We are delighted to bring this interview to you now that depicts a time when ballroom dancing was a more genteel pass time.
DB: We’re talking with, probably, one of the most beautiful women to ever take the ballroom floor, Doreen Freeman. Can you tell us a little of when and why you started dancing?
DB: Did you compete with him?
Doreen: We practiced for a few weeks and it was going quite well. Victor thought it was time we showed ourselves in public, so he took me to a ballroom on the outskirts of London where no one would see us. If it was no good, nobody would have seen us. So we went to the Tottenham Royale. On our way back he said, “I think it will work, so let’s make it permanent.” I asked him why he wanted to dance with me. I’d never seen a competition and didn’t know anything about dancing. He said, “You responded to my body and my musicality. Everything I did, you were there. You’re a natural.” So then the hard work began. We competed and it was very hard. That first year I had to work really hard. I’d go to the studio every day and practice by myself. He made me dance solo to find my own balance. In the studio there were people teaching who were before Victor, icons of dancing, and it was just wonderful to watch. When we started competing it was a great responsibility for me because I had to uphold his position. He was experienced, but nobody knew me. All the other ladies were more mature than me and resented me very much. For five years they never spoke to me! I had a hard job, but I didn’t care because it was all new to me and it was fantastic.
Doreen: We maintained his position when we came up here (Blackpool) for the first time. We were second the first time. Then we won a World’s in Paris together. The titles were not important to me, I just wanted to dance, so the details are a little hazy now. The World’s in Paris was quite a funny story. We got ready in the hotel and I had a long black coat that covered my dress on the way to the ballroom. But when we were still at the hotel it started to rain. It was impossible to get a taxi to the hall, so Victor said, “We’ll just have to go on the Metro!” I had all my makeup on and my eyelashes, but there I was on the Metro, going to the World Championships. I never forgot that! That night we won and ironically the couple that won the amateur that same night was Bob Burgess & Margaret Baker. I didn’t know them at all, but of course later he came into my life.
DB: How long did the partnership with Victor last?
Doreen: About ten years. We came to Blackpool one year and we started to go down the stairs. We were nearly at the bottom and two or three people came and spoke to Victor. I heard them say, “Be careful, Victor, you’re going to get third this week.” I said, “how would they know that? We haven’t even danced yet!” He told me to take no notice, he would deal with it. So I got ready to dance on the Friday and apparently there was a new couple there, a good couple who had been there all week, and we got third. It was horrible for Victor. As we lined up for the prizes he said, “That’s it!” Later on the way back to the hotel I said, “what do you mean?” He said, “I’m not dancing anymore.” From that day on he never competed again.
DB: Were you a “couple” at that time?
Doreen: We were married. I was left in limbo. Victor had a great reputation as a teacher and we had a small studio at that time on Regents Street. He had something to fall back on, but I had nothing. So I started looking around. By this time I knew all the dancers, not personally, but I knew who they were. A couple of years before Margaret Baker, Bob Burgess’ partner had died in a tragic accident. While having a routine cauterization, she was given too much medication and was killed. Bob had danced with other partners and kept his position, but then he asked me if Victor would let me dance with him. He did not object and so we went ahead. About two weeks later he changed his mind, but we’d already started. It created a rift. I wanted to dance, Victor was stopping me and so I left and started with Bob and that was the beginning of another career. Then Bob and I got married and that started another phase of my life. We had lots of success. We won the Star Championships at Earls Court and that was a big highlight. That night there was 13,000 people in the audience. We did a lot of TV. At that time Victor Sylvester had a TV program and he asked if I would partner him. I did that for eight years. I did a little teaching, not much because the girls were not allowed to teach much in those days – it affected the man’s feelings. It was all about the men in those days.
DB: It’s still a little like that.
Doreen: The man has to be the boss. I had two great partners. For the first eighteen months Victor was my only teacher. If he had told me to stand on my head, I would have. I had a lot of respect for his knowledge. He was a great performer but he was also on the committee of the Imperial Society.
DB: what was it like to be around all the great people of those days?
Doreen: It was tough, but strangely enough I wasn’t in awe of them. I have to be a bit conceited at this point. I was young and not bad looking and a lot of adulation came back to me. I respected them very much. I always remember going to Hammersmith Palais one Sunday afternoon. We almost never practiced in public, but this time we did. There was a lady dancing who absolutely fascinated me. She had beautiful feet and was quite elegant. She was wearing a little shorter dress than most of the others. I asked Victor who it was. He said her name was Elise Barret. In fact, she has just recently died. I said, “I want feet like that!” He told me I would have to work really hard, but that was one of my ambitions and I developed a reputation for my feet. Seeing that lady was a change in my life. Another great one was Nellie Duggan who was not a great beauty, but you had to look at her dance. In those days it seems the person inside came out on the dance floor. If you felt like the queen, you danced like the queen. It was all internal. I still believe in that to this day.
