World Champion Lindsey Hillier Still "Burns The Floor

World Champion Lindsey Hillier Still "Burns The Floor"

Many Americans have a false impression of the English people… that they are stuffy, or perhaps uppity. Lindsey Hillier dispels that image right off! When Dance Notes sat down with her for a chat recently, this 3-time World Professional Standard Champion joked and laughed with us. But she also knows that this fun-filled world of ballroom is serious business as well. Always one to defend the accepted and traditional standard, Lindsey is at the same time open to change; Sometimes she is even at the forefront leading the way! She was on the creative team of "Burn The Floor" which brought ballroom to a younger and more diverse audience. With Stephen Hillier, Lindsey rose to the top of the ballroom world… and she’s still there as one of the leaders in the industry.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a dancer?

I started dancing because I had very bad asthma as a child. The doctor advised my parents that they had to send me somewhere like a ballet school to make me breathe. I started ballet when I was four years old and continued until I was seventeen or eighteen. I also started Olde Time and Sequence dancing when I was about eleven. That got me into the competition field. Sometimes in those competitions they would have what they called Mixed Doubles where they would include ballroom and Latin dancing as well. I enjoyed that very much and that’s how I decided to get into ballroom and Latin. I was around sixteen at the time. I actually wanted to do Latin more than ballroom. I’m a frustrated Latin dancer at heart, as many of my friends know.

Why did you end up just dancing standard?

I danced both styles for a while, but needed to specialize in one style. We competed as amateurs in ten dance and were fairly successful. As professionals we made the U.K. Professional Ten Dance finals. My partner was much better in ballroom, and as we were a tall couple we were more suited to the ballroom.

When did you start dancing with Stephen?

I tried with a couple of other boys when I was quite green in the ballroom world but I didn’t stay with them for very long. I pestered and pestered Stephen and ended up having a tryout with him, in the mid 1970’s.

So you went after Stephen?

Yes, I was actually having a Latin lesson at Nina Hunt’s studio, which used to be a very famous school in London. I overheard a telephone conversation about this boy, and he had found out his partner was trying out with someone else. The Latin teacher suggested that he would be a good partner for me. I didn’t know who he was but she said he was very good. At the time he was in the top 24. I was a good dancer and a champion in Olde Time, but totally unknown in the ballroom field. So I had to keep pushing myself by telephoning. I ended up getting a tryout with Stephen.

What are some of your titles?

As amateurs we won one World Championship; the other titles we won two or three times… The European, British, International and U.K. Championships in the late 70’s. As pros we also won the same titles many times. We won the world’s three times. Our first World Championship was in Japan and I’ll never forget it. It was at the Budokan stadium. It’s a fabulous place to have a World Championship… 15,000 spectators, 8 spot- lights, octagonal in shape. For that first worlds I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life!

Why did you decide to retire?

Our very last competition was the World Championship in England, and we had decided win, lose or draw we were finishing at that point. We announced our retirement directly after the final event before the results were given out. We had been competing in different styles for thirty years. There comes a point when you know you’ve had enough. It not fun any more! Stephen had started competing when he was seven years old. Thirty years is a long time for any competitor.

After you won your first world title was it easier or harder to go on? Did you feel more pressure?

I think if you win any title… obviously there is only one direction to go if you are the champion and so yes, there is pressure. If you work consistently and structure your goals you can relieve some of that pressure. It’s always much more fun getting there than being there. It is important to have something to aim at. When you’re there you have to motivate yourself all the time.

Where are you from?

I was born in Reading, England but now I live in Woking, which is just outside of London, about twenty minutes from Heathrow. I have my own dance studio there in my garden. I only use it for coaching. There is an apartment in my house that I rent to dancers, so a lot of couples come and stay with me. I also travel a lot and coach all over the world.

Was the training and competing in England different than it is today? Did you approach dancing differently?

Not really. Of course the circumstances you have affect how you train. As amateurs we were poor amateurs. We didn’t have much money. Our parents of course did what they could to help us but we had to finance ourselves as much as possible. We both had full time jobs and we would practice in the evenings when we finished work. I lived in Reading, 40 miles from London. I got a job in London so it would be easier to go to practice. I took the train at six in the morning to go to my job. After work I would stop at Stephen’s house for tea. From there we would go to practice, then I would get back on the train at midnight to go home to Reading. This was exhausting. Of course we would squeeze our lessons in as well. Sometimes if we had a lesson we might not have time to practice. As professionals we were quite fortunate. Within six months we were able to stop the "proper jobs" and become full time pros. Then we had to fit in our own training along with coaching our lessons and other pupils. It was never possible to train four or five hours a day. You had to be very fortunate to have that possibility.

