“From the Empire Ballroom, Leicester Square, London…”
In the last week, ITV have announced the arrival of Dance Dance Dance, a new big budget dancing themed programme. Due to be aired next year, it is a Dutch format from Talpa Media, producers of the newly defected reality TV show, The Voice.
Dancing-themed television programmes on ITV are a far from new genre. In recent times, we have had Dancing on Ice. Back in 1978, there was one programme on the schedules which stood out, especially as punk and new wave music rose in popularity. That of the World Disco Dancin’ Championships.
“Well it must be the night fever…”
Amidst the background of punk, new wave, and album orientated rock music, disco continued to hold its own in 1978. The high water mark being John Travolta’s role in Saturday Night Fever. This was closely followed by his role as Danny Zuko in Grease.
Focusing on the life of Tony Manero, the film sees him dance his way to success. It is an escape from his day job at an hardware store. The official soundtrack (courtesy of the Brothers Gibb as The Bee Gees and as songwriters for Yvonne Elliman, the Tavares, etc) would become the biggest selling soundtrack album of all time.
Inspired by the wave of Saturday Night Fever fever were the inevitable cash-ins and parodies. The Goodies got into hot water for their sketch involving a strategically positioned carrot in a pair of Tim Brooke-Taylor’s underpants (the Saturday Night Grease episode). In this episode, The World Disco Dancin’ Championships is parodied as The Panorama Disco Dancing Championships – End of Part One style.
The World Disco Dancin’ Championships (note the lack of a ‘G’ at the end in a Nozin’ Around fashion) first saw the light of day as a strand on LWT’s Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. Heats were contested throughout the winter of each year. As a standalone programme, it was a Thames Television production. From 1979 to 1980, its main sponsor was EMI. The series ran till 1984 with the 1983 and 1984 championships televised on Channel Four.
Beyond the main competition, there was also regional heats. There was the Regional Disco Dancin’ Championships, which went out in ITV regions. For example, the Yorkshire Disco Dancin’ Championships, were held at Romeo and Juliet’s in Doncaster. Each ITV region would produce their own heats. Behind the mike for Yorkshire’s production was Simon Bates.
Winners from each regional heat were represented by their home town and ITV franchise. They would assemble at the Empire Ballroom in Leicester Square, London. It has outlived the competition, now known as the Empire Casino. The 1978 national final was presented by David Hamilton and produced by Thames Television. He was also assisted by the late choreographer Peter Gordeno (whom in 1979 had a Leo Skeete style perm). The winner of the national final represented their country in the global competition. Each final had 32 participating countries.
The judging process
In an age before telephone votes and squealing live audiences were king, each of the candidates were assessed by a judges’ panel. For the regional heats, the panel included:
- A local radio personality (from one of the area’s Independent Local Radio stations);
- A local singing star (for example, the late Bob Williamson in 1980’s North West Final);
- The head of the locality’s Arts and Culture Department;
- An actor (the 1980 North West Final had Ken Campbell, whom at the time recently joined the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool);
- The previous year’s winner of the World Disco Dancin’ Championships;
- The head of the British Ballroom Dancing Association (whom during the years covered was Joy Weller).
The whole competition was judged in accordance to the International Skating Rules. In the World Disco Dancin’ Championships Final, the celebrity quotient was notched up a few gears. The 1978 final had among their judging panel Patti Boulaye. Prior to then, she won New Faces earlier in the year with a record points tally.
The prizes given to each winner rose in status across the heats with a mix of cash prizes and electrical goods. They were mainly Ferguson televisions and Hi-Fi systems. If you know your TV history, Ferguson was a brand name of Thorn EMI (also another word from the sponsors). The acquisition of Thorn by EMI was completed in 1979, the same year which saw EMI’s sponsorship of the competition. In 1979, the national winner walked away with £6,000 – four grand short of the £10k cash prize ceiling enforced by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.
Later on, following a change of sponsorship, the prizes no longer included the finest audio visual gadgetry from the sponsors. In one of the heats in 1981, the lucky winner drove away in a Triumph TR7. The star prize in the 1983 championship was a Ford Escort XR3i. No prizes for guessing which vehicle lasted the longer of the two.
