Red uniforms, the Union Jack, Big Ben, and tea. This list calls to mind one thing: Great Britain. For BYU Ballroom Dance Company, the Blackpool Dance Festival is an important part of that list. On May 27 the team will travel nearly 5,000 miles to the United Kingdom for its 2016 tour, which will include Blackpool’s British Formation Championships.
Held in the Empress Ballroom at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, England, the festival has become one of the most prestigious worldwide dance events, hosting nearly 3,000 couples from more than 60 countries each year. Begun in 1920, this event attracts the best ballroom dancers in the world, and Ballroom Dance Company is honored to be among them. “It will be a great experience for all of us because we get to compete . . . [and] we get to see dances of high caliber in person,” says BYU dancer Devri Ray.
The company has competed in Blackpool every three years since 1971, and they have won either first or second place each visit. The last time they competed at Blackpool, in 2013, they received a standing ovation at the finale of their ballroom formation performance. BYU engineering students had connected color-changing LED lights to the dancers’ dresses, and when the team members took the floor of the Empress Ballroom, they dazzled the audience with both their movements and their LED-lit outfits.
This year Ballroom Dance Company has a new director, Curt Holman, at its helm. But Holman is not new to the festival; he and his wife have been invited to perform twice in Blackpool’s British Open Championships. “Curt is super talented,” says BYU dancer Rebekah Johns. “He’s good at using people’s different strengths and recognizing a good spot for them based on what they do best.”
For the students to get as much exposure to professionals as possible, Holman brings in outside chore-ographers to train the team. Marat Gimaev and Alina Basyuk, five-time Russian National Amateur Ballroom Champions and Blackpool Professional Rising Star Ballroom Champions, have served as guest instructors for the company, choreographing routines and working with students one-on-one. “We have witnessed such a combination of discipline, dedication, sense of responsibility, desire to share ideas, teamwork, and mutual respect from everybody involved,” says Basyuk. “It’s an amazing experience and a sheer joy to be a part of.” The duo will also be competing at Blackpool.
While in Great Britain, Ballroom Dance Company will also tour with its new show, Swing ’n’ Sway. A mix of old and new numbers, the program features both classic ballroom dance numbers and a few contemporary pieces. Whether tango, samba, rumba, or waltz, these numbers have been revised and improved, prepped to awe British audiences. The company has 11 performances throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. They will also do an exchange with students from the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University. This semester marks the first time that ballroom classes are on the curriculum at Aberdeen, and the university is looking forward to the BYU dancers’ visit.
The company will also work with Cambridge University Dancesport Team—a fellow competitor in the formation numbers at the Blackpool Dance Festival. They will meet again in Cambridge, where they will have a ballroom workshop to share their talents. “The plan is to have each of the university groups build friendships, perform for one another, and teach a few numbers,” says artist manager Justin T. Smith. “It’s a very exciting opportunity.”
In addition to performances, the dancers will experience educational activities around Britain. One highlight will be the Gloucester Cathedral in England, made famous as a filming location for the Harry Potter films. Other locations the group will visit include Edinburgh Castle, Stonehenge, the Roman Baths, and the city of Preston, an important historical site for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Ballroom Dance Company members are excited to put years of hard training into action and share knowledge with other dancers. “The team itself is a great group of people to work with,” says Ray. “They are committed, and there’s a sense of unity.”