Were all the competitors in the same situation?

Generally yes, because in England there was very little sponsorship for ballroom dancers. One or two of the overseas dancers had sponsorship. (Ironically one Norwegian couple were sponsored by British Airways!!)

Is that true today?

No, there is much more today… dressmaking companies etc., shoe companies and other businesses involved with the dance world. However, when I was competing there were no sponsors. We financed everything ourselves.

Do you think the dancers then were more self-motivated?

We have a much bigger international scene today, and it’s much harder for the British dancers. When I was competing there were some very good Japanese, German, Danish and Norwegian dancers and they were mainly living in England. They were based in England, like Laxholms for example, who were our closest rivals through our amateur and professional careers, but there weren’t the numbers… the sheer volume there is today. Of course today we have all the Eastern block countries as well. It’s very, very tough because some of the dancers from these countries are sponsored.

Some countries have different Amateur rules than we have. They allow their amateurs to teach. When I’m in Italy, Ukraine, Russia and they’re not the only countries, I can give a lesson to an amateur, even a youth, and five minutes after I finish teaching him, he’s standing next to me teaching! Of course I think that’s a huge advantage. When we were dancing we had a normal job and tried to do our dancing on top of it. These boys and girls are all learning from each other and while I’m teaching them they’re teaching their next pupil and learning themselves. Therefore I think it’s very unfair in the amateur field at the moment. Amateurs teaching, are gaining experience and of course money, while other countries absolutely forbid their amateurs to even work in a dance school putting on music.

Do you think that should change before the Olympics?

I do definitely. I’m not against any of the amateurs teaching, if they can structure it correctly. I think it’s terribly unfair for many of the British dancers (particularly I’ll talk about them because I’m British) who literally don’t have the money to compete at an international level. They can’t hold down a job because dancing is so international they are required to go all over the world to compete. Therefore they lose their day job. They’re not allowed to take any money from the dance business as such. Then they have to go on the dance floor and compete against couples that quite happily have four or five new dresses a year and are really semi-professional. My humble opinion is that if some countries allow their amateurs to teach, and other countries do not, then we possibly need three structures of competition. We need amateur, semi-professional and professional. That may allow for the countries that do allow their amateurs to teach to compete against other people who are also teaching. That may be an answer. I don’t know.

Do you think it’s important to study other forms of dance to compete successfully in the ballroom scene?

I was lucky because I was involved in all that to start with. Ballet is wonderful for the strengthening and discipline. Alexander technique is wonderful for posture of course. Flexibility is a good thing, so it is a good idea to study to be flexible. However, when it comes to actually training there’s nothing like doing your own sport, your own art for training yourself. You might as well quickstep twenty times rather than go running five miles, because you’re using the muscle groups you want for dancing. I think the more your mind is open, of course, the better.

Is there anyone you looked up to when you were starting out?

My coaches of course. I was always very lucky because I was immersed in England with a lot of former champions and I had the opportunity to work with them. There were people through their various qualities who offered a lot. My main guru had to be Peter Eggleton… and I still love him to bits today! We’re very close friends. Peter’s style of dance was so elegant. Anthony Hurley for his feel. I could be feeling awful coming in after a practice, and just dancing with him for a minute I could put everything right, well I thought I could… the feel that the man could give was so wonderful. The late Bennie Tolmeyer. He was a marvelous coach and such a fast eye. He could pinpoint what was wrong with you in an instant and he made you feel great in the lesson, very simple in principles but clear. They are great mentors.

Dancing has evolved so much. If you were on the floor competing today how would you judge yourself?