DB: I want to ask you about the famous ballroom that you and Bob Burgess owned where everyone practiced. I’m sure a lot happened there.
DB: How long did you compete with Bob?
Doreen: About eight years.
DB: How close did you get to winning at Blackpool?
DB: Did you quit because you’d had it with competition or did you have too much to do with the studio?
Doreen: Well I never decided to stop! The man decided to stop and I had to go along with it. Bob had come up from the amateur. I had never competed as an amateur. We did hundreds of shows always. I think Bob saw the light that we were never going to beat Bill & Bobbie or Peter & Brenda, so it didn’t make sense to keep competing. We concentrated on our shows.
DB: Of course, at that time everyone came to England. Now it’s a little more spread out. Can you tell us the difference between now and then?
DB: For me a lot of standard dancing today has become about the choreography rather than the feeling.
Doreen: I think it was a big thing with Victor and I, the feeling. We clicked! He was very much about the centralization of weight and coming together. I put my body against his body, got into the frame and off we went. He could guide me, I don’t like the word “lead,” and I was always there. I responded! It was simplicity. I think responding to the musicality of the man is a little bit of a lost art. The choreography and the look have become overly important. I watched the first round of the Rising Star last night and I was quite terrified. You felt as if an avalanche was coming at you. I think now the only word you can put to the dancing is beauty! You have beautiful women, beautiful men, beautiful clothes and yet it is somehow in bad taste. When I was being trained, everything had to be elegant, in good taste. Victor always said he would rather be seen dead if he couldn’t wear a Saville Row suit. There was an aura of elegance. The dancing now is like modern life, everything is fast! I watched the Amateur Latin two nights ago. I was fascinated by the winners. Everything she did was molded to his body. They created beauty! Last night in the Professional, I could appreciate the cleverness and ability, but it didn’t mean anything to me, it wasn’t musical. I think today the audience and the promoters and entrepreneurs want a spectacle, yet I see people dancing in semifinals and finals doing things wrong! You can’t really blame the dancers. They need to be able to fall back on their training!
DB: What do you now?
DB: So when do you think you will say, “I’m just going to watch now?”
Doreen: I can’t say that! My daughter thinks I’m completely crazy, but I don’t know any other life. Last October I bought some property in Scotland and I spend time up there now. So I can say I’m semi-retired. However, I did sort out a hall up there and I’m teaching there now. But they are on a different level and it’s quite fascinating.
DB: What is like for you now to come to Blackpool. Is it tiring? Is it exciting?
Doreen: Well it’s a mixture. I’ve done it all my life. It’s quite daunting now. I want to come, yet I don’t want to come. I don’t enjoy all that I see. I can understand that things progress, but I don’t enjoy it as much. The Amateur Latin, two nights ago, that gave me enjoyment.
DB: You’ve always been in dancing, but what else do you do? Do you have any other hobbies?
Doreen: No! I like reading and writing. I started a book a few years ago. I call it “The Birth Of A Dancer.” I like to write. I like to make dresses and interior design. I’ve moved thirteen times in my life and each time I’ve had a vision of Buckingham Palace.
DB: You have a daughter. Do you have grandchildren?
Doreen: Yes, three.
DB: Did you have your daughter after you competed?
Doreen: No. Brenda is Victor’s daughter. It was very hard. We had an au pair girl to look after her. When I danced with Bob she was older and I sent her to boarding school. She hated me for that! Since she’s half Italian she’s studied her roots and has a degree in Renaissance Art.
DB: She never had any desire to dance?
Doreen: No. She danced with a young man for a while when we took over Streatham Dance Studio, but I didn’t really want her to do it, I think it’s too hard for a girl. You miss other things in your education – I did. She didn’t.
DB: How old are your grandchildren?
Doreen: They are all in their mid-twenties.
DB: Are you going to Scotland from here?
Doreen: Yes, and then to London later in the year.
DB: Most of your life has been in London?
Doreen: Oh yes. I was brought up in East London, then I gravitated to the West End.
DB: What do you miss about that era of dance in London?
Doreen: I think what every British dancer misses is the quality. We all strove for that. We were middle-class Britain. A lot of people had visions of grandeur. I think the Mecca company were very clever. That created beautiful places, but you could get in for 3s 6d! I think we all miss that. I’m not sure where we’re heading now. I would like to come back in fifty years and see what happens.
DB: What would be something that you would say to the industry now?
Doreen: One cannot go back and you can only be guided by your own life. If you are judging, you can only judge what you see. But I think people should delve into why it happens, what makes it tick. How do you make it all happen? You need balance to stand on your own feet but I say there are two forces in the human body - the mind and the spine. Without the mind working you’re half dead and without the spine active your body clamps up. Think about how it happens. Enjoy your own thing, but don’t forget history, don’t forget how it happens!