I only ended up watching Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet because I’d been stood up, so instead of seeing Life of Pi in 3D in what would have been my first trip to a cinema in almost a decade, I sat self-pityingly at home, trying to decide between Steam Iron Sale Pick of the Day and Alice in Wonderland, the ballet.
In the end, I turned to iPlayer, and Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet, a documentary about the golden age of British Ballroom dancing, and within minutes, was hooked. What I loved about this programme is that from the very start, Len Goodman told you without any sadness or regret that what he was talking about was already over, a thing of the past. Peggy Spencer was talking matter-of-factly about the 1950s and 60s when she said that ballroom went ‘underground’, and became a thing for dancing schools rather than dance halls, whereas the heart of ballroom, years ago, she said, had been to go out and meet people.
Near the end, about 57 minutes in, Mary Lee, singer with the Roy Fox orchestra, smiles warmly and reminisces “it was lovely” in a tone of voice that tells you instantly how lovely it was, but again, with no hint of regret, just a fond and respectful memory. “It was lovely,” she repeats, “You were hearing good music, and with a wee bit of luck, you got a wee cuddle and a kiss on the way home. You know. It was nice.” You have to hear the way she says ‘nice’, and see the expression on her face to understand that nice can, after all, be full of meaning.
The researchers pulled in musicologists, musicians, dance teachers, writers, singers and dancers, visited dance halls, and included intelligent discussions about changes in music and the social history of dancing over two centuries. It was more intellectual weight and good sense than I have seen thrown at ballet in a long time. What absolutely no-one did in this programme, was to make any claim for ballroom-dancing as a thing, as some autonomous form that lived independently of wider society. No-one talked about ‘dance’, it was all about dancing, and what that meant in real terms – the materiality of dance halls, dance bands, going out, meeting people and kissing them.
It was warm and but not sentimental, accessible without dumbing down. I’m not a fan of ballroom, or of Strictly Come Dancing, but I’m a huge fan of trying to make sense of culture. It’s just a shame that the BBC couldn’t have thrown similar resources at a programme that could explain why we still make ballets that portray an upper-class tea party in Victorian Oxford. I can’t help feeling that the assumption is that we’re supposed to believe that ballet is timeless and autonomous, and hence needs no explanation. I for one would love Len Goodman to investigate.