This time it's personal

by Carol Elsbury (Photos mostly by Steve Elsbury)

Carol's story of her first Nationwide Qualifying event.   

Chapter 1 - Qualifiers?!?!

“So,” said Paula, with that ‘throw away’ air I have come to expect when  she imparts news likely to send me into a spin, “I have entered you for the Blackpool Qualifiers ~ if you don’t get through it will be good experience for next year….” and quite deliberately left before I fell to the floor jibbering.  Dance at Blackpool? Even attempt to qualify to dance at Blackpool? I had come out into a cold sweat the year we went to support the rest of the club just walking over the floor… I say floor – it was more like a wooden field!  Then I realised the chances of me actually qualifying were fairly remote so “all” it would mean would be to learn four new routines and be partnered with “bigger boys”.  I have to clarify what I mean by bigger boys here ~ Steve and I refer to the people who can really dance as “bigger boys” ~ it is no reflection on their size just their stature on the dance floor. “I’ll think about it….” I murmured to Paula’s retreating back.  I would have thought about it a lot longer if I had realised the dances involved were the foxtrot, tango, jive and cha cha but hey, I hadn’t committed to anything….

It will come as no surprise to learn that the following lesson we began by learning our new “qualifying” routines!  (In total fairness, if any of our teachers are reading this, this is the only way to deal with me or I would still be faffing about deciding if I could ever enter any competition as my feelings about these are well documented…..!)  The procedure was Steve and I would begin to learn the routines together and then split off to have lessons on our own with the poor beggars who had been gifted us as potential partners. At the risk of sounding like a repeating record, and aware that some people may think my lack of confidence is a way to elicit reassurance from others in a vaguely calculated and nasty way, I promise you I began this journey feeling like a complete impostor.  It seemed somehow wrong to be attempting this when I was all too aware of my shortcomings ~ sort of cheeky is the only way to explain it.  I was, however, soon to be told that my attitude had to change ~ and in no uncertain terms!

Steve and I made our usual attempt at grasping the new routines, with varying degrees of success, failure and uncontrollable laughter ~ and the very occasional snarl between gritted teeth. We had, however, been warned about the likelihood of the snarling increasing once we had danced with other people.  Rubbish.  We were happiest dancing with each other; we knew our weaknesses and how to jolly each other along (warm little endearments like “If you don’t stop sulking you can dance on your own” or “Don’t fling me around” followed by “I wouldn’t have to if you got there yourself….”) ~ those little moments shared by dance partners everywhere!  Having said that, I noticed that Steve seemed far less bothered by the prospect of a new partner than I did.  Looking coldly at the facts, he was faced with the proposition of dancing with a partner half my age, considerably less than half my weight and, let’s be honest, far more suited to wearing sections of sequins held together with bits of dust topped off with make-up to die for rather than to fill in the cracks.  The chances that they would hang on to him in some kind of fear induced death-grip and rip his head off for standing in the wrong kind of way before taking to the floor were also fairly slim so I am sure I heard a faint kind of “Yippee!” in his head as he slept that night.

Chapter 2 - It's all about me? It's all about ME!

At around this time the reality of the situation began to really hit home with me.  It wasn’t so much a question of dancing to my best ability as dancing “at all” i.e. who could I find that could actually physically get me on the floor when the panic set in?! Eventually it was decided that Mark would dance with me and I will always be grateful.  I had obviously danced with him before during lessons and he had managed to make me laugh during previous exams (well the invigilator was laughing so it seemed rude not to join in…) so my fear began to subside.

Paula then mentioned “supporting” dance” so I was entered for that as well.  The club lessons began where we had to dance with everyone to see who was best suited to partner.  The first time this happened I was convinced I would “break” someone and there are many male members of Wright Rhythm who can testify I shook like a blender as we danced!  I never appreciated the different styles before ~ the different techniques and subtle changes between each partner were amazing.  The only constant?  The fact that they were, to a man, encouraging and sympathetic and never once lost patience.  This has to be the biggest tribute to the club I can imagine – and also to the men involved.  The lovely Pete very kindly stepped up to dance with me and I was thrilled.  We had been friends with Pete & Bec since we began dancing and, again, that made me feel far less nervous.  In addition I was luck enough to also be given lessons with Kyle.  Now beforehand, that did make me nervous!  Yet he was as patient and kind as his mother had been to Steve so it must run in the family!  So there I was.  Dancing the qualifiers with Mark, the supporting with Pete and additional lessons with Kyle. But there was one final source of help I hadn’t expected.  I was about to be “Bec’d!!”

Now those of you who have had practice with Bec will understand how she works.  You may not complete more than five steps in any practice but by god those steps will be right!  And it won’t just be your feet, your head WILL be in the right position, you WILL be smiling, your posture WILL be right and your hands WILL be angled correctly.  Or you will do it again.  And again.  Oh, and possibly again and again.  I know that from Bec I can expect complete honesty ~ she was, after all, the person who explained our unexpected victory after a less than stunning dance set.  “Well, you danced crap but you danced less crap than anyone else!”   So there it was ~ I had the best help I could ever have asked for ~ best I tried to get my head and feet in the right place and not let these people down..