That’s a very good question. Competition is much stronger today but I think I would be versatile enough to do what the dancers are doing now. I have to teach it so I don’t think it would have been a problem dancing it. I have to dance some of these amalgamations and sometimes I think, "Goodness, where did that come from?" Dancing does evolve and I hope my teaching continues to evolve as well. I do like to get into other fields of dance and explore other avenues. I always keep an open mind. The only thing I feel very strongly about is that I believe within ballroom dancing, as in any other art or form of dance like ballet, jazz or contemporary, there is a technique for each field of dance. There are principles and guidelines that characterize the style of dance that we’re doing. For example, in ballroom dancing it’s quite acceptable and it’s immediately recognized that a couple should be dancing together in a hold, which is recognized as a ballroom hold. Generally looking as if the bodies are together, having an awareness of center towards each other and a harmony in the shoulder line and hip line. Also being on your own balance. Where I really draw the line is when the technique and certain choreography is so changed, and where it becomes a fashion, let’s say, for the lady to turn her center completely away from the man and put her head over to the left and her legs to the right with no center in alignment to the man. I draw the line at those points because I feel that if I accept that form of choreography we are losing the technique and characterization of what makes ballroom dancing ballroom dancing. Like in classical ballet the feet are turned out and in contemporary they’re turned in. But they are two different styles and you wouldn’t want to see Swan Lake with the principle ballerina’s feet turned in and becoming very abstract. Our dancers are constantly experimenting with new choreography, which is a good and wonderful thing; however as professionals and coaches we have the responsibility to guide them to be within the framework of traditional ballroom dancing and good taste.

If you were judging a competition and a couple was doing this but in all other aspects they were the best couple, how would you mark them?

It’s always very difficult. It’s like judging a beginners’ competition and everyone has bad footwork or bad hold and there is one couple who is much better than the rest, but off time. What do you do? Some judges say if they’re off time they’re not going to mark them but if they are the best couple… it’s one little problem. You have to evaluate it. It’s the same with this choreography. If there are two couples that are similar and one is doing choreography that I don’t find acceptable, I mark the other couple. If they are outstandingly the best there is not a lot you can do. You have to mark them. It’s a difficult question to answer.

Do you like to judge?

I don’t think anybody likes judging. I think if you’re honest and you’ve been there yourself, you know the importance of the event; you know how much work goes into it. You try to do your absolute best to be honest and evaluate the couples as fairly as you can. I get very upset when certain politics come in. I don’t think it matters what country a judge is from. They shouldn’t be marking countries; they should be marking the best dancer. Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Some judges feel they’re mandated to mark their own country. That I find very sad. If it goes into the Olympics and we end up with the situation that happened with the ice-skating a few years ago our sport is going to look very stupid.

Do you think you’re a better judge and teacher because you have been through it all at the world level several times?

As far as teaching and coaching goes, yes, of course, be it a lower grade couple or one of the top couples. This is what I’ve done all my life and all that knowledge should have rubbed off on me somehow. And I think it has. Blackpool is only judged by British judges who are former champions themselves. I think it’s one of the fairest competitions because there aren’t many British competitors. We are basically judging the rest of the world. When we walk out on that floor every judge is nervous -- we’re shaking! The first time you judge Blackpool you really feel it because the responsibility is huge. Everyone does their best. All that vast experience that you have is what allows you to judge. People always ask how anyone can judge when you only have two and a half seconds to look at each couple. But after a lifetime of experience, you look at it and it’s right or it’s wrong… and you know it. As the rounds get thinner and thinner in the 24, 12 and 6 you start to look at quality, but up until then it’s your instinct which you base your opinion upon. Sometimes there can be trouble if judges are not at the highest quality and the highest caliber and haven’t experienced it themselves; their opinion of what is good can be totally different. They can be fooled by the massive task of it all. It’s very hard to judge Latin American. I’m not a Latin American expert but I can see through what I would call the "fakeness" of it. If you’ve been involved with dance all your life and you’ve seen good dancing and bad, it doesn’t matter how much the couples try to camouflage the lack of rumba action or leg action by doing loads of tricks. You see through it very quickly, and it’s the same for a qualified eye in ballroom. You’re not impressed by the choreography. I can tell if someone’s got quality within three steps. That’s why judges need to be of the highest quality. They don’t have to be former champions but they must be involved in working with the top class people if they’re judging the top class competitions. You can’t have someone down the road, who has just passed his exam and is teaching medallists, etc. judge a high-class competition. They can be fooled very easily. Competitors are great at trying to fool the judges.

What do you think your place is in the dance world now and in the future?

I feel I have a big responsibility to uphold the principles which I believe in. I’m very fortunate to work with many of the top couples and in some cases have worked with them since they were young juniors. I have great pride in these couples that are now at the top of the amateur ranks and going up through the pro field. My responsibility is really to keep them in the right direction. It’s my responsibility to uphold the standards that I think are so important. I also hope to develop ballroom dancing into new fields. I did become involved in Burn The Floor. That was a whole new field. That opened up the sights for a lot of people to what could be done with dance.

What was your involvement with Burn The Floor?

