Off to Chippenham for a pre-Champs practice

While I’ve not danced in every part of Britain, I’ve danced in enough areas to know that the Ceroc and Modern Jive scene varies greatly from place to place.  This difference was brought home to me once again when I visited the Ceroc Live & Dance two-room freestyle at the Neeld Community & Arts Centre in Chippenham, AKA the Old Town Hall.  So different was this freestyle event from the majority I’ve visited on my travels, that it got me thinking about the way our wonderful dance scene is evolving.

I was at Chippenham to meet up with Jackie, who I’m partnering in several categories, at the Ceroc South West Champs in Exeter this weekend.  Sadly the lack of dancing during lockdown meant this was the first opportunity we had to meet up and practice.  You can read how we got on when I tell the story of my involvement in this first Ceroc Champs since lockdown in a few weeks on the blog.

Make sure your Covid Passport is up to date

This was my first time at Chippenham and I have to say straight away that it’s a very impressive venue.  More of that later, first let me tell you about the venue’s Covid Safety Policy.  Richard and Zoe Beauvoisin who run Ceroc Live & Dance have insisted on seeing the Covid Passport from their first event.  The lady I was accompanying quickly showed the passport on her phone but the diligent man on the door spotted that it was out of date.  Thankfully the lady was able to download an up-to-date passport and we were soon allowed in.  Remember the digital passport is only valid for 30 days so please check yours is up to date and well done to the crew member for insisting the passport was valid.

A beautiful building with an interesting history

This event is held in what is an impressive building and I couldn’t help finding out a little about its history.  The main dance floor hall is actually an extension that opened in 1850 fifteen years after the Town Hall was completed.  It is named after Joesph Neeld, the local MP who provided much of the original Town Hall building funds.  The upstairs second room is actually the old Council Chamber, the windows of which you can see in the photo below.  This explains why this is a particularly beautiful room.

The Neoclassical Style facade of Chippenham Town Hall

The Main Room is a wonderful dance space

This event is advertised as having an Upbeat Main Room and  Down-Tempo Chillout Room.  It’s this second room, that really got me thinking but first a few words on the main room.  When I arrived about eight-thirty the floor in the Neeld Hall was already busy with DJ Kevin Hyde on the decks providing the upbeat main room’s music.  At nine o’clock, Kevin handed over the duties to Alex Heath.

The picture below shows what a wonderful space Neeld Hall is to dance in.  Its high apex ceiling, grand stage and air-conditioning all help to give the room an atmosphere perfect for dancing.  You can clearly see Alex on the stage and the perimeter seating with friends catching up with each other.

Bar from a few dancers who moved between the two rooms, most people stayed in one room or the other.  I certainly spent most of my time in the main room and enjoyed some fabulous dances to Alex’s main room music.  For all my travels, I knew only two people in this main room.  This is when you get to see how friendly a venue is and I’m pleased to say that my offers to dance were greeted warmly.

DJ Alex slows it down for the last hour

Around eleven o’clock DJ Alex Heath slowed the pace down slightly and even managed to slip in some classic chill-out tracks including everyone’s favourite Breathe in by Daddy was a Milkman.  I always appreciate when DJs slow the tempo down for the last hour, and even though there was a chill-out room upstairs it was good that we weren’t expected to go up there for some slower music.  I mention this last hour of slower tracks for a reason.

It seems that Ceroc Live and Dance are on a mission to get more of their dancers familiar with the slightly slower music and this last hour was, I’m sure, part of that mission.

On my travels, few Main Room DJs are prepared to slow the pace down for the whole of the last hour for fear of emptying the floor.  This was never the case on Saturday night.  Here’s one of those slower tracks that Alex played.  It’s a more contemporary and bluesier version of the Tracy Chapman original Give me one reason by Yann Miller.

The attraction of the second room

As mentioned above, the second room is the old council chamber and was obviously designed with an opulence to show off Chippenham’s status as an important trading and market town.  The picture below shows some of the adornments to the room that makes it a distinctive place to dance.

From eight o’clock the music in this second room was in the hands of DJ Peter Nichol.  Sadly I didn’t get to hear any of Peter’s music but I can only imagine it was perfect for the dancers who filled the room.  Peter is a local contemporary style competition-winning dancer and I’m sure every one of his tracks would have been perfect for the lovers of this style of dancing.  I’ll talk more about Peter’s dance style later but let me first finish setting the scene in this room.

From ten o’clock Peter handed over to DJ Kevin Hyde.  Now I’m a great fan of Kevin’s chill-out music.  I first came across Kevin when he was delighting the dancers in The Blue Room at the much-loved Warmwell Weekender.  Kevin would later provide the music for the Sunday afternoon Chill-out at Kington Langley that I would vote the best on my Tea Dance Tour.