At this risk of stating the obvious, when you dance with people who know what they’re doing, the mistakes reduce to only those you make yourself plus they lead you into the right place at the right time giving you the best possible opportunity to look your best.   When I was having lessons with Mark he already knew the bits of each dance with which I would struggle.  The beginning, the middle and the end.  But magically he was able to drag proper heel turns out of me in the foxtrot and even the “bit along the bottom” (possibly known as the quick open reverse?) ended with me being in front of him as opposed to three feet behind.  The tango was doing okay until he informed me the floor upon which we would be competing would be significantly larger than the studio so we would do a “double” turn along one side.   Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that having achieved something once I could simply repeat it before going to the next part ~ wouldn’t you? Not only that but as I was dancing with someone who has, let’s face it, an impeccable lead this would seem a done deal.  If you are fed up with this, simply skip to the paragraph about the tango qualifier and read it and weep.

It was at this time that I really began to realise that the lessons were “all about me” and this really is a heady concoction.  I was snapping up any free lessons, with everyone working on various parts on my technique(!) and learning all I could from these amazing partners.  My head began to go back and to the left (although not as much as Bec would have wished – but to do that I may need surgery) and I began to get this fixed grin ~ not the natural smile to which Steve alludes but it beat the hell out of my normal “hunted” expression known to the rest of Wright Rhythm!  It was also about this time that I learned another invaluable lesson.  I was dancing with Pete when he stopped me from moaning about wasting his time or some other comment.  “When you go on the floor you are not yourself.  You have to believe you are a dancer and act like one.  You can’t keep running yourself down and, if you do, I will charge you 10p a comment!”  I realised my head had to also be in the right place but this time not in the way Bec meant…

I could spend hours writing about the kindness of Mark, Pete & Bec and Kyle as they dragged me through the routines over those weeks and, as always, there was the mutual support throughout the rest of the club.  There is a great feeling of camaraderie at Wright Rhythm with everyone rooting for each other and many conversations in front of the bar or between dances that  perk you up to carry on and try your best.  Every dance night Steve and I swopped stories of minor triumphs and how good the dances were beginning to feel and then, one night, we found we were scheduled to dance with each other.  How great would this be? We could show each other how we had improved and I could show off my heel turns and he could show me his new found prowess and we would, undoubtedly, benefit from the exercise together.  Ok – what did we know?  Many of you are now laughing/sniggering because you will know what came next.  Disaster? More like ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’.  We tried every dance we had practised and some we hadn’t and each, without exemption, was worse than you could possibly imagine.  I have conveniently forgotten whether it was Paula or Gille who witnessed this fiasco (I’m betting they haven’t) and as the dancing deteriorated so did our mood.  I seem to recall we called it quits after some choice comments passed between us along the lines of “I have no trouble with Laura doing this” or “When Pete does it, it’s perfectly clear” etc etc etc.  After a distinctly chilly drive home I ventured the opinion that maybe we shouldn’t dance again together until after the qualifiers. The new found confidence we had each gained had evaporated in one swift 40 minute lesson with each other and, for the sake of our marriage and the sanity of our instructors, it was decided that was the best way forward.

Chapter 3 - What to wear?

The weekend of the qualifiers was looming and I was discussing outfits with Bec.  She was obviously qualified to comment because everything I own has been purchased through “Bec’s Fashions”.  I was finally going to wear the ballroom dress I had never worn and for latin my Supadance dress.  “I just wish it had sleeves ~ it would cover up the bingo wings ~ they move far more than my hips” I said.  “No problem,” came the response, “my Mum can put some in for you.”  Within a couple of days the material had been ordered, delivered to poor Bec’s unsuspecting Mum along with a fairly short phone call along the lines of “You remember Carol, no you do, well you’re putting sleeves in her dress on Saturday before the qualifiers on Sunday. “  Poor woman! 

It was finally the last Thursday before the big event.  It was my last lesson with Mark and the nerves had returned with a vengeance.  I was making the most of not having to pay 10p per moan(!) and really whining.  It was then that the work everyone had tried to install about my attitude was brought into sharp focus where Mark explained everyone had the same right to be there and I needed to actually “get” that before we could continue.  It was perfectly timed to shake me out of my nerves and a really well deserved metaphorical “kick up the pants”.  It might sound as if it was harsh but it wasn’t at all; it worked and I was grateful.  I decided that, whatever the outcome, I was going to have the opportunity to dance the best I possibly could and it was up to me to enjoy it and make the most of it. 

To avoid any undue stress on the morning of the qualifiers, we had decided to drive up on Saturday night and stay in a local hotel.  On Saturday afternoon we were schedule to “pop” over to Pete & Bec to meet Bec’s Mum where I supposed she would insert two short sleeves into the dress and that would be that.  Bec, however, had other ideas.  “No, that would look crap.  I want sleeves like this!” and promptly produced a dress with long sleeves, tapering to a point which, apparently, also had to hang at a particular angle.  The look of disbelief on everyone’s face (apart from Bec’s naturally) was obvious.  It was now about 2pm and the tools on offer were a pair of kitchen scissors, a needle and some green thread…..  My part of the bargain was to produce food, which I duly did, in between standing in various positions as Bec presided over the whole affair.   Pete & Bec were also thinking of going up on Saturday night so eventually it was agreed we would all meet up later for the final “tweaking” of the sleeves and a nightcap before the big event at the same hotel.

