Ballroom – with no “strictly” anywhere

And by that I mean “real” dancing where you have to take a partner – i.e. none of this sinking eight pints of a corporate brewer’s finest before flailing about on your local nightclub’s floor in a manner that could get them a visit from the Health and Safety Executive – click on the link to see a handful of myths.

I could say “This is what happens when I blog after sinking a bottle of wine” but I’ve been wanting to write about this for several years. If I don’t do it now, I never will.

I used to do lots of dancing – ballroom, salsa, latin, rock’n’roll in days gone by. It kept me fit, gave me something of a social life during my pre-London days and generally kept me out of/got me into trouble depending on which way you look at things. That said, I’ve never really been a huge fan of Strictly Come Dancing – even when it first came out in 2004. The reason for this is my general disposition as a history buff. Ever since stumbling across a newspaper article – a book review about the doomed family of Nicholas II of Russia, my ‘vision’ of ballroom dancing has been that of grand balls in the old imperial capitals of continental Europe – Vienna & St Petersburg in particular.

When I returned home to Cambridge after 3 years away at university (and stupendously disappointed at the entire experience) I found myself in debt, without close friends and wondering where I was going to go next. I got lucky finding a course on post-war European History that was being run by Professor John Pollard, then of Anglia Ruskin University who I’ll always rate as one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable professors I’ve ever been taught by. (It’s a shame that they no longer do their Historical Studies PGDip/MA as I really enjoyed my time there).

At the same time I also found some temping work at one of Cambridge University’s colleges. It was here that I found a flier by a litter bin while posting timetables into the pigeonholes of undergraduates. (It seems like another world in itself given that today I do almost everything electronically. I don’t do paper forms!) That flier was for this lot – the university’s dancing society. Thinking that this was the closest I’d get to ever getting to dance anywhere reasonably nice, I joined – and took to it like a duck to water as anyone who has had the misfortune to know me since 2002/03 will tell you.

I met some really lovely people in that first term – to the extent that when Robin and Glenys (in their final year of tuition after the best part of 20 years) said “So, who wants ball tickets?” at the end of one class, I pushed myself to get myself one. I never looked back. What was great about this sort of event – and about dancing with partners in general is that you can dance with someone and that’ll be it. No expectation of anything from either side after it. In fact, in many places I subsequently danced in, the etiquette was to change partners after each track. For us men, it meant that the onus was on us to ask the women to dance. (Yes, even some of the most die-hard feminists that I met there would insist that they had to be asked first).

There was one girl who I’d spotted on the hired coaches up to the venue – the splendid Burgess Hall in St Ives, outside Cambridge (it’s not great from the outside but it’s lovely on the inside) – who part of me wanted to either get to know, dance with or both. (No, I won’t name her). About a third of the way through the ball, that invisible voice in my head asked me whether I was going to ask her to dance or not. My instinct was “I need far more alcohol before I even dream of such a thing” but as many male dancers will tell you, leading a dance and copious amounts of alcohol do not make good partners. This wasn’t a nightclub, I knew the etiquette, I just needed to ask her. So I did.

The next thing I knew, this girl who I’d been fretting over since spotting her on the coach up to the venue happened to be in my arms. Not only that, we were able to have something of a reasonable light-hearted conversation in the process at the same time. No need to spend huge amounts of hard earned cash to sink eight pints to say “darlin’ that dress would look great on my bedroom floor!” (No, I’ve not tried that one and have no intention of starting now!) and you get to dress up in posh frocks/suits too! That and going to dance classes is also a physical workout too – so it’s good for fitness too.

The last waltz of that first ball is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was with the same girl I mentioned earlier – having asked her earlier if I could dance that last dance with her. (It was a ball full of beginners – of which I was one at the time). This was one of the very few times in my life where I was able to completely forget about everything that had happened in my past as well as everything that lay ahead in an uncertain future. The dancefloor – and all the surroundings seemed to dissolve into a blur of bright lights and Christmas greenery. Every few seconds I’d turn my head to see this beautiful beaming smile staring right back at me as the two of us sailed effortlessly around the dance floor not crashing into a single person. (Avoiding crashes takes some doing).

Some eighteen months later, at a lesson in 2004 I got talking to a dancing acquaintance from Austria. It was also just before I found out that I was successful in joining the civil service. We started talking about European history and I mentioned about what got me interested. I then mentioned about being mesmerised by some of the descriptions of the grand balls that they used to have in the late 19th/early 20th Century there. I also mentioned as a throw-away remark something along the lines of “…but hey, this is the 21st Century and these things don’t happen anymore.”


Turns out that these things did happen, were still going, that she was due to go to one in Vienna later that June and asked if I wanted to be her dance partner. Not knowing what I’d let myself in for, I said “Yes” – after all, the culmination of a childhood dream is not something a person easily turns down. When someone offers you something like that, you don’t answer in the negative.

