Happy Memories…

It’s been nearly two weeks now since we announced our somewhat sad retirement from competitions and it’s given me time to reflect on nearly 25 years of memories. As with any career, there have been highs and lows, but I guess I’m quite fortunate to be able to walk away with the highlights closest in my thoughts. Of course now is a good time to point out that quite probably the greatest highlight of my ‘almost’ illustrious life as a competitive dancer came in October of 2006. I’d like to think that Kelly would agree! It was then, as a bright eyed, innocent 28 year old I wandered into the foyer of the Novotel Wollongong (that’ll be in Australia) and met my future wife – and look what she’s done to me!! I think that occasion and the subsequent years can be saved for another time.

You could say I saved the best ’till last (and I probably should!) however my dance partner history is chequered with success and failure and I think now is a good time to start sharing some of the more interesting moments! My first ever partner was called Anne-Marie Beattie. She was 7 and I was 9 and our first competition was at the Leigh Ballroom in Eastleigh – where I had first started to learn dance as a small(er) boy.

We were disqualified.

My mum always has been and still is a bit of seamstress. From my early years, right up until I stopped competing in Latin competitions in 2002, she made all of my outfits and most recently my teaching trousers. They were all brilliant. Anyway, in this first competition of mine she decided to rustle me up a lovely aquamarine satin shirt, which was very 1980’s! Despite a thorough search, we’ve not been able to find any pictures of it sadly, although there is a video of it which in time I’ll share with you. If you behave. You’ll have to make do with this picture instead. Notice that I conformed with a white shirt and bow tie??

Now, there are certain rules regarding what juvenile (under 12) dancers can wear and it stipulates that the boy must wear a white shirt and black tie or bow-tie in Latin. Obviously, an aquamarine satin shirt with ruffled shoulder seams is not the expected attire for a 9 year old boy and simply against the rules. It was a bit like a moment from Strictly Ballroom! Needless to say the chairman of adjudicators on the day disqualified me, which I think was a little harsh especially as it was my first competition and I was only 9! His name was Bryan Allen, and I’m pretty sure he has held that a moment against me my entire career! Looking back, the question shouldn’t be why were we disqualified, but why didn’t our teacher tell us the rules? They allowed me to go out onto the floor, in my glorious technicolour shirt, showing up all the other little boys in their boring and bland white shirts! Perhaps they didn’t bet on Mr Allen being such a scrooge!

I think that’s probably enough to be going on with for now, but trust me there are plenty more stories like this one to come! Perhaps next time I’ll recount the moment I dropped a Dancing With the Stars judge on her head…



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Early Retirement…

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Sadly, it doesn’t mean that we’ve decided to swan off to the Costa Del Sol and spend the rest of our time sunbathing at our hillside villa. No. It is with deep sadness that we announce our retirement from competitive dancing….

The ‘early’ bit is pretty relevant, as we could definitely keep going for a few more years yet as Kelly is still in her twenties (you don’t disclose a woman’s age) and I’m only 33. It’s quite typical for high level professional competitors to go on until their late thirties, although there are obviously exceptions to this. I can think of a couple of good examples off the top of my head; Ernie Chatt, with his wife Myra, won the World Amateur Championships and then promptly turned professional – already in his 40’s! At the other end of the scale, Lynn Harman was a Professional World Champion in the late seventies and then retired, still in her early twenties. I guess it’s different for every single person, but eventually the time is right to retire and that time for us, is now. That last bit almost makes me want to break out into a song….

I’m sure you would like to know why?

It’s not as easy as one specific reason or event that has brought about our decision, more a succession of events and developments that have ultimately made the decision for us. So where do I start? To begin with, the biggest reason and often the reason a lot of dancers in our position walk away from it all, is money. Isn’t it always about money? Practising, keeping fit and eating well are 3 of the most important aspects of high level competition in any activity and conveniently pretty much the cheapest elements too. Ballroom dancing however, requires a multitude of other things that aren’t cheap. Kelly’s dresses for example, can be up to £2000 a time and in any competition year, she can easily get through 5 (which I will say is nothing compared to some dancers. One of our friends spent £50000 in just one year on dresses. Bonkers). We’ve been very lucky to get a small sponsorship from Leena Teperi (Kelly’s excellent and eccentric Finnish dressmaker!) which has helped immensely, but once the dresses have been worn a few times they are no longer vogue enough for the next competition and get relegated to the ‘dance wardrobe’ which now has some 10 dresses hanging up, looking for new owners. (Anyone interested? Let us know…)

Next up, the most contentious issue – lessons. An average dance lesson for us costs £100 an hour, and it’s not unheard of for us to be driving around the outskirts of London (most of the ‘top’ coaches live there) from teacher to teacher, paying up to and sometimes over £400 a week, especially before the major events. The more I sit back and think about all that expense, the more I realise it’s been such a waste of money. I can honestly say that I’ve heard little to nothing new in the last 10 years and I can count on one hand the number of lessons that have really meant something and not just been an elaborate and expensive supervised practice. The majority of our development has come in our own practice time, where for no cost at all, we’ve worked things out for ourselves. If only I could have booked ME for a lesson!

