It is thought that the idea of a Festival came from either Mr. Harry Wood, the Musical Director of the Winter Gardens or Mr. Nelson Sharples of Messrs Sharples & Son Ltd., the music publishers of Blackpool who published all the sheet music for the Novelty dances invented by the M.C.’s in the Empress and Tower Ballroom’s. In those days the dances in the Ballrooms consisted mainly of Sequence Waltzes, the Lancers, Two Steps and many Novelty Dances.
The first Blackpool Dance Festival was held during Easter week in 1920 in the magnificent Empress Ballroom in the Winter Gardens. Modern Ballroom (‘English Style’) and Latin American dances had not yet evolved and this Festival was devoted to three competitions to find three new Sequence Dances in three tempos – Waltz, Two Step and Foxtrot. There was one Competition each day and on the fourth night, one dance was chosen as the winner, its inventor being presented with the Sharples Challenge Shield. The first Chairman of Adjudicators was Mr. James Finnigan, later to become the co-founder and first President of the United Kingdom Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dancing.
This format of new Sequence and Novelty Dances continued until 1926, although in 1922 Stage, Country and Morris dancing were introduced. The Stage Dancing flourished but the Country dancing was dropped after two years.
Following a change in management at the Winter Gardens it was announced that there would be no Festival in 1927. ‘The Dancing Times’ stepped into the breach, however, and held the Stage Dancing section as usual, but only included a North of England Amateur Foxtrot Competition.
It was decided to revive the Blackpool Dance Festival in June 1929. The events included the North of England Professional and Amateur Championships, an Amateur Veleta Competition, a Veterans Waltz Competition plus an Original Sequence Dance Competition. The Sir John Bickerstaffe Shield was presented to the winner of the Original Sequence Dance Competition from 1929 to 1939. Mr. P.J.S Richardson became Chairman of Adjudicators and continued in that role until his retirement in 1960. He also became the first Chairman of the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing formed in 1930.
During this time, dancing began to change and people became interested in the developing ‘English Style’ of dancing. The Blackpool Dance Festival finally relinquished its Northern image in 1931 with the inauguration of the British Professional and Amateur Ballroom Championships. For the Amateur event there were 250 preliminary heats held throughout the country with about 40 District Finals. The winners of these then had the right to dance at Blackpool in the Grand Final. In 1937, the Skating System for competitors’ marks was introduced at Blackpool and this is still used today in Blackpool and all round the world.
After war broke out in 1939, there was a very limited Festival in 1940 but then everything closed down for five years, re-opening again in 1946. Stage Dancing events were dropped entirely from this point. However, a new event, the British Amateur Old Time Sequence Championship was included for the first time, which was extremely popular.
The same year Mr. Bunny Hayward died. He had been the resident M.C. in the Empress Ballroom and Compere of the Festival since 1929. He was also the Co-Principal with Mrs Ida Ilett of the Blackpool School of Dancing. This meant that Mr P.J.S Richardson became the Compere as well as the Chairman of Adjudicators for the Festival. Mr W.H.H. Smith became the Festival Secretary and in 1954, Mrs Ilett was made the first official Dance Festival Organiser.
Because of the popularity of the Sequence competitions, the Winter Gardens Company decided to hold an Old Time Ball in October 1950 and this was considered to be the 1st Blackpool Sequence Dance Festival.
The original Blackpool Dance Festival continued to grow and in 1953 the competitions were the North of England Amateur and Professional Championships, a Ballroom Formation Dancing Competition, the British Amateur and Professional Ballroom Championships, plus a Professional Exhibition Dancing Competition.
As far back as the 1930s, there were strong ties with Denmark through inter-school activities with the Blackpool School of Dancing but it was in the 1950s that the influx of foreign competitors started. There was a special box reserved for the foreign visitors on the south balcony in the Ballroom. Patrons sat in this box until, by 1980, there were so many foreign competitors and spectators that the box had to be discontinued as it was completely impractical. In the last few years, there have been fifty countries represented at the Festival with large numbers from Japan, Germany, Italy and the USA.
The introduction of Latin American Dancing made a great impact on the dancing world. In 1961, a British Amateur Latin American Tournament was held, followed by a Professional event in 1962. These two events were upgraded to Championship status in 1964.
As more and more foreign competitors came to Blackpool, it was decided to organise a small Festival for British competitors only and in November 1975, the first British Closed Dance Festival was held in the Empress Ballroom. The name has now been changed to the British National Championships.
Tragically, Mrs. Ilett died in August 1978. She had developed the Festival into the most famous event in the World. Her husband, Mr Bill Francis, took over the organisation of the Festival but, with failing health, he retired in November 1980. He was succeeded by Mrs. Gillian MacKenzie, who retired after the Blackpool Dance Festival, May 2004. Mrs. Sandra Wilson then held the position of Festival Organiser until she retired in 2019. The current Festival organiser is Mrs. Natalie Hayes.
Possibly the event which has the greatest crowd appeal is the annual Professional Invitation Team Match, which started in 1968 and continues to this day. It started with two teams, Germany and Great Britain, dancing ten dances but for many years there have been four teams invited. Teams from Germany, Japan, Italy, USA, Australia, Russia and Scandinavia have danced in this Team Match. Neutral judges are always invited to adjudicate this event.