THE smell of aftershave. The smell of fear. A dozen or so men, most of them middle-aged, are in this makeshift dressing room, sucking in cheeks and paunches, stripping off V-necks and slacks, jackets and chinos, and putting on black tail-coats and absurdly shiny patent leather shoes.
White bow-ties, pulled tight with manicured fingers, cling to throats like butterflies to leaf-stalks. Downstairs, on the ground floor of the Beach Ballroom, Sinatra is singing about songs to be sung, about a wonderful fling to be flung. “Please,” says the compere, “take the floor for a foxtrot.” In Aberdeen, the latest battle for dancefloor supremacy is about to begin.
Today, a stormy Sunday in mid-October, is one of a handful of ballroom and Latin dance contests held in Scotland throughout the year, the most important of which is the Scottish Closed Championships, due to take place in December. The British Open is held over eight days in May at the Empress Ballroom, Blackpool, attracting hundreds of competitors from around the world. Britain, sadly, is no longer a ballroom superpower. We have been overtaken by the US, Russia, eastern Europe and, increasingly, China. Yet there is some hope that youngsters fed on a steady diet of Strictly Come Dancing will, in a few years’ time, reestablish Britain as a major force. Bruce Forsyth, a tremendous recruiting sergeant, is very much the Lord Kitchener of ballroom.
The Beach Ballroom in Aberdeen is an art deco pleasure palace of the old school, perched on the brink of the sea. Built in 1929, it has an octagonal dancefloor on to which, when the granite-grey clouds part, sunbeams slant from high windows. The walls are cream and blue; the carpets geometric jazz. A cornucopia of silver cups are lined up on the stage, the prizes for today’s victors; among them, rather incongruous but no less tempting, is a huge tin of Quality Street. Patrons who have been coming here for decades remember when there was a fountain in the middle of the dancefloor. They remember, too, the midnight journeys home to all corners of Scotland, in Zephyrs and Heralds and Imps, pressing down on grudging pedals with tired feet which, just a few hours before, had quickstepped as Leslie Thorpe and his Orchestra performed Lady is a Tramp.
Nowadays, the lingering perfume of a more glamorous era mingles with a cheerfully mundane whiff of Scots at their ease. So, while picture-perfect couples dance a Viennese waltz, they are observed by friends and family members seated at round tables draped in immaculate white cotton and piled high with flasks, packed lunches and industrial-strength hairspray. The distinctive aroma of the contemporary ballroom scene is a heady blend of Shockwaves and egg pieces. Spectators shouting in support of their favourite couples – “Come on 136”, “Come on 142” – lends the event an air of the bingo.
Earlier, as competitors had queued for entry in gales strong enough to toss sea spray on to the pavement, I had noticed one young man whose neatly parted dark hair resisted anything the Aberdeen wind could throw at it. This, it turns out, is Tibor Poc, a 27-year-old Slovakian now resident in Edinburgh. He and his dance partner Hilary Mouat have been Scottish amateur ballroom champions for the last five years.
“Have you felt his hair?” says Mouat, when I mention I had noticed them outside. “It’s like a rock.” Poc, obligingly, bends to let me pat his head. “It says on the tube that it is gel,” he confides. “But it is not. It is a glue.”
Poc and Mouat look the part: he in a black tail-suit; she in a pink glittery dress, gleaming choker and long, lush lashes. Bespoke tail-suits cost around £1,000; the dresses double that. “But Hilary is young, slim and sexy. She could wear a bin bag and still look wonderful,” says Sandra Mackie, a retired lady who is handing out the paper numbers and safety pins for attaching them to the backs of jackets. “And I think Tibor is even prettier.”
Aesthetics are important within this culture. How one looks is factored into the scoring process. There are judges who know and demand that a gentleman’s shirt collar should rise two inches above the collar of the tail-suit. This all goes back to the glory days of ballroom dance in the early and mid-20th century when it was associated indelibly with high society and Hollywood.
“Well,” says Jack Reavely, a judge, former dancer and leading ballroom historian, “have you ever seen Cary Grant with a hair out of place? But the importance of the aesthetics is really to do with posture. The stance was evolved in the 1920s by a man called Mr Maurice who came over from America and lectured to 200 teachers in London to try to get rid of eccentricities that were somewhat vulgar such as, for example, men having their right hands rather low on the girl’s posterior when they danced.”
Reavely, who lives in Edinburgh, was recently given a second Carl Alan award – the Oscars of ballroom – for his lifetime dedication to dance; a fellow recipient was his good friend Len Goodman. Reavely began competing in 1953, partnered by his wife Anne, and together they won every tournament in Scotland. His memory is a treasure-house. He remembers the flapping bell-bottoms of sailors as they circumnavigated the floor of Fairley’s ballroom on Leith Walk. He remembers the young men who would bring up the nap on their suits by brushing them with water in which half a potato had been left overnight, and those others who made their hair gleam with lard from mother’s chip pan. The humble tattie, it seems, has a secret history in the chronicles of dance.
It is hot in the Beach Ballroom. Stifling. Spectators fan themselves with sheaves of dance numbers. Dancers sip energy drinks and perform stretching exercises. Little girls in posh frocks scoff Quavers. Hilary Mouat rubs fake tan on the back of Tibor Poc’s neck. “We had to go to Fraser’s in Glasgow for this,” she says. “The lady on the make-up counter thought that he was joking when he said it was for him.”
