I first met Mr. Rivers in England in the early 1970’s and without totally giving away my age, let it be known that I was a junior dancer at the time! What follows is a Zoom interview I conducted with Ray just before his book was published. I hope you all enjoy the candid reflections from an icon of the dance world.
The Ray Rivers Interview
“Getting down to the nitty-gritty!”
RR: I started (dancing) when I was 18 in 1957. I had a sporting background and when I was 17 I spent a year in the Australian Outback riding horses every day and I even participated in some rodeos and did a little bull riding. When I got back to Sydney, where my parents lived, I said to my horse breaking friend who was about 20 years older than me, “I’ve never had a girlfriend, how do I get close to girls – legally!” He said, “you’ve gotta go and learn ballroom dancing, you can’t get any closer to a girl – legally!” We had a man named George Weisse who was only 6 or 7 miles from where I lived, he had a beautiful ballroom and he had a similar background to me. He had been a champion boxer and he had been involved in horse training. The rest was history.
I was the Australian national champion in Ballroom and the Professional Champion in Latin in 1967 and that’s when I was Australia’s number one rep in the World Championships, held in Melbourne, Australia that year. I was 5th in the final in that World Championship.
I had three partners. I danced with my first wife, Judy, for almost ten years, then I danced with Adele Hyland for two years, and then I danced with my second wife, Robbie, about eight more years. I danced competitively for 20 years – 1957 until 1977.
I spent one year in England in 1966 and then went back eight years later and spent two years there, 1973 and 1974 and that’s when I first met Keith (Todd). I judged him when he won the Junior UK in Ballroom and Latin – I still have the photo presenting him with the winning trophy. At that time I was doing a lot of reports for Dance News and I kept cuttings from the newspaper and that event was one of them. I’m sure I was very kind to Keith and his partner (Joan Cross) because they won.
Before I ran the Bi-Centennial Championship in 1988, I toured around the world a bit. I had not been traveling much in the previous 14 years because my kids were still growing. John Kimmins, who I had taught when he was about 18 back in Australia, invited me to judge the US Open Championships in Bal Harbour, Miami and I did that in 1989. I had had a close relationship with Wendy Johnson over the years and when Brian McDonald invited me to judge the Embassy Ball in California, I spent the week before with Patrick & Wendy in Santa Barbara. The idea for me and my wife, JR, was to have a vacation and play the tourists. Wendy had asked me if I wanted to teach, but I had said “absolutely no!” But Wendy nagged me all the first night so I agreed to give each couple one hour each. Then they wanted two more hours each the next day because they thought my International Latin lessons were some of the best they’d had. So the next day I did two more hours. I ended up teaching them four days in a row. Then they wanted to know when they could have lessons again. I gave them my address in Australia and said “if you don’t mind the 7,000 mile flight, I’ll give you more lessons!”
Anyway that was the beginning of my trips around the world in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993 as Bobby Short had also invited me in those years to judge in the UK at the UK Championships and The Internationals. As part of those tours I would spend 2 months in the USA in California and Florida. And then we finally settled in the USA in 1994. We’ve always lived in San Diego. I first went there to teach David & Carrie Kloss and it reminded me of the Gold Coast of Australia and we’ve lived here ever since.
I did travel to Florida to stay with John Kimmins and also with Colin & Joy Hillary who had been my top Amateur Latin couple back in Australia. John helped me to get a Green Card and I got that in six weeks thanks to JR researching all my accomplishments. I don’t remember all those competitions and results any more.
RR: The movie was all about Keith Bane who was a very good ballet dancer. When I turned professional in 1962 as the reigning amateur champion in Latin and 10-Dance, I jumped right into second spot in the professionals behind my teachers at the time, Ron & Jackie Nash. They had been professional champions for many years. Somewhere around 1963 this Keith Bane showed up with Joyce Loff as his partner. Keith used to wear Brazilian shirts – perhaps ahead of his time. On many occasions in the next few years we three couples competed against each other – but they always came third if it was just us three. If other couples came they would sometimes drop to sixth or even to the semifinal. But this guy (Keith) was never pleased. He would say, “I’m way better than all you guys, I’m ahead of your time and these competitions are rigged.” We were all dancing in black tuxedos and he was in white trousers and frilly shirts. People either liked him or laughed at him! After the competitions he would always come to me and say, “I’m better than you and I’m writing a diary and one day I’m going to expose all this corruption by making a movie or writing a book.” I used to just laugh. However, when I arrived in the USA, I heard from Adele Hyland that she was involved in the casting and choreography for a movie. I found out later that Baz Luhrman, perhaps Australia’s most famous movie director who directed at wrote the script for Strictly Ballroom, had been in one of my junior dance classes. He knew me, but I couldn’t remember him. Baz Luhrman wrote the script using Keith Bane’s diaries. When I saw the movie I was blown away by the detail. He must have written in his diary every time that he danced! Of course in the movie, he ended up the champion, not in third place! In the movie all the names were changed. I was represented by a blond guy who drank too much. Anyway – I thought he did a good job with the movie. He actually didn’t dance against us after 1965, he went back to ballet and he was the principal and director of a famous ballet company in Sydney and ended up becoming the Arts Director. He was a smart guy, but everybody thought he was a clown when he was involved in ballroom dancing.
DB: Australians have been very successful in ballroom dancing over the years.
