, and if they did, no one answers when you try to call the front desk, the rooms are small and musty and dark, the bed is too hard or too soft, and the toilets are disabled.   That doesn’t mean that the toilets are modified for disabled guests; it means that they don’t work without some patience, repeated intense flushing motions and a bit of freaky luck.  Oh well, at least it was quiet other than the daily fire drills.  Fortunately, no one in Blackpool likes to work too early or too hard; the hotel housecleaners didn’t come by until midmorning to pretend to “clean the room”.   They did however, by occasion come by to leave some fresh towels, but there was always something missing from their efforts; soap, clean coffee mugs, clearing the trash…..Indeed, it was one game I played every day trying to discover the surprise missing item of the day.

Sarcasm aside, it is distressing to see what was once a beautiful and majestic hotel - now deteriorating to this extent.  Repairs are made makeshift….wires and drainage lines liter the sides of the hotel replacing the artistry and splendor with a cancer of unnecessary makeshift plumbing and electrical solutions following no order or design, emerging though walls and windows and destroying what was a previous visual icon.   If you examine the windows from outside, you are particularly struck by how poorly maintained they are…..literally dozens of layers of paint cracking and peeling from the window frames exposing decaying wood and providing uncontestable evidence of longstanding disregard and callous neglect.  CSI would have trouble identifying any human finger prints on these windows as they appear untouched for decades.  Indeed, having an old home that has been painfully well maintained, it probably troubles me more to see such abuse and neglect than the average bloke!

To be fair, the common elements of the hotel were reasonably well maintained; and they lit up even more with the grandeur of the past during the evening receptions and the inevitable aura created by the mingling lobby buzz of an assortment of international guests hovering within its wings; especially after consuming a few drinks.  The ballroom was decent and in fact, we enjoyed a festive gathering there of Americans at a large reception/celebration dinner that was partially sponsored by Divino Ritmo Dance, where Yanna introduced me to Victor Fung.  The bar was warm and inviting like the English beer which was unfortunately kept at the same temperature.  Also, I enjoyed the work out area and had a swim every day during my stay…..that was really a treat. Indeed, my favorite place was the gym and pool; both obviously modern additions to provide an alternate venue for guests who choose not to linger around the lobby and enjoy their morning and afternoon tea or find themselves outside gasping wildly for another puff of cigarette smut to impale into their lungs.   A lot more smoking goes on here than I’m used to.   The hotel is non smoking but that didn’t stop the guests from cheating, and there were regular fire alarms with a particularly noxious screeching siren that went off at the hotel to punish the non-smoking guests.  At first, I thought this was a communal morning wake up call since they seemed to occur early in the day but it turns out smokers like to pollute our environment and their bodies at all times of the day.  One alarm called for the fire department to respond and for the guests to vacate the hotel; this was indeed an amusing event which befuddled the hotel staff while mildly irritating the guests within reason.

The last building of note was the Blackpool Tower.  This is a 518 foot tower built on a grand scale and open in 1894, inspired in its creation by the Eiffel Tower.  This was considered a tremendous accomplishment considering the time it was built and the vastness of the challenge.   On the second floor a magnificent ballroom is found which is now used for afternoon ballroom tea dances, which is frequented by locals and visitors alike.   In fact, this ballroom had been used in the past as the venue for the Dance Festival until it was outgrown. 

Blackpool Tower:  Attribution: Chris Hayles

While the present Winter Gardens venue is elegant and colorful, the ballroom at the tower is truly magnificent, ornate, filled with colorful murals and a great place for social dancing.  “In the 50’s, Freddie Platt and the Tower Band wooed appreciative audiences but in 1956, a fire gutted most of the ballroom.  The renovation was costly and included 2000 square feet of hand painted murals across its 120 ft length.  Later, the ballroom was more famous for Reginald Dixon’s organ music than anything else.”

We went to the Tower ballroom to dance and found that the present Wurlitzer organ player was playing at one level on stage a variety of Latin and Ballroom music.  The surprise came when we expected the organ player to take his mandatory break which would result in a temporary cessation in music, which did not happen.   Indeed, there was a continuous and uninterrupted flow of music made possible through the emergence of a second organ and organ player emerging like a submarine from under another section of the stage floor -  with both organs playing simultaneously for at least as long as it took the original organ to submerge and disappear from sight …, everyone on stage was playing their organs….!  But I’m not sure whether the organ player continued playing when he was no longer in sight.  In fact, I assumed this maneuver allowed for a transparent rotation of organ players and some respite for the weary organ player previously performing on stage. 

Overall, it was my impression that Blackpool has fallen victim to the downturn in the British and world economy, as it’s truly a wonder how this dilapidating town can still be a haven for vacationers and beach goers.   I’m told that the beach that fronts the Imperial Hotel is one of the 6 most polluted beaches in England; yikes!   I could go on and on but I’ll spare you the misery of my misery and the endless description of the deteriorating buildings and infrastructure in Blackpool.