Poc and Mouat train, in the run-up to competitions, seven days a week. They are not a couple, but – as he puts it, “We kind of feel like we are husband and wife because we know each other so well. I know when she’s angry, when she’s sad. I know everything about her.”
Dave and Lavinia Peebles, a middle-aged couple from Perth, have been dancing together since their marriage in 1997. “I think the secret is to leave the arguments in the practice room,” says Dave. “Don’t take them home. The amount of couples that get divorced because of arguments over dancing is phenomenal.”
In part, this is because of the dynamics of the dances themselves. “On the dancefloor is the only time I get to be the boss,” he says. “The man is in charge, and the lady has to respond to the lead that she’s given.”
While some split because of dance, others, such as Nancy and Trevor Laxton, are brought together through it. “Trevor and I met five years ago on a cruise ship at a beginners’ cha-cha class,” says Nancy, who is 58 and works for the NHS. They were sailing through the Bay of Biscay, bound for Venice. “Neither of us had a partner. But we got together and for the rest of that cruise we danced.”
“It was as if,” says Trevor, 60, “we had been dancing together for years.”
Compatibility on the dancefloor suggested a relationship off it. In August of this year they married and have settled in Edinburgh. “I knew within days,” Trevor recalls. “I thought, ‘This is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. Nothing’s going to get in the way of this.’ But if it wasn’t for that cha-cha class we would never have met.”
Laura and Jim Carroll, a couple in their mid-50s from Perth, say dancing isn’t a hobby, it’s a way of life. Laura runs a hairdressing salon. Jim, a lecturer at Perth College, has a great face for a tail-coat; rakish and raptorish, he looks like he should be tying his wife to railway tracks instead of spinning her round the room. The Carrolls are just back from competing at the International Championships in Brentwood, where they placed in the last 24. They also appeared, dancing on the sand, on the South Bank Show documentary about Jack Vettriano, in a recreation of the painter’s Singing Butler. And they have a rather elegiac view of ballroom dancing, regarding with some sadness the way it has become faster and more aggressive, more of a sport, and in the process lost some of its elegance and languid eroticism.
“In the days of the ballroom, long before our time, it was the only way a man got to hold a woman,” says Laura. “So he had to be good to make this woman want to dance with him again. It was almost sexual, if you like. A lot of the dances are. You’ve got to get close and feel that body and move as one. If you’re shy, stay home.”
Shy or not, everyone here today has tremendous commitment. Ballroom dancing is difficult. Ask and you will be told that it requires a theoretical and practical understanding of musculature, bone structure and principles of motion. Two doctors from Aberdeen, who are also dancers, say it is as hard to learn as Gray’s Anatomy. “Being a good ballroom dancer is something that’s achieved, not something that’s natural,” insists Reavely. “It’s a very complicated and mind-boggling study which can take an entire life.”
Given this complexity, mistakes are easily made and – in the heat and pressure of competition – can breed further errors, until an entire routine is a stramash of missteps and misremembered choreography. “When it’s bad, it’s really bad,” sighs Lavinia Peebles. “It’s like your whole world’s coming to an end.”
The converse, of course, is equally true. Dancers talk about the joy of performances going well; how you seem to leave your body and afterwards can remember almost nothing about the last few minutes. This elusive feeling is addictive. It is what keeps them putting in the hours of rehearsal and spending fortunes on tailoring and petrol. “It’s like floating on glass,” says Dave Peebles. “You get the wow factor. You come off the floor and you’re on a phenomenal high. Your adrenalin’s pumping.”
Either way, ballroom dancers strive to maintain a sense of elegance and poise, smiling in that rather fixed manner regardless of inner turmoil or ecstasy. It is this masking of emotions, arguably, which makes ballroom so emblematic of Britishness – it is the form of dance which best embodies the Keep Calm and Carry On spirit of our islands.
According to Matthew Sweet’s book The West End Front, the mirrored ballroom of the Dorchester hotel in London continued to be busy during the Blitz, Lew Stone’s band growing so used to the incendiary bombardment that they incorporated the rhythm of explosions into their performances of the Anvil Chorus from Il Travatore. That sort of insouciant insistence on life’s pleasures says a great deal about ballroom dancers; their upper lips are often as stiff as their collars.
Not that they never get wound up. Today, there is a certain degree of narkiness from a couple who feel they ought to have placed higher in the final results. “The judges have made a fool of themselves,” mutters the female partner. “Well, you’ve just got to smile and take it on the chin.” Her man laughs it off while straightening his bow-tie in a mirrored pillar. “Ach, they must have mixed up the judging with the raffle.”
By teatime, it’s all over. The floor has emptied. Raffle tickets lie torn. Certain trophy cabinets are about to become even more crammed; others will have to wait a while longer for their first silver. Mack the Knife, My Favourite Things, Greensleeves – all these songs have ended ... until the next time.
As for the dancers, it is a sadness of sorts to see them changed back into their regular clothes, their regular lives; they seem reduced by it, unnobled. Ballroom dancing is a beautiful illusion into which it has been pleasant to step, if only for one dreich Sunday on the edge of the North Sea.
“You really live in the music,” says Tibor Poc, and it’s quite, quite obvious what he means.
The Scottish Closed Championships will be held at the Marriott Hotel, Glasgow, on 2 December (www.dancesportscotland.com)