RR: Australians started going to England in the late 1930’s and this culminated with Alf Davies winning the British in 1956 and 1957 competing against Sonny Binnick. Dancing was always big there and followed the English tradition, we always went to England to study. In fact Alf Davies spent 10 years there. I couldn’t handle the weather for that long. In the 1960’s dancing was huge in Australia. You could dance in a competition within a 50-mile radius of Sydney, every weekend of the year as an amateur from 1958-1960 I probably did 400 competitions. More recently there was a lot of controversy between the IDSF and the WDC in Australia and about 45 couples were disqualified from the National Championship. That incident killed the dancing in Australia. I think in the last few years they haven’t run as many competitions as I ran myself when I was still living in Queensland. So although its popularity declined over the late 90’s and early 2000’s, they are doing a lot of work to bring it back through the school system and bringing younger people back into dancing. Prior to this it was just seniors left over from the old days who were still dancing.
RR: I think they are supportive of each other still. I write in the book that the phenomenon of Junior dancing started about four years after I started, and I think at about the same time in England – around 1961. In 1957 there were no junior competitions, just amateur. My first wife started early and she had to dance against older people. It was very much a night time pastime. She was in the national final as a fourteen year old. She was a very mature ballroom dancer, but she took her first steps in Latin with me around 1957. I met her at the ballroom studio where I was taking lessons – I had completed my bronze, silver and gold medals as we all did in those days. We started going out together, but I knew I was a long way behind her. She said to me, “that’s OK, I always wanted to do Latin.” So we started dancing Latin and within a year we were the national amateur champions. She was a great dancer and I’d never minded the hard work, no matter which sport I was involved in. In those days in amateur competitions I would dance against people in the 30’s and even 40’s. They loved dancing but never bothered to turn professional. When I turned pro, everyone was a lot older than me. I write in the book, that I was competing against the likes of Bill Irvine and Peter Eggleton. Bill had started dancing before World War II. Even someone like Len Scrivenor danced before the war, and then carried on after. So they had extended careers and danced sometimes into their 50’s. I was 12 years younger than Peter and 14 years younger than Bill, but I danced against them. Then when I went back to England, I danced against Richard Gleeve who I had actually judged when he was an amateur – I was a crossover generation. But now there aren’t many of us left. George Coad is the last of the older generation still working, he’s 92. I talk a lot about this phenomenon of an extended career in my book. I also think that’s why the standard was so high. For me the 1950’s were the golden age of ballroom dancing. Once we got into the 1960’s there was a revolution coming from England in the ballroom style. The hold was moved up and the ladies posture was more backwards. This came from people like Len Scrivenor, Len Collyer, Charles Theiebolt and Sonny Binnick working as coaches with the likes of the Eggletons and Irvines, these couples who had so much experience. That’s what we’re still seeing in today’s dancing. It was really amazing how good these people were, but I think it’s all to do with their knowledge and longevity in the business.
RR: I wrote more than 14,000 words and it also has some video components. I’ve wanted to do this book for a long time. It’s not a technique book, but I wanted to describe movement like Len Scrivenor did and Henry Jacques before him in 1938. I always wanted to pay tribute to the old school teachers who invented ballroom dancing from 1900 on and describe movement. My wife JR encouraged me to get on with it and I also spoke with Bryan Allen in England and told him I’d been waiting for a high-profile Englishman or woman to write a book describing movement. He said, “nobody’s going to write it, it’s your job!” That triggered me to write the book. The book is a tribute to the old school teachers, mentors and inventors of English Style Modern Ballroom Dancing. Bryan (Allen) has written a very complimentary forward to the book. I developed this mantra a few years back – everything is simple nothing is easy – that’s the title of the book, the subtitle is The Four Fundamental Factors of Movement in Ballroom Dancing to make you a Champion.
After the preamble from Bryan, the book has a fairly extensive history of ballroom dancing going back to 1900 and the transition from the English Old Tyme style. That’s why in the past Ballroom or “Standard” was called “modern.” I talk about the German influence on the World Championships of 1959 where the Viennese Waltz was included for the first time and it was called the World Professional Standard Ballroom Championship. Standard replaced the words “English Modern.”
The next chapter describes posture that was so important to the English for balance. The next chapter is about how to use the feet. There’s no such thing as a “heel lead” in waltz, it’s toe, ball, heel – you must keep your feet on the floor. Then I talk about the leg swing and I finish by saying – “if you get very good at these three skills, only then do you inflict yourself on a partner and the inflicted must have the same degrees of skill as you, and then I talk about the connections of a partnership.
The last chapter is profiles and rivalries and what I believe happened in the development of ballroom dancing in the 1950’s and 60’s from my perspective. I include a lengthy profile of Alex Moore who was so influential as the President of the ICBD (now WDC) and his position with the Imperial Society (ISTD).
I also describe the four great rivalries of all time – Scrivenor and Fryer; Davies and Binnick; Eggleton and Irvine; Wood and Hilton.
I finish with a few of my favorite quotes – “Make your clothes look good.” (Eggleton). “Long sides and they only get longer.” (unknown).
The book has been developed over two years and I’m quite proud of it.
RR: I have three biological children and I also began teaching Tony Redpath when she was eight. I have been married to her mother for forty years, so I also consider her my daughter. They have all danced professionally and Jason, continues to compete currently. I had initially tried to keep my biological children away from dancing. When Tony started with me at 8, she was the oldest and she started the rot! Shortly after that my wife left me and when our kids were with her she started them dancing. I was not keen on that, but I sat them down and asked them if they really wanted to dance like their role model, Tony. They did and so I said I would teach them. Their mother also taught them some. But to answer your question, It’s absolutely diabolical being the parent, nothing’s worse. You sit and watch, you can’t help them, they’re out there on their own, and it’s even worse when you’re also their teacher. I’ve danced every bar with Tony, Matt, Kristie and Jason. It gave me all this white hair!