All I knew about this ball was that it would be in Vienna. The institution’s website was still in its infancy so I had no picture of what it would be like, let alone what the venue looked like.  In the weeks running up to the ball, I got the news that my application to join the civil service had been accepted. This was a huge relief and a weight off of my shoulders given that over the past two years, I had been on the look out for a posting in the civil service or the wider public sector that would form the start of a career in the public sector.

At the time, I took the view that I needed to invest in a new wardrobe (or the clothes that would fill it) as I embarked both on a new career and the holiday of a lifetime to Vienna. Ballroom dancing, history, German language – three passions in one city. I took out a small unsecured bank loan to cover both the holiday and the clothes that I felt I’d need for everything. My take was that this was the culmination of a childhood dream – of going to a grand ball in one of Europe’s old imperial capitals – I had to look the part. So I gave myself a budget of £1,000 (at 2004 prices) for 2 suits and the shirts needed for this with the view that both would be ‘investments’ for future events too – as it turned out they were to be.

Having wandered down to London and not found a suitable dinner suit to my liking, I wandered into Ede and Ravenscroft in Cambridge where I bumped into one of my brother’s friends from his school days. I told him the whole story of what sort of dinner suit I was looking for and what the occasion was, and he was kind enough to knock a third off the price because I was the old brother of one of his best friends from school!  Yes, my jaw hit the floor too. State comprehensive old school network #ftw!

This left a large amount left in the budget to get hold of a suit that for the next four years would become something of a trademark. It was stupendously expensive, those of you who know me will know what I’m talking about and I’ll blog about it in a future post. But it was one of those garments that said “Buy me!” So I did – and wore it on the plane out to Vienna. I was going to say that I’d have NEVER had such good customer service in my life. Well…the bloke in duty free tried. Problem was, he was the same bloke who had been really rude to me in the same airport a few months earlier when I flew out to a student conference in Germany (dressed in what was comfortable at the time and was predominantly from charity shops). Now that I was in an expensive suit he was dotting his eyes and crossing his tees. But I’m like an elephant. I don’t forget. And I tore him to pieces. In public. I made the point that he had a duty to treat people with dignity and respect – irrespective of how expensive or otherwise their outfits were – and that in my case he had clearly failed to do this.

It didn’t achieve anything useful, but hey, it made me feel better for about five minutes.

What he didn’t know was that I had combined this stupendously expensive suit with a £5 shirt I’d got from a charity shop. Remember what I was saying about charity shops earlier? Exactly.

Having dressed up for the ball, our small party found ourselves outside the masterpiece that is Vienna City Hall. “You mean we’re going in there!?!? To dance?!?!”  When I stumbled into the main festival hall I was almost ready to burst into tears as I could feel my legs going from underneath me. I was just an ordinary kid from a comprehensive school background…we don’t get to go to grand balls like this…do we? Well…why not? The next one is in June 2012 if anyone’s up for it.

I was also more than lucky enough to join a friend (and future London flatmate) at the Polyball in Zurich in 2005 and at the Kaiserball at the Vienna Hofburg for New Year 2007/08 – where a large self-organised group of us from Cambridge stumbled across a similar-sized group from Oxford. There was something surreal about dancing a slow waltz in front of a throne that Kaiser Franz Josef of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire used to receive people in front of.

By that time I was more than familiar with Vienna – having earlier spent a month on a German language course there in September 2006, three months after having got an ‘A’ for GCSE German in an evening class I had taken that year. My plan was to take an AS German evening class – which I embarked upon that autumn – the summer school bridging the gap between the GCSE and the A-Level. But a relapse of mental health problems meant that I never got the best out of that summer school. Six weeks after returning to the UK, I had my Fast Stream assessment centre in London.

The final words from the assessor upon completion of the one-on-one interview section having picked up on the mention of ballroom dancing?

“This is completely off of the record and won’t have any impact on your assessment, but my wife and I have always been interested in ballroom dancing. How does one go about finding out about it?”

I gave him with a few useful weblinks and organisations to contact, leaving with this strange feeling that my life was about to change irrevocably. And it did. I’ve not looked back.


5 thoughts on “Ballroom – with no “strictly” anywhere

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I love ballroom dancing. I too did ballroom, latin, rock and roll (and others) pretty much from when I could walk. I stopped when I went to university (I tried the dance club but I didn’t enjoy it). Since then I have been struggling to get back into it, but a couple of years ago I advertised for a dancing partner online, found a willing victim and we haven’t looked back! It is really fun. Unfortunately everyone else in our dance school is 20 years older. I wish more people would give it a try! I had no idea about the ball in Vienna, I think I will look into it!

  2. great post, you’re enthusiasm is evident. we all do ballroom, latin and rock and roll, husband and I have recently moved from beginners to intermediate (not sure how!!) kids both dance too, and are waaaaaay better than us. they’ve done exams, and are costing me a fortune… it’s not cheap to kit a 4 yo Bly with tails for ballroom!!

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