Obituary: Peggy Spencer, MBE, ballroom dance expert

Peggy Spencer, ballroom dance expert who was best known for her role on Come Dancing. Picture: Contributed
Peggy Spencer, ballroom dance expert who was best known for her role on Come Dancing. Picture: Contributed
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Born 24 September 1920 in London. Died 25 May 2016 in Norfolk. Aged 95.

Peggy Spencer was recognised as a ballroom dance expert and became a central member of the team that presented BBC television’s Come Dancing for 40 years. She was an enthusiastic teacher, a fine coach and an inspired instructor of formation dancing groups. Her expertise was such that she was offered the role of introducing Strictly Come Dancing but turned it down. Modestly, Spencer admitted, “I said they should get someone younger... so they chose Bruce Forsyth.”

Spencer was much loved by generations of dancers – Princess Grace of Monaco engaged her to teach her children, she performed in front of the Queen, choreographed a dance sequence for the Beatles and taught Rudolf Nureyev the tango for Ken Russell’s 1977 movie Valentino. Peggy Spencer was, rightly, dubbed the “Doyenne of ballroom dancing.”

Many ballroom aficionados credit Spencer with starting the nation’s love-affair with dancing. She had the knack of instructing dancers how to hold themselves properly and look relaxed. She taught men how to wear white tie and tails and ladies to look at ease in those voluminous skirts with sequins.

Peggy Spencer (nee Margaret Ann Hull) did not set out to be a dancer – she wanted to enter politics but the war intervened and to amuse her friends in the air raid shelters Spencer bought a book on ballroom dancing and taught her friends. “I was always just one page ahead of the people I was teaching,” she admitted.

Her classes and evening parties proved a huge hit and provided a wonderful opportunity for people to let their hair-down. She introduced such rarities from America as the jive and the jitterbug.

After the war Spencer expanded her classes and travelled all round the south east of England. She started formation groups and organised a competition which rapidly spread nationwide. The BBC saw a winner and in 1949 decided to televise it. Come Dancing became a national institution and gained huge audiences running from 1949 to 1998. The formula was simple: the programme was a dancing competition in which separate regions of the UK went head to head, battling for the trophy. Spencer’s co-presenters included Terry Wogan, Michael Aspel, and Angela Rippon.

In 2004, BBC bosses decided it was time to bring back some glamour to Saturday nights in the form of Strictly Come Dancing. “I was thrilled” Spencer said “when I had a call from some producers who were going to bring back Come Dancing with a difference.” But she turned down the offer and enjoyed appearing on its baby sister ‘It Takes Two’ on BBC2.

One day Spencer took a call and heard the voice at the other end say “Hi Peggy its Paul McCartney”. He asked her to choreograph a waltz for dancers to perform with the Beatles in the film the Magical Mystery Tour. At the first rehearsal Spencer told the Beatle, “Paul that’s not a waltz. Your tune has four beats to the bar….a waltz has three.” Some rapid rechoreographing was necessary.

Spencer often appeared in other shows; notably the Generation Game, Surprise Surprise, Blue Peter and the Two Ronnies. She was the subject of This is your Life when Michael Aspel surprised her during one of her classes.

Spencer, who continued to teach dancing into her nineties, won eight Carl Alan Awards and was awarded the MBE.

In 1940 she married Jack Spencer but that marriage was dissolved. In 1947 she and Jack’s brother Frank got married - they had been running the business for 20 years. He predeceased her. She is survived by a daughter of her first marriage.