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Ever since 1920, dancers have whirled around the breathtaking Empress ballroom beneath its ornate ceilings and sparkling glass chandeliers; starting out with a combination of Sequence Waltzes, the Lancers, Two Steps and novelty dances.

The festival would be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year, had it not been halted for five years following the breakout of WWII in 1939.

Now in its 94th year, the event was revived in 1946 when the first Dance Festival Organiser - Mrs Ilett – was appointed. It has since developed into a world-famous event, with thousands of entries from around 60 countries, featuring sensational routines from the world's most talented dancers.

For those who’ve danced across its floor across the decades, the Empress Ballroom holds precious memories. Some who competed as juniors in the under 12s have even returned in their later years as adjudicators.

Here Radio Wave's Scott Gallagher steps back in time with retired dancer Pat Print to find out what it was like to compete in the world’s biggest dance festival back in the 1950s.

“Just magic!” Pat declared. “Whoever’s danced here could tell you that it is the finest ballroom in the world."

“1957 was the first year I came to dance in the North of England Championships and the British Championships, which are open to the world. Every seat was taken. The overseas visitors were allocated these seats on the right-hand side of the ballroom and Madam Ilett used to ask us to stand and applaud them.”

In those days the majority of competitors were from the UK, and there were 102 couples dancing for the North of England title. Pat travelled from Staffordshire to take part. “I had such a wonderful week. I was fortunate enough to get qualified on the Wednesday night to be able to dance in the championship proper on the Thursday – it was great even to get through for that recall.

"The atmosphere was just unbelievable.”

There was live music throughout the event, and the leader of the Empress Orchestra at that time was Tommy Jones. “He played marvellous music,” Pat remembered. “And now we've got a gentleman, Ashley Frohlick. They all play the same tunes that we used to hear as well as the modern-day tunes.”

Pat recalled the orchestra starting the event with The Waltz, playing tunes such as the Desert Song, Around the World and Alice Blue Gown; followed by The Foxtrot and Red Roses for a Blue Lady; and then the Tango. “You went on to the floor, a parquet floor,” said Pat. “It was easy to catch the high heels; you lost a heel or your shoe!”

Now of course the floor has been replaced with a smooth, fully sprung floor; and restoration works have recently been completed on the vaulted ceiling’s plasterwork, returning the elaborate gold and white panels to their former glory.

Pat marvelled: “It’s all been so beautifully restored; it really is a credit to the management and the people that work here."

Pat described the memories that come flooding back every year, and how she relives them by visiting the Winter Gardens when the contest is taking place: "The magic of coming through those doors was just wonderful…the atmosphere you can feel on those May weeks of the British Dance Championships…the finest Dance Championships in the world…the finest ballroom in the world.”

Pat sighed nostalgically: “The Empress Ballroom…well, I just feel like it’s my home and it’s why I retired to Blackpool 28 years ago.”

@WGBpl

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