Since Ballroom Dancing developed during the 1920/30s, it has naturally undergone many changes in style. However, even the style that is danced today owes much and relates closely to the original style.
For example, the fact that the Lady is placed to the Man’s right side originates from the Man holding the Lady in his right arm due to the fact that he would be dressed in uniform including his sword, which was on his left side!
In identifying the British traditions and style, we must look back at the history of Ballroom Dancing; style was dictated by a number of factors including:
- The venues/environment in which dancing took place
- Costume style of the time
- Social etiquette (manners) and social background of the participants
- The music that was popular at the time
Before competitions came into being Ballroom Dancing was a social activity enjoyed by people of a particular social standing. This meant they were generally well-educated, well-dressed and well-mannered. Dancing took place in ballrooms, very few of which exist today, but if one imagines a smaller version of the Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, this sets the scene.
Dancers did not have a regular partner but gentlemen invited various ladies to partner them throughout the evening. This meant, of course, that the Gentleman had to lead, and the Lady follow, the various step patterns. This is a fundamental concept that shaped the style that was danced; the dancers had to be in contact and the hold such that the man could easily and directly communicate to his partner his chosen figures. The advent of competitions, and eventually the choreography/routine/programme that has become the norm, is one of the main influences on the change of style that has occurred over time.
At the time when competitions became popular (80+ years ago) England was culturally very different than it is today. Gentlemen wore morning suits (tails) and ladies long, flowing dresses to attend dances. Whilst the style of costuming has remained with us, the social attitudes have not. For example, boisterous movement was frowned upon and it was considered bad form to “rush around the room”. Most important was to maintain elegance and grace at all times.
It was, therefore, this combination of factors that resulted in what became known as the “English Style” of Ballroom Dancing. Eventually, a written technique was formulated, which described the details of what the best dancers did in order for others to emulate them. The early pioneers such as Josephine Bradley, Phyllis Haylor and Alex Moore etc. were the guardians of this technique and it later became the basis for professional qualifications for teaching and adjudicating.
Over the decades that followed the formative years, the style of Ballroom Dancing gradually developed into what we know today. The influences on this development are varied but one of the main influences must surely be the involvement of an ever-increasing number of foreign countries taking part. Some were there at an early stage, e.g. Australia, Japan and others have joined relatively recently, e.g. Russia and the former eastern bloc countries. Each has had an influence and it is now the “International Style” rather than the “English Style” referred to earlier.
When development occurs, there will always be good things and bad things about the new form compared to the original. The priorities of today’s competitors are different from those of the past. Now, qualities such as progression, speed, dynamics and volume take centre-stage. However, I would like to think that the best contemporary dancers also apply the techniques and principles that were considered to be the priorities by our predecessors. These include:
- Posture of elegance and sophistication
- Beauty of form and line
- Smoothness in movement
- Articulate use of feet and ankles
- Sensitivity/Communication with partner
- Expression of the music and character of the dance
I believe the popularity and success of the “International Style” owes a debt of gratitude to the “British Traditions and Style”.