Notice the opulence of this beautiful dance space

I’m proud I learned to dance to chill-out music

As someone who initially danced around the East Midlands, I wasn’t familiar with the chill-out music that DJs like Kevin and Peter were discovering.  I’d get a taste of it at the Southport weekenders but I had no idea how to dance to it.  In the year before lockdown, I would set off on my Tea Dance Tour knowing that I would come across a lot of this slower and funkier music and was determined to learn how to dance to it.

I’m proud that I learned to dance in a more slotted and smooth way and picked up moves and styling that gave time to my partners to express themselves to the slower grooves.  I even started to seek out venues that played what is often referred to as expressive music and developed my style of dancing further.

Here’s a gorgeous track from Kevin’s chill-out playlist that is the type of music I now love dancing to.   It’s a fabulous slowed-down version of Tones & I’s monster hit Dance Monkey by Refecti & Michael Fannoun.  For all, I love this style of music I danced to very little of it.  I’ll explain why later but first take a listen to this gem of a piece of chill-out music.

It’s a confidence thing

If I spent little time in the second room it has nothing to do with the music or the dancers but it has everything to do with me and my confidence, or lack of it.  I know everyone has a different approach to dancing.  For me, the best dances are where I feel confident that I can give my partner the dance she wants.  I probably made a mistake by watching the dancers first before I asked anyone.

Just as I only knew a couple of the dancers downstairs I only recognised a couple upstairs too.  One of these dancers I’d danced with on my Tea Dance Tour and I decided to ask her for the next dance.  As I waited, I watched her dancing.  She’s a fabulous dancer but I was drawn to her partner.  He was in a different league to myself.  It wasn’t just the moves he did, it was the way he delivered them and represented the funky chilled beat while giving his partner the dance she wanted.

The lady was pleased to see me and the dance went well and while she was very gracious when she thanked me for our dance I somehow felt I was out of my depth.  I know I shouldn’t be hard on myself as the way to improve one’s dancing is to acknowledge your limitations and be motivated to improve but watching the dancing in this room I couldn’t help wondering where I would learn this very different styling.  Before I take my deliberations any further let me play you another of Kevin’s tracks, a French-language version of Belle by Gims, Dadju and Slimane.

This isn’t anything learned in a lesson

This track is one that I classify as expressive.  I’m not sure that you can go to classes to learn how to dance to this style of music.  It’s as if dancers have to explore ways of expressing themselves and making it work as a partner dance.  It takes an experimental approach to dancing and that, I think, is what is going on in this area.  It’s as if venues like Chippenham attract dancers who are happy to experiment with their dancing and the result is something quite dynamic and exciting.

I mentioned above DJ Peter Nichol.  I remember watching Peter at the Modern Jive World Championships the last time it was held at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool.  Like most of the dancers who regularly win medals at this and other competitions, Peter is an innovative dancer.  It seems that there is a group of dancers drawn to Chippenham who learn from each other.  As I said, you don’t learn this type of dancing in any lesson I know.

This is a force for good

Listening to the music and seeing the dancing in this second room you can’t help think that this is a force for good.  There will always be a place for the basic Ceroc style of dancing.  It is, after all, a relatively easy way into partner dancing and many of the people in this room will have learned their first moves in a beginner’s class but if this dance scene is to be sustainable it has to do two things.  First, it needs to attract younger dancers and that is done by offering them a variety of contemporary styles of music to dance to.

Secondly, it has to offer a route for dancers to develop least they get bored and leave for other dance styles.  In the past, Ceroc has lost many dancers to West Coast Swing, Blues and Tango.  I know that the development of the smooth-based SILC has gone some way to arresting this migration to other dance formats but what I was watching was at times something even more exciting.

Chippenham appears to attract experimental dancers

We become better dancers by dancing with people better than ourselves

I am sure that many of the people I saw dancing in the second room stayed up there all night and why not.  Peter and Kevin’s music was perfect for them but what pleased me was seeing some of them spending some time in the main room downstairs and dancing with people who would never venture upstairs.  We all become better dancers by dancing with people better than ourselves and I had an experience with one of the regular expressive dancers that kind of proves this point.

I first danced with Ilona at the Ceroc South Wales Flava Tea Dance in Newport.  While she lives in Cardiff, she along with a few other dancers from South Wales regularly makes the trip to Chippenham.  I asked Ilona for her thoughts about the second chill-out room.

Like many dancers I do spend a lot of time up there and the dance space is very different from the main room downstairs.  The music is slower, more expressive and the two DJs help keep the energy in the room.

Ilona noted that the room attracts, in her words, fantastic dancers from far and wide.  She goes on to explain the vibe she feels in the room.