In the 1978 competition, Tadaaki Dan (Japan) left the Empire Ballroom with a new car, a trophy, and £2,000. Which is 1978 was an annual salary for an entry level position.
World Disco Dancin’ Championships Winners
- Tadaaki Dan (Japan);
- Julie Brown (United Kingdom);
- Godfrey Raseroka (South Africa);
- Michelle Thomas (South Africa);
- unknown (no competition?)
- Jay Janani (Italy).
Other Notable People
- Simon Bates: the then popular BBC Radio One DJ presented the regional heats. He also presented and co-presented the odd episode of Top of the Pops.
- Leee John: from 1982, the lead singer of Imagination took over from Peter Gordeno as Master of Ceremonies.
- Bruno Tonioli: choreographer, better known for his involvement in Strictly Come Dancing and other present-day dancing orientated programming.
- Mike Mansfield: director of many a pop video and television programme with his own production company. His career highs include LWT’s Supersonic, the MC-free children’s pop music programme, and a presentation of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Wembley 1978 concert (which had the first airing of the 65 feet spaceship). His lows? Minipops (less said the better).
- Chris Grant: former Radio One DJ and voiceover artist in the 1978 – 1981 seasons. For a time, his voice was heard on many adverts for recorded music. He is still a media professional offering voiceover services, with his own studio.
- Ray McVay: at around the same time as Chris Grant’s stint, Ray McVay and his Orchestra and Singers provided musical backing for the entrants at national and international finals. Today, Ray is involved in The Glenn Miller Orchestra and they still tour to this day.
- Lord Bernard Delfont: former Chief Executive of EMI and founding father of First Leisure Corporation, who owned the Empire Ballroom in Leicester Square, London. Other interests included the Tower Ballroom and the North Pier in Blackpool. His siblings included Lew Grade, the founder of Associated Television (of New Faces, Crossroads and TISWAS fame). Appropriately, brother Lew was once known as “the dancer with the humorous feet”.
Televisual Twilight Years
By 1981, disco’s popularity continued (at least in Europe), but it had evolved from the Saturday Night Fever style connotations. In one way it went mainstream, becoming a mainstay of the fun pub instead of live musicians (yeah, great idea: bin the group and get a DJ to play some records – repeat the above in 1991 with a karaoke machine). Disco also meant wedding DJs, the off chance of dancing to The Birdie Song, and dancing along with your mates at the school disco or local youth club.
In another way came many diverse offshoots. There was High Energy music, inspired by the sounds from New York and Munich associated with the LGBT scene. There was a thriving soul funk scene running in tandem with the Northern Soul scene (which paralleled disco’s upward trajectory). In America, disco was supposedly a dirty word, tinged with a bit of homophobia.
Another offshoot of disco was the Roller Disco, where dance floors or ice rinks gave way to roller skates and roller blades. One example was Wheels in Ashton-under-Lyne, formerly The Birdcage and the Palais de Dance before then.
For the 1981 competition, the word ‘disco’ was replaced with ‘freestyle’. There was also a doubles round as well as individual dancers. There was a change of sponsor. EMI was replaced by Trusthouse Forte, the one-time purveyor of moderately-priced hotels and not-so-moderately-priced Motorway Services Areas (as Welcome Break). 1981’s competition was the last championship to have been shown on ITV, and the last to feature Chris Grant on voiceover.
By 1982, the World Disco Dancin’ Championships were shunted away from ITV to the new-fangled Channel Four. 1983’s championship saw a change of production company: this time to Mike Mansfield Productions. The venue remained the same: the Empire Ballroom in Leicester Square, London. There was also a change of compere: Imagination’s Leee John.
The 1983 competition also saw a marked change in the musical style. Most obviously, no Ray McVay and his Orchestra. The music was more akin to hi-energy and hip-hop, living proof of how tastes have changed in five years. There was a more cosmopolitan vibe. A nice swish set. Also another change of sponsor: this time, Malibu, an aspirational coconut rum which may have gone down well in Shades [Stalybridge], as well as Leicester Square.