You would think that deciding to get your head down and practising really hard, developing your dancing in your own time, would reap the rewards it deserves. However, you would be wrong. The very same people that we and our competitors have lessons with are also those that judge and officiate at all of the competitions held through-out the world. It is quite well known and generally accepted, that the more lessons you have the more successful you’ll be – especially if those more lessons are with different teachers. Let me give you a scenario. Most of the major events have around 300 odd couples in each category, which means that until you get to the last 24 couples (usually the 5th round) there are a lot of couples on the dance floor at any given time. I am now a judge myself and I know how difficult it is to judge correctly when you’ve got so many dancers flying around in front of you at a million miles an hour (that’s another issue – but perhaps for another blog). You have approximately 3 to 4 seconds to make a decision on whether or not to mark a particular couple through – a job that can be made much much easier if you happen to take them for lessons. Not only will you recognise them amongst a crowd of similar looking dancers, but you’ll also know their ability from having potentially taken them for a lesson just a few days before. A much more straightforward job for the judge, and pretty beneficial for the couple! Much better than having to concentrate and assess an unknown dancer or give a mark to someone that you don’t ‘teach’. So, such is the norm for the couples to take on many different coaches and cram in as many lessons as they can.

We have a couple of issues with this, the main one being “Where do they get all the money from??” I’ll give you another example. In January of every year, the UK Open Championships are held in Bournemouth and it is the first ‘Major’ event of the calendar. A competitor of ours from Asia arrived in the country 16 days before the competition and proceeded to have 80, yes, EIGHTY lessons in 16 days. That’s £6000! (Competition lessons with ‘top’ coaches are 45 minutes long – that again, is another topic of discussion!) Despite not winning the competition (I’d expect to win and have an open top bus parade for that amount of expense) they did get a pretty respectable position despite being relatively average dancers. Over the last couple of years they have consistently placed higher than us, irrelevant of the fact that they are nowhere near as good. Money talks you see, and whilst this is quite an extreme example of the money that gets thrown about, I’m sure they aren’t the only ones doing it.

It happens on a smaller scale domestically too, and I know that I’m right when I say that we have consistently spent less time and money having lessons than any of our closest competitors. The writing was on the wall for us at our last National championships, when we made the decision to stop taking lessons simply because of the expense. When we then danced an absolute blinder, much to the admiration of many of our peers, we were hammered and got placed 6th, when we were hoping for a much higher position. There is only so much you can take and we both realised then that we were fighting a losing battle.

I am, and always have been a bit of a fighter. I’m confident that if you put me and all of my British competitors in a ring, I’d be the last one standing. These ‘Rocky’ moments have long been part of my mental training and one that has always spurred me on and ensured that I would never give up! But, I’m just getting tired of fighting against the tide, time and time again, and now think it best to hang up the gloves. I have always firmly believed that style has been of the utmost importance, with quality of movement and musicality being King, but a lot of the successful dancing of today appears to ignore this and replaces quality with speed and musicality with gimmicks. Not necessarily a bad thing used sparingly, but a whole performance based solely on these aspects is not what we have ever, or will ever, try to do. I suppose you could say that I’m just an artist that has been misunderstood… One day they’ll all get it. In more ways than one!

So what now? Well, as you all know the building blocks of the Dizzyfeet Dancing Empire are well underway, and it’s inevitable that this will soon take up a whole host of our time. We never intend to stop dancing, and now that the shackles of the competitive dance circuit have been removed, we can begin to express our dancing and develop it in such a way where we won’t be criticised or judged. We’ve got some big plans for 2013, with a dance show and competition events of our very own so we do still plan to shape the future of dance in our very own, Dizzyfeet way!