 Its also hard to miss the many different styles including smooth style Ceroc, SILC and West Coast Swing.  It does feel like a very creative dance space but its also a friendly one which means I can relax and enjoy my dancing.

It’s interesting that Ilona mentions the creativity but also West Coast Swing.  It seems that in areas where West Coast is popular it often influences the style of dancing.  While chatting with Kevin about the different style of dancing, he mentioned that West Coast Swing is very popular in this region of the South West and that it has had a significant impact on the style of chill-out dancing.  I sometimes think that the lack of a vibrant West Coast Swing dance scene in the Midlands is holding back the evolution of dancing in that area.

Time for some more music

Before I tell you any more about my conversation with Ilona and our dance, let me feature another of Kevin’s wonderful tracks.  What I like about Kevin’s playlist is that he mixes in many of the chill-out classics.  While we were chatting he played Ain’t no sunshine by the Lighthouse family from 2002.  It has a bass-induced pulse that considering was produced nearly twenty years ago has a wonderful contemporary feel.

This is a track I remember from the days when I regularly attended a West Coast Swing class in a failed attempt to get to grips with this style of dancing.  It reinforced Kevin and Ilona’s point about the contribution of West Coast Swing to the development of the smoother style of Ceroc dancing.

Mischievous or creative?

I spotted Ilona on one of her excursions into the main room downstairs.  One of the joys of traveling around is when you bump into people you’ve enjoyed memorable dances with in the past.   My dance with Ilona at Flava was memorable for the fact it helped kick start my interest in expressive dancing and she was to do it again – this time encouraging me to think about introducing some Tango elements into my styling.

It seems that Ilona learned Argentine Tango in the past and decided to experiment on elements of Tango fusion with me.  I’m not sure what prompted this particular style of dancing but it may have been down to the fact that we were dancing to Caro Emerald’s Tangled up which, as the title suggests, has a Tango feel.

Suddenly I felt her leg twisting round my own in the way that is permissible in Argentine Tango.  Ilona would later say that she was being mischievous but is there a difference between creativity and mischief?  Either way, I found myself trying to accommodate her desire to try out her tango moves with my choice of moves and own styling.  I felt I was being taken out of my comfort zone but isn’t this the way we learn.  Isn’t that what is happening to some extent in that second room upstairs.

It’s like another world to me

The dancing in the upstairs room is very different from what I am used to and that is the reason that I headed this article with the phrase, It’s like another world to me.  On my dance travels, I recognised that there was what I called a ‘Smooth Slotted Corridor’ that stretched from London through Swindon and Bristol to South Wales.  Along this corridor was a series of dance classes run by people who had a different approach to the development of Ceroc dancing.

Richard and Zoe, who run Ceroc Live & Dance are one such set of teachers and it shows not just in the style of dancing at this venue but in the music that’s played.  I also understand that Veronika Oliver has joined their team and is teaching classes in Swindon on Thursdays.   I’m told that Veronika is a very creative teacher and encourages ladies to express themselves and play with the music.  It’s all another world to the dance classes I usually frequent.  That’s not to say that these dance classes are not as vibrant or as well-loved.  It’s just that they are different in the style of teaching and the music they play, and they make a great contribution to our wonderful dance scene.

DJ Alex has me thinking what’s that track

I’ll finish this review with one last piece of music.  I love it when a DJ plays a track that has my dance brain all excited.  I was just about to make a visit upstairs when I heard a funk-infused beat burst out of the speakers in the main room.  What is that?  As I started to connect to its hypnotic beat, I recognised the voice of the Godfather of Soul and the man to who modern R&B record producers owe so much to – Mr James Brown.

As I danced I did my best to pick up the lyric.  I finally got it and a quick trip around YouTube confirmed it.  The track that Alex had excited me with was The boss by James Brown.  I’ve picked out one of the many remixes which has a stronger beat than the original.  If you like your funk I think you’ll love this semi-instrumental track.  Nice one Alex.

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If you enjoy reading my dance blogs, I’m sure you’ll love reading my novel, Would you like to dance?.  It tells the story of how Ellie and her friends discover the joy that is partner dancing and find the confidence to enter an amateur dance competition.  The story is full of the excitement and passion that I feel dancing and I’m sure many people will recognise themselves in the ten characters that make up Ellie’s Newbie Dance Gang.

Why not visit the website I’ve designed to support the novel.  It is packed with background information on how I came to write Ellie’s story and reviews from the people who have already enjoyed it.  You also find whole sections dedicated to the joy that is Ceroc dancing including photo galleries and videos showing the fun we all have on the dance floor.  Simply click on the image below and you’ll be taken straight there.