Putting on the glitz

Keith and Margaret perform the Military Two-Step in 1950.

Keith and Margaret perform the Military Two-Step in 1950.

Once again the world of dance is dominating our TV screens with Strictly Come Dancing.

My involvement with dance began when I was 16, when I took my first lesson in modern ballroom at a school in Hounslow, Middlesex. I was not very impressed.

I was impressed, however, when I took my new girlfriend to the Christmas dance at the Northern Polytechnic, where I was studying architecture. During the spot waltz, when the lights were low, she kissed

Friends invited me to try the Caledonian Club in nearby Heston, which held regular Scottish dance meetings. This introduced me to foursome and eightsome reels, the Dashing White Sergeant and Gay Gordons, and I marvelled at the intricate footwork of the kilt-clad experts.

In 1948 I was called up for National Service in the Royal Engineers and ended up in Brecon, where I was barracked with the South Wales Borderers.

Regular dances were held in the town, and the ones that appealed were the Old Time ones, held at the Wellington Hotel or St Michael’s Hall. The dances were similar to the Scottish ones I was used to and I won a couple of small competitions, which really got me hooked.

Dancing the Lola Tango with Doris in 1950.

Dancing the Lola Tango with Doris in 1950.

After a few months I was posted to the Cardiff office of the Deputy Commander Royal Engineers. Although 1 was in the Army, the office was staffed by civilians. I was able to wangle myself private digs, as Maindy Barracks was over the stipulated number of miles from the office, and my evenings were spent discovering the local Old Time dances. I joined a school run by Norman Albury and his wife, who introduced me to the latest thing – Formation Dancing. I also achieved bronze and silver medals here.

Almost every evening involved dancing at one place or another, from Splott to Cardiff City Hall. I found a dancing partner and entered competitions at the Kennard Rooms, where Johnnie Parks and his Old Time Orchestra provided the music.

Butlin’s sponsored a Veleta contest, with Eric Morley supervising the heats for the final at the Royal Albert Hall. Doris Sparks, my partner, came with me to London for the final. We stayed with my mum and dad in Isleworth, but Doris was very homesick – it was probably her first stay outside Wales.

Competitions required evening dress and I remember the thrill of buying my first suit of tails. I came fourth in the South Wales Championship with new partner, Margaret Isom, and we then came fifth in the National Amateur Old Time Championship of Wales.

Returning home after demob, I joined the Humphries School of Dancing in Bond Street, London, run by Norah Galloway and Cecil Rault. Ex-ballet dancer Bridget Arthur was my personal teacher there. Bridget and I were lead couple on the BBC’s Time for Old Time – a radio programme broadcast from the Paris Cinema in Lower Regent Street. Fortunately, it was not live television as Bridget had to give me a rapid lesson in the Washington Post – a tricky dance -just minutes before we demonstrated it to the assembled throng.


The Grand March Lancers at St Michael's Hall

The Grand March Lancers at St Michael’s Hall

The BBC always approached the Humphries School when dancers were needed and I was once press-ganged into performing on an American Square Dancing programme televised from the White City. I was completely ignorant of this style but was soon fitted out with loud tartan shirt and jeans (the first I ever wore) by the wardrobe department and propelled onto the set. Somehow, with assistance, I was guided through the various dances.

Another appearance was at the Coronation Ball, to be held at the Royal, in Tottenham. The programme included a short history of dance and my then partner Julia Tate and I were one of four couples dancing the Edwardian section, complete with short tails, four-inch high collars and sideboards.

As the TV cameras were static, we had to dance around in a very small circle.

Watching at home, my parents and fiance just managed to see me flash past the camera.

It was in 1950 that I became a founding member of the Southern Old Time Amateurs Club. I was the youngest of the group and we often met to compete. I will always remember Wally Green and his wife Phyllis leading out a rival formation team to the strains of the Cold and Silver Waltz. Other couples I remember were the Hoadleys, Skidmores and Holmes – so many good friends. I wonder where they are now.

Many contests followed. One was held at the Wimbledon Palais, when Julia and I were members of the four-couple Humphries School team. My parents, sister and fiance Rose were in the audience. In the middle of our performance I blanked, completely forgetting the next move. Julia gave me a push and 1 was back on form, but this slip lost us the win.

I later turned professional and taught Old Time at the Bob Burgess school in Kensington. Eventually, my interest waned as spending time with my wife-to-be became more important, but I will always look back on those years with pleasure. I still play Harry Davidson and Sidney Thompson records and enjoy the entrancing music that accompanied the joy of Old Time dancing.

Keith Wallis