Finally, I’d like to say thank you to everyone that has influenced my dance career, be it good or bad! They have made me the person I am today, and it has ultimately led to my wonderful wife, Kelly. We are very lucky to have each other, and in a business where a great deal of partnerships fail and hearts are broken, we are fortunate to still have a very strong and special partnership that will still continue once the dancing has gone. My parents of course have been instrumental in my entire career, and I definitely couldn’t have achieved all that I have, without their unquestioning support and love. Also our sponsors, Ray Rose, have been excellent for the past 4 years and we hope to continue our fantastic relationship with them into the new Dizzyfeet Dancing Empire! And I would like to thank some dance teachers too, although from what I’ve said above you wouldn’t think it! Ray & Audrey Davies who were my first ever teachers, and first got me into competitions. Robert & Linda Bellinger, who got me through my informative dance years (Linda was like a second mum for quite some time!), Frank & Linda Venables for their blatant realism and honesty, Johnathan Crossley & Lyn Marriner for believing in us and finally, Alan & Donna Shingler for almost everything I’ve ever learnt and most importantly, for finding me Kelly!

I think I’m done now…

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Going for Gold!

Well, perhaps a Bronze and Silver first would be a good starting point!

It is of course Olympic year, but don’t worry this blog isn’t about ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ – far from it. I’m sure that Simon Cowell is quite annoyed that the Olympic games has coined that particular phrase; surely his X-Factor franchise would be more suitable with the majority of people being far more interested in watching shocking reality TV than sport. Incidentally, Albania sent just 8 athletes to the last Olympics Games in Beijing, and yet the first season of X-Factor Albania (2012) attracted thousands upon thousands of hopefuls… A bit of pointless information and probably not in the slightest bit linked.

Enough. The subject of this blog today is dance examinations, or how we like to call them Medal Tests. Way back in the 1980’s, I took my first dance exam as a little, somewhat dishevelled, 4 year old! I can’t quite remember which exam I took (I’m sure my mum would be able to tell me and even produce the certificate) but needless to say it was suitable enough for a small boy of 4 and I passed. And so it began…

Over the next 12 years, I took all the exams that were on offer with the IDTA (my dance school back then didn’t do ISTD like us) and once they were done, started on some NATD ones too. I’m quite proud to say that in all bar one of the exams (my Silver exam if I remember correctly) I got the highest marks possible. I definitely wouldn’t be the dancer I am today without all of the specific training and discipline that was required to pass an examination.

It’s a shame that I can’t go back and take my Silver medal again – but it’s a little late now that I’m a qualified professional! I can be a little stubborn at times, and I vividly remember that exam. My mum had got me a little black jacket, much like a dinner jacket for grown-ups, and I felt fantastic in it. However, when you put your arms up in a suit jacket that isn’t specifically designed for dancing you end up with your ears resting neatly on the shoulder pads! And such was this jacket. My teacher at the time told me to take it off, but I’d just got my nice shiny jacket and wasn’t taking it off for anyone! I looked like a grown up! Needless to say it didn’t help my dancing as I got a commended and not the usual highly commended that I’d come to expect. The examiner comments reflected this jacket faux-pas and I was accused of dancing with hunched shoulders and not producing a smooth look. Which, thinking about it now, was a little harsh. How many children’s shoulders actually go above their ears? Surely they noticed it was just the jacket getting a little over-excited and not actually my little 8 year old shoulders? I do remember my teacher being quite cross with me for not taking it off, so perhaps she doctored the marks or advised the examiner to mark me down on purpose to teach me a lesson… Whatever the reason, it had a positive effect as I didn’t wear a jacket again and normal service was resumed the following exam!

But how does this help you? Well, Dizzyfeet Dancing also run examinations for all ages and abilities. It’s a great way to develop your dancing and not only that it can give you a real sense of achievement for all the hard work you’ve put in to learning a new skill. Our next examination is taking place on the 14th April and early this week I was assessing some of the new candidates that will be taking their exam for the first time. We decided to make it as close to the real thing as possible, with each dancer taking to the floor on their own and being scrutinised by the eagle eyed examiner (Me!!). It was both fascinating and pleasing to see that when put under a little bit of pressure, every single one of them danced above their usual standard and produced some excellent dancing. This is testament to their teaching and credit must go to Helen for all the work she has put in to the new Monday night examination class. Helen, they all did you proud.

But it’s not done yet as that was just the mock! The real thing is just over a week away but the good thing is that they all said that nothing can be as terrifying as being watched and assessed by me! Nice to know that I can instil such fear into our pupils!

So, if you’re enjoying your dancing and fancy developing it a little further, why not try and do a medal? Take a look at Amateur Examinations on our What we do page to see a bit more information about how they work and see if it takes your fancy.

You never know, you too could say that you won Gold in 2012!

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