By 1985, the World Disco Dancin’ Championships were no longer seen on our screens. Was this the end of competitive dancing on our television screens? Even so, with a different style again, Come Dancing remained a staple fixture of the BBC schedules. By the early-noughties, it was moribund. Ironically, the man who brought us the World Disco Dancin’ Championships on his self-titled variety extravaganza in 1978, revived the use of dance as a ratings winner.
Let’s Get the Footwork Together
You’ve got to hand it to Sir Brucie. Sir Bruce Forsyth, assisted by Tess Daly, fused an older programme with the ‘best bits’ of today’s reality television thinking. Stage left, from Television Centre came Strictly Come Dancing. The title itself is a portmanteau of the Baz Luhrmann film Strictly Ballroom, and one of BBC’s programmes, Come Dancing. Today, we have families who claim to be a Strictly… household or an X Factor loving household (as a personal point, I fall in neither of them).
You will be wondering where disco falls into this. Some elements of disco feature in SCD. Still to this day, we have international disco dancing competitions. Backed by the International Dance Organization, they host events in venues beyond the Empire Casino. In Britain, the Locarnos and Tiffanys of this world have gone. The superclubs of the 1990s have followed suit. Instead of strutting our stuff on a sprung floor, many of us are chasing for cartoon characters using their smartphones.
You will also be surprised to find that Britain still has an international disco dancing championship of some description. It is no longer televised; if it is, maybe in front of 10,000 instead of 15 million potential viewers. Disco never died.
Instead of Leicester Square, London, the home of international disco dancing is at the Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens, Blackpool. It is known as The World Disco Freestyle Dance Championships. This year’s contest took place in June. There is also a youth competition. Taking top honours at that level was a five-year-old boy from Royton, who had only been a member of Jason Steele’s School of Dance in Shaw for six months.
We doubt as if anything like the World Disco Dancin’ Championships would be repeated on our screens. Firstly, the music industry has changed beyond recognition in the last 40 years. The mighty EMI is no longer the force it was in 1979: it has been broken up; the label is owned by Universal; its EMI Leisure arm was sold to Lord Delfont in 1982. Its record shops under the name of HMV were closed with some surviving stores transferring to Hilco’s ownership.
As for ITV’s forthcoming programme, there wont be any wannabe Tony Maneros strutting their stuff. There will be six celebrities trying to mimic certain dance moves. A karaoke for dancers (danceioke anyone?).
What the World Disco Dancin’ Championships may have lost in credibility over time (as noted in Channel Four’s 100 TV Moments from Hell and Bob Mills’ In Bed With Medinner) was outweighed by its concept. It was cosmopolitan. It brought great joy to many of its participants and, without a doubt, a number of viewers. Some of its winners went on to become TV presenters (Julie ‘Downtown’ Brown for example) or professional dancers.
We can laugh at the clothes or cringe at some of the moves from a modern perspective. Never mind complaining about the state of dance-orientated television past and present. What about the lack of panel games or light entertainment shows featuring non-celebrity participants?
A few clips from the World Disco Dancin’ Championships through the ages.
A clip of the 1978 World Disco Dancin’ Championships won by Tadaaki Dan. Notice the Japanese dialogue and subtitles complementing the dulcet tones of David ‘Diddy’ Hamilton.
A clip of the 1980 Yorkshire Finals hosted by Simon Bates. The intro music was Dance Yourself Dizzy by Liquid Gold.
Part of the 1980 World Disco Dancin’ Championships. Dig the Dynamo Black typeface used for the contestants’ captions, and the Ray McVay Orchestra and Singers’ version of Ottawan’s D.I.S.C.O.
The final part of the 1981 World Freestyle Dancin’ Championships.
The full episode of 1983’s championship. Early on in the clip is Mike Mansfield, seen in the black and red top with his long white hair. Also of interest is Sharon Haywoode, who became a one hit wonder with Roses in the summer of 1986.
Thanks also to DiscoReview’s YouTube channel, and Kieran Ward’s channel for the 1983 clip.
S.V., 28 July 2016.