Another dancing article, in which Len Goodman calls me a sausage…

Blackpool‘Come on Luce, me old sausage’, Len said, as I sat trembling in my dressing room, ‘let’s get dancing!’  Len Goodman is better known as ‘Head Judge Len’ from the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.  But we weren’t on the ‘Strictly’ set; we were backstage at a West End nightclub.

And I wasn’t at all keen to take up his invitation.  We were about to perform the Charleston together in the Café de Paris.  The smoke machine had created the perfect hazy atmosphere, the band were tuning up, and thirty flappers and their perfectly-dressed gentlemen partners were all waiting for us outside.  I’d spent four hours having my hair set into a Marcel wave and my dramatic ‘flapper’ makeup had made me look rather like a vampire.  I should have been excited, but I was very nervous indeed.  I’d made the mistake of assuming, because I have the right bobbed hair for it, that I’d be naturally good at dancing the Charleston.  But it was turning out to be a very difficult dance indeed.

Len and I were working on our new BBC Four series about the history of dancing, which has taken us from the medieval maypole to the 1930s palais de danse, with clog dancing, Morris women and the Viennese waltz all making an appearance too.  It turns out that dancing’s history opens up a window into a whole lost world, and we’ve also discovered how clothing, body language, architecture and romance has changed along with the steps.

DarrenSince January of this year, I’d been taking lessons: first in ballet and ballroom, and then Len and I had more specialised training together in the Charleston and other dances from the past, with RADA’s historic dancing teacher, Darren Royston (left).

For me, ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance’ has been the next best thing to appearing on ‘Strictly’ itself.  Although I love ‘Strictly’, I’m sad to say that I have been banned from ever taking part by a pre-nuptial agreement.  My husband (probably rightly) thought that I’d enjoy the sequins and the showing-off a bit too much, and pre-emptively put his foot down.

However, he neglected to ban me from trying to take ‘Strictly’ back in time, and to find out how Britain used to dance: on the village green, in the ballroom, and in the nightclub.  I was hoping to discover a hidden talent for dancing, but let’s say I should probably stick to my day job as a museum curator and historian.  Time and again in my lessons, I was told not to jerk like a puppet, and to relax into the rhythm.  We had to learn three dances: the minuet, the polka and the Charleston, from the eighteenth, the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries respectively.  They ranged from hard, to even harder, to fiendishly difficult.

minuet at SyonIf you’ve watched minuets being danced in period dramas, you might think it must be pretty easy.  It looks rather like a bit of walking around.  Of the three dances we learned, though, the minuet was most alien to our modern way of moving.  It’s about demonstrating control and dignity, a physical expression of a hierarchical society.  You only ever link wrists with your partner, and the connection and tension has to be expressed through the eyes and slight movements of the head.  What was worse, at the end of our course of lessons, we had to perform a ‘show minuet’.  The highest-status couple at a ball would do a demonstration dance in the middle, with everyone else standing, watching and judging, a bit like a Georgian version of ‘Strictly’.

We were also trussed up in some very restrictive clothing.  My eighteenth-century hooped dress, though, was actually designed to help me.  Its armholes were placed far back into the bodice, meaning I had to stand up straight.  The sleeves were cut on a curve, forcing me to hold my arms in a balletic position.  While I loved my tall, Georgian wig, I did feel that this dance of restraint and elegance wasn’t really for me.

Morris 3When we got to the Victorian polka, the dancing was certainly more fun.  Now Len and I whizzed around the floor, with Darren constantly berating us for our over-enthusiasm.  Nineteenth-century dancing manuals warn that one should never ‘glow’, or raise a sweat, in the ballroom.  Again, the dress helped me, because the billowing crinoline skirt was designed to swirl round with the music.  This was fashion for the factory age: Victorian ladies achieved their tiny waists by pulling hard on corsets with strong metal eyelets, and metal also provided the big round hoops of the skirt.

