An Interview with Doreen Freeman

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Ballroom’s First Lady! An interview with Doreen Freeman

Last year at the Blackpool Festival we were fortunate to speak with one of the living legends of the Ballroom world – Ms. Doreen Freeman. (This interview first appeared in Dance Beat in April 2009)

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?

Doreen: Well obviously it was a long time ago and I used to go to a local dance studio as a teenager and just danced. I didn’t have any lessons, I just danced, did things to music. Mostly to meet boys! There was a group of boys and girls that went. One of the boys said to me one night that he’d heard of a fantastic studio that ran a practice night and all the top dancers went. I said, “Who are they?” And he said, “I don’t know, but that’s what I’ve been told.” The practice night was on a Sunday, so we took the bus to Oxford Circus and went there, 243 Regents Street, the British School of Dancing. It was on the third floor. We went in and sat down on these seats and I just couldn’t move. It was a social evening for dancers to get together so it was more relaxed, but there were all these fantastic dancers! There were what we called then “The Paul Jones” where the men and ladies are in circles and you get a different partner each time the music stops. We were encouraged to get up for one of these things and I danced round with various people. The man who ran the evening caught my eye particularly. He was very elegantly dressed and he had the reputation that if any ladies were on their own, he would dance with them. So he danced with me and it was like heaven. I wanted to go again, but my friend didn’t want to go, so the next time I went on my own. This was very unusual for me. So the second Sunday, this person danced with me twice. The third Sunday he danced with me again and asked me if I would mind staying behind at the end. I said, “no, I don’t mind.” I thought perhaps he was trying to be a bit fresh as he was much older than me, I was sixteen at the time. But I stayed and he said, “I think you have some talent.” I said, “What for?” And he said, “as a dancer.” He told me he had just split up with his partner and asked if I would consider dancing with him. I told him I had to go home and speak to my mother. My father had recently died, so she was on her own. I told her that this fantastic dancer had asked me to dance with him. She said, “I’ll have to see him.” So he went down to see her. He was twenty years older than me. At the end my mother said, “He seems a very nice person and I’m sure he’ll look after you, so go ahead.” That was the beginning of a fantastic partnership and his name was Victor Barrett. He was Italian and so he was the first Italian to become involved in England and become championship status. He was running at number two when I met him.

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.

DB: What was the highest place you achieved with Victor?

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.

Doreen: When I first knew Bob he had had a studio called the Olympia Ballroom for many years, near Sheppards Bush. He had great practice nights and Sunday demonstrations. In fact, Victor and I had often done shows there. Bob had a great friend in the dance business, a man named Bob Garganico, an Italian, who owned three studios. He had been quite ill so we went to visit him in hospital. That day we had put in an offer for a studio that had been turned down. So Bob Garganico said, “How would you like Streatham Dance Studio?” Bob was in shock! He wanted to cut down to two studios. He had offered it to Len Scrivenor but they were still thinking about it. So it was arranged. We took it over on New Years Eve. That same day we took on a new girl and that was Sandra Holliday. So we opened the doors - and nobody came! So Bob said, “wait till next year!” The next year we had 300 people. The practice nights were fantastic. Every one in London came on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Bob had a fantastic gift, he never forgot a name or a face. That seemed to affect people.

DB: How long did you compete with Bob?

Doreen: About eight years.

DB: How close did you get to winning at Blackpool?

Doreen: We never won, but we got second and third. And third in the Latin as well. We beat Bill & Bobbie once, early on, but then Peter & Brenda came on the scene as well and there was rivalry between those two and we got knocked down to third.

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?

Doreen: Back then, Britain had the supremacy. But that has petered out and has disappeared. We often talk about it, but it’s difficult to put your finger on what actually happened. When I was being trained by the ‘icons of before’ it was very different. You had to go by the technique. Victor gave me a technique book and told me to take it home and study. For me it might as well have been written in Chinese. I took it back to Victor and told him I did not understand it. He told me to take some technique lessons. There was an elderly lady at the British Ballroom who specialized in technique, so Victor booked me a lesson with her. We talked about CBM, heels and toes and I just couldn’t grasp it. I learned enough to scrape through my first examination. Then Victor thought I’d learned enough to be seen by other people and he took me to Josephine Bradley, she had the reputation then of being queen of the ballroom. She also taught all the debutantes in English society how to curtsey. She had this beautiful studio in Knightsbridge, very up-market! She had an apartment in the back and would come down this staircase into the ballroom. It was very elegantly done with a great big painting of herself on the wall. She swept down the stairs and stood in front of me. You must remember she was a big fan of Victor’s and he used to assist her in lectures. She said, “lets see a bit of dancing.” She put on a foxtrot and we danced. At the end she said, “well, she’s got something, but she obviously doesn’t know what she’s doing. She has no technique.” I wasn’t allowed to speak. “She must learn how to create CBMP and get her base up.” So she had me doing back bends for half an hour coming up without changing my base. “You must learn how to be centralized with your weight!” I can see her now saying this – “heel of the front foot, ball of the back foot!” She made me stand turned to the right on the heel of my front foot, ball of the back, keeping my base up. I was staggering trying to keep this. I said, “I can’t do this, I feel all twisted!” She never looked at me again. She put her arms down and looked at Victor and said, “Take her away Victor! If she can’t do it or won’t do it, she’ll never be a dancer! Don’t waste your money or my time!” And she flounced up the stairs! Victor said, “you shouldn’t have answered her back!” I said, “it was hurting my back.” Victor told me to put on my coat because Josephine would not come out again. I was in a bit of a huff and we had to go up the stairs past her apartment. As we were at the front door I said, “I’m not coming back here, I don’t like her!” Victor said, “you’ll come back every week, if she’ll have you!” Unbeknownst to me she was listening behind the door of her apartment, as she told me later. It became quite a famous story that Ms. Bradley (you could never call her Josephine) would often say, “Doreen, you would be nothing if I hadn’t taken you back!” But I did come to understand the technique. Movement and rotation became CBM. That was followed automatically by a side lead and that was followed automatically by CBMP. These three things always work together. If you don’t do the first, you can’t do the third. I think the difference today is that people are bored by technique, but back then you learned the purpose of technique. I was never great at learning technique but Bob would always say learn the rules. If you swing forwards and downwards and then sideways and upwards as in a waltz, you’re covered. You’ve done CBM, side lead, heels and toes. If you incline into the turn, you’ve covered sway. You’ve covered the purpose of technique, not just the words.

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?

Doreen: Up to the last six months I was teaching full time. Over the years I’ve had quite a following from the Japanese couples. I think I’m on to the third generation! Also with the Italians, I’ve had a lot of involvement.

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!

  • Report by:: Didio Barrera

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