Like many people, my interest in ballroom and Latin was sparked by Strictly Come Dancing. I’ve never learned to quickstep and have no desire to. (Well, perhaps a little desire but who doesn’t?) I loved the spectacle and style of it all but was also fascinated by what lies behind the fake tan and fixed smiles of the dancers.
In 2012, I was one of six writers offered a Making Tracks bursary to make a creative journey. My fellow playwrights went to Sarajevo, Athens and Kosovo. I drove up the M6 to Blackpool in June for its annual Dance Festival. If there was a play in ballroom, this seemed like the right place to start.
Held in the Winter Gardens, this international tournament sees 60 countries represented by almost 3,000 couples. Twelve competitions make up the event, with professional and amateur, rising stars and senior categories. With 250 couples in the British Professional Rising Stars Latin competition alone, Blackpool comes alive with dancers. In the cafés, streets and B&Bs, the circus is truly in town.
As a spectator, I soon felt like I’d slipped down a rabbit hole into wonderland. The world felt completely off-kilter, full of surreal images and a strange kind of beauty. The glamour and glitz was all there but so were the steely eyed-stares and sharp elbows. The dancing was brilliant and the dancefloor a gladiatorial arena where winning was everything.
One of the most remarkable sights was the sheer number of dancers who prepared not in dressing rooms but on the edge of the ballroom.
Wherever you looked were open suitcases with dresses spilling out and immaculate tail-suits hung in stairwells. All around the dancefloor, dancers were making-up and warming-up in full public view. A young woman in full costume was sat on the floor with her head in her hands. This became a starting point for the play I now knew was there.
I shared the photos I’d taken of the dancers with director Theresa Heskins, who’d also been thinking of a ballroom show. We began to imagine how a play might explore both the dazzling performance and off-stage reality of the competitors’ lives. We went back to Blackpool for the British championship, soaking up the atmosphere and glimpsing colourful characters in dark corners.
In a mirror-ball light, Kiss Me Quickstep was born.