Taking all this off for the loose flapper costume of the 1920s was a liberation, and the Charleston itself, based on the new jazzy rhythms of Harlem, was a liberated dance.  Now I could break away from Len to dance on my own, as did the women of the 1920s, proud possessors of jobs and votes and independence.  We just had to watch out for ‘Charleston knee’, a common 1920s injury caused by people flicking out the leg from the knee joint.

So how did I overcome my stage fright?  Len’s advice was just to go for it: ‘give it some razzle dazzle, old girl’.  And once I was descending the staircase into the crowd, the band playing, the spotlight tracking me as I threw my Josephine Baker Scarecrow poses, I razzled as hard as I could.  Even if I didn’t exactly dazzle, I did have more fun than ever in my life.

18 thoughts on “Another dancing article, in which Len Goodman calls me a sausage…

  1. Kirsten

    Outstanding! Your programmes always delight. (I have seen them all) Cannot wait for this one with the cheeky and effervescent Len Goodman. When will they air? Well done for learning these dances. They are indeed harder than they look. I’m sure you DID dazzle as well as Razzle!
    -Kirsten via California and London

    Reply
  2. john harding

    Lucy, thanks for the several posts about the prog. As usual you have with great skill blended lots of historical & social info into a fascinating tale and taster for our forthcoming treat. You really do make learning about new areas of history so stimulating and fun.

    Reply
  3. Pam Penfold

    Oh Lucy we are looking forward to this

    Reply
  4. John Atkinson

    I look forward to seeing video evidence of all this; especially the Charleston danced, of course, without raising a sweat. I can reveal that the way to achieve this is to dance on the roof of a moving taxi in order to be cooled by the slipstream, or one ends up with an odour like a garlic sausage. I can’t wait.

    Reply
  5. Caroline

    I can’t wait for this!

    Reply
  6. Pam Penfold

    Oh Lucy we are looking forward to this

    Reply
  7. Chris Hough

    Lucy I watched and thoroughly enjoyed episode 1 and am looking forward to the rest Suprisingly really as Ihave no interest in Strictly and apparrently resemble an arthritc hippo on the dance floor

    Reply
  8. John Atkinson

    I’ve seen the evidence now, well done! I’ve always wondered about the minuet but never actually saw anyone attempt it until your prog., so it was a revelation. Thank you so much for going to so much trouble to demonstrate it. (All the symphonies written at the time had to have a minuet as the 3rd movement; I assume to torment the listener.)

    Reply
  9. Dean Rowell

    Thoroughly enjoyable series. Great colour costumes and one-liners!

    Reply
    1. Dean Rowell

      The Wurlitzer scene was great. A debut Lucy? Best wishes!

  10. AdeleT

    Hi Lucy,
    where did you get your T bar grey shoes that you wore in the fist episode please?

    Reply
    1. Lucy Post author

      Ecco. Comfortable heels = holy grail.

  11. Ann Hall

    Lucky you to have so much fun! I do hope we get this programme in Australia.

    Reply
  12. Gary Latham

    Hello Lucy,
    I have to admit to getting a bit fed up with Strictly Come Dancing after all these years, but your programme with Len Goodman is a breath of fresh air. This series is for anyone from a top level dancer to someone who just enjoys the odd jig. I appreciate the way you make the history of it all so interesting and entertaining.
    Thanks again and you are definitely no sausage…

    Gary Latham

    http://www.midnightlist.com

    Reply
  13. Marijke Anna

    Thank you Lucy Worsley, the dancing series was
    great ! I loved every minute of it

    Thanx

    Reply
  14. Diane

    I really enjoy your programs, thanks for doing them.

    I enjoy your books too!!!

    Reply
  15. Jeffrey L. Dunford

    We have watched the first episode and loved it. Trying hard not to binge watch the rest. Hard to take time with such wonderful programs.

    Reply
  16. Chris Hough

    Your Chaleston was superb well done to all concerned
    Kate Meyrick mentioned on the programme was the basis of the character of Ma Mayfiled who runs the Old Hundredth Club in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

    Reply

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