Back to the competition:  This was indeed a large competition although smaller than the most years because of internal and external political infighting.  Accordingly, other competitions were scheduled simultaneously in Russia and Italy and the resultant attendance at the Blackpool festival was down, noted by those attending and mourned by the amazing number and assortment of vendors who paid vast sums of money for the privilege of displaying their expensive clothes anticipating quick sales and huge profits which did not materialize.  Rentals costing 100,000 pounds were not uncommon, but vendors reluctantly resorted to discounting their fashion products by 20-50% rather than to lug them back home hundreds to thousands of miles away.   I benefited from this discounting on the last day with 20% off all items that I purchased.   Others did not hold back their purchases; I know one eager dancer who purchased 15 pairs of shoes (that she admitted to)!

On the competition dance floor, the Latin costumes were amazing:  every animal in the world that is known and unknown was on display.  Below is what came to mind (our collective minds) when glancing at some of the costumes; I have chosen to omit any offensive references out of deference to those dancers who did not intend to prompt such vulgar visual interpretations.

Christmas tree
Mardi Gras
Chiquita banana
Cucaracha girl
Dust mop
After dinner mint
Queen Nefertiti
Indian Princes
Bumble Bee
Recession look (only enough material to cover half the body)
Assaulted look (bra and panties held together with a few rags and tatters of dangling material)

The individual competitions were large including more than 300 hundred for the professional Latin and more than 250 for the professional Ballroom.  It wasn’t unusual to have heats numbering in the teens to cut through the dense forest of entries and to filter out those there to attain bragging rights for their participation in the Blackpool Festival competition from those who were serious contenders.   

The early rounds were long and drawn out but fun to watch nevertheless.  Wonderful and not so wonderful dancers mixed on the dance floor; I could not imagine in a billion years how I could ever be so brave as to attempt to navigate such treacherous territory with so many dancers coming within a hair of each other during their lightening speed movements (Latin).  After all, the objective of dancing is to move your body and in ballroom, it even calls for travelling around the ballroom perimeter fluidly, calmly and confidently.  How this could be done risking your life on every movement; having to recover from every collision while trying to pretend an oblivious disregard for this omnipresent danger and stay focused on the task at hand, this is truly a marvel to me. 

In the end, there were few surprises in the professional dancing results for both Latin and Ballroom.  Perhaps a little more drama surfaced in the Latin competition where the world championship couple was fighting for bragging rights against the reigning Blackpool champion couple.  While the Americans did not like the result, I felt that 1st place went to the right couple – who were representing Poland.  The differences between the performances were so small; both were magical to watch and I’m glad I wasn’t the one who had to decide on the final scoring.

The Ballroom competition results preserved the number 1-3 positions in the world in the same order as they started; American couples kept their 1st and 3rd place while the Italian couple stood their ground for 2nd.  Denoting the designation of American, of course is joke; the couples representing America are mostly from Eastern Europe who have relocated to the United States in the hopes of opportunity and prosperity.  Few true Americans are competitive at this level.  One exception is Victor Fung, who is an Asian American who I’m told comes from a privileged background and who has focused his full attention on attaining such success – he is currently the 3rd best dancer in the world.   He is also an intelligent and articulate young man of 25 (this came directly from him), far more mature than his age should indicate, and a far cry from the current generation of immature and dependent youth that liter our country.

There were surprises in the amateur Latin, at least for me, as my favorite couple who I adopted as a spectator came in first to my delight.  The male member was very good and convincing; the female partner was excellent.  Crisp movements, confident, balanced and musical, she would turn on her charm and that beautiful smile, enough to melt the heart of every male and some of the females in the audience, particularly yours truly.   It didn’t hurt that she was blond and beautiful and tall and had a captivating smile that still mesmerizes me more than two weeks after seeing her perform in Blackpool.  Coming back down to earth, I have to admit that when this same couple competed the next day in the professional competition, you could see the differences in the quality from the amateur to the professional competitors.  Still they did very well reaching the semi final heats in 3 of the 5 dances!  I’m sure they went home very happy.

In the end, there was a lot of mingling going on at the Festival and even I enjoyed talking to new and old friends.  Yanna and Lucas caught up with old friends and dance competitors of the past and we blended in to the scenery without much fanfare except that our photographic talents did not go unnoticed. 

In addition to the Divino Ritmo Dance studio representation, there were others attending from Hawaii; respecting their privacy, their names will go unmentioned.  All except for Geoffrey Fells who was there for the umpteenth time (the first time corresponding to when I was 3 years old!) and enjoying every moment.  A continuous flow of participants lined up to pay him homage as one of the dedicated senior ballroom dance scholars of our time (Geoffrey – did you like this?).  Thank you Geoffrey for providing me with the insight and history of the competition, and thank you for feeding us the fish, chips and mushy peas that coated my stomach and protected it from the lard laden fish that I can still taste two weeks after the meal.  Geoffrey also corrected my use of the term Standard – referring to International Ballroom….which does not exist in Europe.   There is only ballroom and Latin in Europe.  Smooth and Rhythm are American concoctions, and so be it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dave,

    Sounds like it was a wonderful experience. I had no idea that Victor Fung was only 25. Having seen videos of him in competition I'd have guessed at least 35.

    Joe D