STRICTLY COME BLACKPOOL
Beyond hosting the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, Blackpool Tower’s iconic ballroom delights a large throng of dancers and diners every single day, most weeks of the year. TORI HYWEL-DAVIES quick-stepped inside…
Originally inspired by the Eiffel Tower, Blackpool Tower opened in 1894. Its Ballroom lies at the foot of the structure and is world renowned for its exceptionally sprung floor – made from 30,602 blocks of wood in oak, mahogany and walnut – its traditional Wurlitzer organ (and its four talented organists), and the sheer ritzy opulence of its gold-themed architecture. There’s a charm about the place that gives a real sense of authentic ballroom glamour – when the air is filled with music and the glitter ball dazzles the room you are transported back in time.
The ballroom is a rendezvous for those with a passion for dance and time on their hands – although the afternoon tea offerings are also a draw. In recent years, the venue has welcomed a growing number of younger people inspired by Strictly Come Dancing, prompting a whole new ‘cool’ to ballroom. So, who are the people behind its success, what sort of people go there and can anyone attend? We meet the stars of the show…
MUSIC MAESTRO PLEASE!
Blackpool’s organ is a ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’, which slowly ascends from a concealed entrance to the stage when the dancing is ready to begin. There are a team of four resident organists who have each worked at the Tower from between 21 to 40 years.
Chris Hopkins began playing here in 1995 – before then he was a HGV lorry driver. He’d nurtured a passion for the Wurlitzer organ for a long time and, as a young man, used to pay £5 a pop for a go on one in Manchester. Two years after he’d managed to wangle a play on Blackpool’s Wurlitzer, Chris received a phone call to say he was needed at the Tower again but it had to be that night – only he was in Liverpool “picking up a load of corn for Kellogg’s”. His HGV manager gave him an ultimatum: “Either deliver the corn or hand over the keys – no hard feelings – and off you go to Blackpool.” Chris handed over the keys and hasn’t driven a truck since.
As the ‘meeter and greeter’, Francis is the first friendly face customers see before they enter the ballroom. It’s his job to make guests feel welcomed, answer questions and show people inside – into this extraordinary seaside treasure trove.
Paulina Holmes has been attending the ballroom every Wednesday for the past 12 years. “My life revolves around Wednesdays,” she says. “If it’s ever closed, it feels like a disaster. I don’t know what to do with myself because I’m here for the full day.” Paulina dances the foxtrot and, like many regulars, she has a few dance partners; one even comes from Telford in Shropshire and another from the north-east. Today, her son, Greg, is accompanying her. “I come along when I’m visiting,” he says, although he never graces the dance floor.
WORDS TO INSPIRE
Immediately above the magnificent Wurlitzer in huge gold letters is this quote from Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis. It has been a feature since the very opening of the auditorium. Poignantly, it reads: “Bid me discourse. I will enchant thine ear”
Linda and Alan Whale had their first dance lesson 15 years ago and were immediately hooked. When, nine years later, it was time to retire, with dance still firmly in their hearts, they decided to give themselves a head start by moving from Rochdale, where they had lived since 1973, to Blackpool so they could get to the ballroom any day they liked. They usually come twice a week, have private lessons once a fortnight and learn the Latin cha-cha every Monday. “It’s a great community,” says Alan. Both agree that despite the tight bond between some of the regulars at the Tower, all dancers are made to feel very welcome during their visit.
RISE TO THE TOP
General manager Kenny Mew took a summer job here when he was 16. Now 20 years on, Kenny has worked his way to the top and still adores his work. Providing dancers with a world- class venue fills Kenny with a special pride. “We have between 200 and 250 regular dancers that come week in, week out, so the ballroom plays a big role in a nationwide community, too.”
Every year, the Tower closes for a massive spring clean. “In the past we’ve had to close for two weeks,” says operations manager, Danny Hickes. “But now we have LED light bulbs for the 14 chandeliers which last much longer. So, as we don’t have to change all the bulbs, it’s a bit quicker! But we do still ‘drop’ the chandeliers to the floor and wash them.” The ballroom floor also receives a sand down and re-varnish, ready for the year’s influx of dancers. Altogether it takes about a week to finish.
KEEP THE CHANGE
“It’s my first day today so I feel excited but I’m also a bit nervous,” says barman Joe Bipon, who’s worked in other Blackpool bars but considers he’s landed a plum job in the ballroom. “I’m getting fully trained so I’m shadowing someone all day in order to learn the ropes.”
It might be a Wednesday lunchtime, but regular dancer Rita Mackenzie is as glamorous as they come. Now 75, she’s been a ballroom dancer since she was 13. Her dedication is legendary. She lives in Huddersfield – a 150-mile round trip – and comes “every Wednesday, as many weekends as I can, and sometimes I stay the whole weekend.” It’s little surprise Rita found love in this hallowed hall of dance and Eric is the lucky man. They danced together for two years before they decided to give it a whirl in the relationship department too. While she waits for Eric to return to the dance floor, Rita dances with ballroom team leader, Jade Jenkinson, 27, who takes turns with people who don’t have partners when her schedule allows. “I arrived in this department 12 months ago and have learnt quite a few moves now!” says Jade.
FOR OLD TIME’S SAKE
The first time Kenneth Jackson visited the ballroom, he was in his RAF uniform and Glenn Miller and his band were on stage – “It cost a few shillings to get in!” Today, Kenneth’s daughter, Susan, and her partner Andrew, have brought him to the ballroom to celebrate his 89th birthday. They tuck into the afternoon tea and enjoy a moment or two of nostalgia kicking up their heels on the dance floor. “I met my wife in Butlins, Skegness and we used to enjoy coming here,” says Kenneth. “It’s lovely to be back!” The ballroom used to host around 2,000 people in any one night during World War Two, when many American GIs were stationed in Blackpool.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
As well as tasty lunches and afternoon tea to fuel the dancers, the ballroom hosts exhibitions, business lunches, conferences and weddings. “I love the special occasions we do,” says waitress Kayleigh. “My favourite is when couples come in to celebrate an anniversary – they get to dance a waltz on the dance floor on their own and then the other dancers join them afterwards. It’s very romantic.” And Kayleigh relishes the guests’ reactions as they walk in. “The occasional visitor is fascinated by everything. They can’t stop looking! And often they’ll ask questions, like where the Strictly judges sit, where the contestants dance, that sort of thing.”
RESTORED TO GLORY
Despite a serious fire caused by a stray cigarette in 1956, the auditorium was saved and refurbished by architect Andrew Mazzei, allowing its unique architecture, originally created by Frank Matcham between 1897 and 1898, to remain intact. The sprung dance floor is 120ft by 102ft and the scale of the ballroom is impressive especially when you consider its age. The gateway to the gods is made up of about 800 seats across all three tiers and on the ground floor, the ballroom can cater for about 560 more visitors.
HAPPY TO HELP…
“From the second I stepped in for my interview I felt the majesty of this place take hold of me,” says ballroom host, Kerry-Ann Watmough. “Even though I’ve worked here for six months, I still feel the magic.” Kerry-Ann looks after the ballroom’s guests, making sure they have what they need. “We had a 90-year-old lady celebrating her birthday the other week so I arranged for the organist to play Happy Birthday for her, then everyone in the ballroom joined in. She was clearly very moved – it was a wonderful moment!”