July 11 2005

On the musical journey between Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Group and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, there was briefly, Victor Sylvester and his Ballroom Orchestra.
Don’t look like that – I can explain.
It had nothing to do with the music. Those cloying saxophones and syrupy violins and that rinky-tink piano were never my thing, but for a few months in the late 1950s waltzes and quick-steps were.
At 15, the Saturday night hops in town were out of bounds. A touch of your sister’s mascara brush to darken the hair on your upper lip might have been good enough to get you in to see X films at the Sandonia, but it didn’t fool the Borough Hall bouncers.
Next best thing? The weekly dance lessons held in a wooden hall at the back of the Alexandra Hotel on the corner of Tipping Street where Superdrug now stands.
Mr and Mrs Davis, the Welsh couple who ran the sessions, were ballroom dance crusaders. Their aim was to teach the young men and women of Stafford (even those, like me, with two left feet) how to become Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
We boys turned up every Friday night, a pimply army, high on the fumes of Old Spice, all wearing Burton’s finest Italian pin-stripe suits, winkle-pickers and white shorty macs.
Dressed like that you couldn’t fail to pull.
If you knew how to dance.
So we slow, slow, quick, quick slowed our way through an hour or so of intensive tuition, with Mrs Davis partnering each of us in turn to the strains of I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time, The Anniversary Waltz and such.
The last hour of the session was our chance to impress the girls who for some reason I never understood rarely took part in the lessons but who were nevertheless brilliant dancers.
By then, the Old Spice effect had worn off and we needed Dutch courage to gain the necessary confidence to approach a partner. The mascara ruse worked on the unsuspecting bar staff and we were able to indulge in a pint or two of Black Velvet, with sweet stout and cider substituting for Champagne and Guinness.
Most of us learned the basics. Fred Astaire was never in danger, but Mrs Davis managed to equip each of us with sufficient skill to create the impression that we were waltzing. What we were actually doing was a stiff sort of shuffle in three-four time which was fine while moving in a straight line, but when we needed to turn panic set in.
It was a technique I never mastered, so a change of partners was necessary every few yards.
My quick-stepping was no better but I developed the knack of doubling up on the waltz manoeuvre and the result was close enough.
Sadly, after a few weeks of this, it became clear that my Ginger Rogers wasn’t going to show, so I gave Victor Sylvester the elbow and moved on to greater things.
I bought my first Hot Five record.
And learned to jive.


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