I was Associate Director and Choreographer. It started with me doing the choreography for Elton John’s 50th birthday party in London. It was a huge success and it was a fabulous party, as you can imagine. There were all the top people of the rock and roll business fashion world, crowding on to the floor clapping, stomping and giving a standing ovation for six ballroom couples and six Latin couples. People like Brian May were crowding onto the floor and couldn’t get enough of it. It was amazing! Harley Metclaf, a producer who was involved with Riverdance, was in the audience. He saw the potential in it, so I got called into his office along with the musical director, and Anthony Van Laast, who is director of a lot of the West End shows, Bonita Brigg, a top costume designer, Patrick Woodruf and Mark Fischer, set designers for Genesis, Pink Floyd, Simply Red and other top groups. We became the production team. We sat around my kitchen table at home with a blank piece of paper saying, "Where do we start?" I was on the creating team, and it was two years of my life putting it all together. I had to advise on the costumes and how they should work. Also the rhythms to be used. We had a fabulous costume designer, but she was very "off the wall." She wanted everybody tattooed and pierced! Some of the ideas of the costumes weren’t going to work as far as dance was concerned so we had to have lots of meetings. We did dance one number in Dr. Martin boots and I spent about three weeks testing out the boots to see if I could dance in them and find out which ones were the best. I was responsible for finding all the dancers, and the couples took a big gamble because it was something that they had never done in their lives. I was asking them to be away from the competitive scene and be in a touring show for four or six months. My reputation at being involved with this show helped a lot to encourage the dancers to give it a try. I fought very, very hard for those couples, as far as contracts and payments, terms and conditions. The producers thought they could get out-of-work West End dancers for less money, not realizing how specialized we all are in our fields. Forget that for ballroom. If you want the best then it’s going to cost a lot more than that, so it became a very expensive show. That’s one of the reasons why it’s finished it’s run for the moment. It was very hard. It was two years of my life, but it was a fabulous show.

How did you feel when you saw the finished product?

My Goodness, it was amazing! When you saw the lights… Patrick Woodruff is the best lighting designer in the world. Rock and Roll meet ballroom dancing. It was like being at a rock concert… the lights, the music, the sound, the energy. When I went to the recording studio in London to help with tempi there was a 200-piece orchestra. It was incredible!

What do you think of American style dancing?

It fills a niche in the market. When you see the top American style dancers they are very good. Recently I’ve noticed particularly in the Latin side it seems to be moving more toward the international. Therefore it’s losing a little bit of its own identity. I’m no expert on American style dancing but I find it expressive and the dancers get a feeling of movement. I think the international is much more disciplined technically. Of course putting two bodies together as one and staying together is always difficult. In the American style there’s more room for expression and maneuvering.

When you’re out there coaching and judging, is there a time when you ever miss being out on the floor competing?

No, I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I’ve got the tee shirt. I had my day and I enjoyed it tremendously. Of course I enjoy dancing. Socially I love going out and dancing salsa and doing that sort of stuff, but I don’t miss competing one little bit. I have my memories. I had my moments competing. There are memories that I feel have fulfilled my life and true memories of being involved in dance that I will never ever forget. I remember the first world’s we did in New York. My back was out at the time we were competing. I was in absolute agony but got through it, and we took second place. Thanks to Max Busch who represented Germany, who being a doctor could help with pain killing injections. We are still great friends today. I will always remember what my fellow competitors did at my first World Championship in Japan. One of the boys that I grew up with, Steve Powell, was dancing in his first world’s as well, with his partner Carol. I had competed in Olde Time against Steve when we were nine or ten. After the competition was over we went back to the coffee shop in the hotel. Steve and Carol kept us busy while people were gradually sneaking away. When we went upstairs the other competitors had set up our bedroom. Everything was turned over, and where we had two beds we now had no beds! They moved things out and around and had decorated the room. There was silly string everywhere… and we had the biggest party that night! I’ve enjoyed my competing, good times and bad, ups and downs. I’ve been so lucky. It was a wonderful time while it lasted. Dance is a great thing. You meet many friends. But I don’t want to go back anymore, thanks.

Coach’s Corner
Study the mechanics of your leg action and the quality of movement. Movement is the basis of everything. The better and more controlled you are through movement and the use of your standing leg the better your dancing will become. Quality not quantity is the answer. Be creative, experiment, push forward the boundaries, but try to understand and study the history and developments from the past. The WHY WHERFORE AND THE HOW.

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