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Strictly’s Hidden Gems: The Ballroom Dance Icons We Owe It All To


Strictly’s Hidden Gems: The Ballroom Dance Icons We Owe It All To

With Strictly Come Dancing having once more thrilled BBC One audiences in 2023, and now after the Christmas Special yesterday the glitter balls and sparkles are locked away for another year let’s step back in time to when ballroom dancing first took centre stage.

Delving into the golden generation of the 40s up to the 70s,  the team at ATV Today Entertainment teamed up with Chums to take a look at the captivating stories of the dancers who laid the groundwork for the dazzling spectacle we witness today.

The resurgence of ballroom dancing began in the early 2000s, when ‘Strictly Come Dancing‘ burst onto our screens – a title mixed from the movie Strictly Ballroom and the Beeb’s old dancing series Come Dancing. Strictly in primetime BBC One transformed ballroom dancing from a niche art form to a nationwide phenomenon. With its intoxicating mix of glitz, glamour, and celebrity partnerships, the show not only revived interest in ballroom but catapulted it into the competitive realm.

From humble beginnings, ‘Strictly’ became a cultural phenomenon, sparking a dance renaissance that saw audiences across the UK trading in their Saturday night plans for a front-row seat to the dancefloor drama. But who were the ballroom stars and champions before we had the privilege of seeing them shine on TV?

Northern Stars: Harry Smith Hampshire and Doreen Casey

Hailing from Blackpool and Burnley, the dynamic duo of Harry Smith Hampshire and Doreen Casey not only dominated the ballroom scene in the 1950s but also became iconic figures from the North of England. Their triumphs, including the 1961 World Professional Ballroom and Latin Championships, solidified their status as undefeated champions and Northern stars in the realm of ballroom dancing. From winning amateur competitions to establishing dance schools in the region while founding the renowned Lambeth School of Dancing in London, this legendary duo made their mark in the industry. The pair’s influence extended beyond borders when they captivated Moscow with ballroom demonstrations, leaving an indelible mark on the Soviet Union.

Bill and Bobby Irvine

In the heart of Streatham, a dance legacy was born when competitive Scottish dancer Bill Irvine met the talented Bobbie Barwell. Their story unfolded beyond chance, becoming a powerhouse duo that transformed the landscape of ballroom dancing. Winning 13 world titles between 1960 and 1968, their precision and elegant partnership marked them as dominant figures in competitive ballroom dancing. Their impact, however, reached beyond accolades. Bill and Bobbie Irvine were not just champions but mentors, inspiring generations with their love for dance.

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Donnie Burns: The Scottish Sensation

Born in Hamilton, Scotland, in 1938, Donnie Burns left an indelible mark on ballroom dancing starting in the 1950s and ’60s. A pivotal moment in his illustrious career was his unprecedented success, claiming 27 world titles in Latin American and ballroom dancing. Burns’ revolutionary techniques and dedication to excellence cemented his status as one of the greatest competitive dancers in history. His influence continues to resonate, setting the stage for future generations of dancers in Scotland and beyond.

Frank and Peggy Spencer: A Legacy of Elegance and Grace

Frank and Peggy Spencer were a trailblazing couple who left an indelible mark on the world of ballroom dancing. Their elegant style, effortless movements, and captivating stage presence captivated audiences worldwide, making them ballroom icons of the 1960s and 1970s. Their numerous accolades, including the British Professional Latin American title, cemented their legacy as pioneers of ballroom dancing.

Alan and Hazel Fletcher: The Ballroom Custodians

Renowned as custodians of the ballroom dance legacy, Alan and Hazel Fletcher emerged as luminaries in the Latin American dancing world.  Their illustrious career includes multiple titles, such as World Amateur Latin champions in 1972–73, European Professional Latin champions from 1976 to 1980, and World Professional Latin champions from 1977 to 1981. Their commitment extended to nurturing future dancers through teaching, choreography, and organising dance congresses. The couple’s impact on the world of ballroom dance was recognised with prestigious awards, including the Carl-Alan Award in 1972 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

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Len Goodman: The London Luminary

Born in 1944 in London, Len Goodman’s ballroom journey commenced in the 1960s.  Goodman, an apprentice welder until the age of 19, discovered his passion for dance as therapy for a foot injury and established himself as a distinguished figure in competitive dancing in the ’70s. Once he turned professional, he won various competitions and retired from dancing in his late twenties after winning the British Championships at Blackpool. A pivotal moment in Len’s illustrious career was his role as a judge on ‘Strictly Come Dancing.’ His charming critiques and expert knowledge became a highlight of the show, earning him widespread acclaim. Len’s influence on the dance world, from his competitive roots to the mainstream success of ‘Strictly,’ underscores his enduring legacy as a luminary in the London ballroom scene.

Shirley Annette Ballas: The Lancashire Luminary

Born in Wallasey in 1960, Shirley Annette Ballas emerged as a powerhouse in the ballroom scene. Beginning her dance journey in her hometown, Shirley rose to fame in the competitive ballroom circuit during the 1980s. A standout moment in her illustrious career was her domination of the International Latin American dance circuit, securing numerous titles throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Her precision, poise, and innovative choreography not only marked a new era in ballroom dancing but also paved the way for a generation of dancers.

Shirley’s trailblazing efforts extended beyond the dance floor. Her impact reached new heights as she transitioned into a sought-after judge, sharing her expertise with aspiring dancers. This journey culminated in her becoming the head judge on ‘Strictly Come Dancing,’ where her insightful critiques and wealth of knowledge continue to shape the landscape of contemporary ballroom. Shirley remains a prominent figure whose influence spans decades, leaving an indelible mark on the world of dance.

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