We set off that evening and Steve duly fired up his GPS.  Now, I hate that thing and have little faith in it.  That very afternoon it had deposited us outside Sainsburys Homebase and intoned “You have arrived at your destination”.  Now if Pete & Bec had lived in Sainsburys Homebase instead of two miles away, I may have shared his enthusiasm.  Steve, however, still preferred it to my map reading.  It was getting later and later and I was aware Pete & Bec would be waiting for us and stress was beginning to set in.    We turned into a cul-de-sac with four houses and some trees.  “You have arrived at your destination” it sneered.  “Brilliant! Just brilliant!” I snapped, “Perhaps the hotel’s hiding behind that tree!”  It simply refused to take us anywhere else and Steve had to stop at a pub and ask directions.  We arrived shortly before 11pm, stressed, miserable and, in my case, with a deep desire to buy an A-Z and bury the GPS where the sun doesn’t shine.

Half an hour later and we were decamped in Pete & Bec’s room, drinking and laughing about the whole day.  Bec’s Mum would have been laughing but she had her mouth full of pins and was still sewing frantically on the sixth remake of the day.  When I thought it was all over, Bec looked blankly at me.  “We haven’t stoned them yet!”  It was now approaching 1am.  I was standing in their hotel room with my arms out scarecrow style.  Bec’s Mum was applying blobs of glue.  Bec was applying a stone to each blob.  Pete was aiming the hairdryer at the finished stones. Steve was watching the whole process, supporting us hugely as he took the opportunity to neck the remaining alcohol.   I apologised to all (except Steve – he was having a whale of a time) only to be told it was always like this the night before a competition!  Yes, I thought to myself, but then its normally your last minute preparations, not mine.  So here is a very public thank you for that night.  It will remain with me always.

Chapter 4 - The day arrives

The morning finally arrived and Pete & Bec decided it would be far safer for all of us to travel in their car then to trust the GPS to get us to the venue.  Pete has a future as an illusionist as he seemed to pack everything for five people and five people into his car.  Bec sat next to me and proceeded to put on her make up (including eyeliner) as we motored towards the venue.  Steve was given the job of informing her about roundabouts, bends etc so that she could factor the swerves into her makeup routine.  We arrived, on schedule, makeup complete to be greeted by the rest of the club and a general feeling of excited anticipation.

Ballroom came first, as did my supporting waltz with Pete.  He made encouraging noises as we took to the floor and continued to do so as we made our way around and around, seamlessly (on his part) avoiding other couples on the fairly crowded floor.  I barely had time to check whether my head was out, my smile was fixed and it was over.  But if felt wonderful!  I had actually enjoyed it and that was my main ambition! Not only that but we were called back – and so I got to do it again.  I was even aware of Steve as we passed by our section and Bec pointing to her lips with a big grin (subtle code for keep the smile going) with her head arched back (I’ll let you crack that one.)   And then we made the final.  And Pete said one of the nicest things anyone has said to me when I thanked him for getting me through.  “A partner will make the difference to a call back, but only you can get us through to the final”.  We came fourth and I couldn’t have been more pleased as I walked back to Wright Rhythm with Steve beaming his approval.  

Then it was on to the qualifiers.  I walked out with my friends from Wright Rhythm and it seemed as if there were hundreds of competitors for our section!  We were told to stand together so we wouldn’t be in the same heat but I barely remembered which heat I was in.  Luckily enough Mark took over and the foxtrot began.  As we approached the first dreaded heel turn I heard a quite voice in my ear tell me to relax and my shoulders dropped from under my ears and I just tried to enjoy it as much as I had done in the studio.  All too soon it was over and on to the tango.  Now, I had mastered the double move in the studio (eventually) and managed it during the first pass round the floor.  Heartened by this miracle, Mark led me into it the second time only to have me trample all over him as I completely forgot what I was doing!  My death grip returned, I’m sure my head slumped forward but thank god I wasn’t supposed to be smiling as well!  Mark remained utterly calm, managed not to actually register the pain and got me back on track in what seemed like the twinkling of an eye.  Then we waited for the results.  I had qualified!  I could have floated back to our section on a cloud.  I knew the latin would follow and I was far weaker at that but, having qualified in ballroom so unexpectedly, I just intended to enjoy it as much as possible.  Not only that but Bec’s Mum had pointed out that after all that trouble to put the sleeves in, I had better dance well!

The cha cha was the first dance and I tried very hard to remember to insert some flair whilst trying to use my feet (and every other part of me) to make my hips move.  Mark kept a humorous running commentary as he knew this would be the worst part for me until my smile became genuine as we approached the last jive.  To be honest, I was completely exhausted but dancing the jive with Mark was an experience I will also never forget.  It is his signature dance and he kept me almost laughing throughout as my legs became weaker with the incredible pace of the dance.  I remember just “going for it” and grinning like a Cheshire cat until the final bars sounded.   

I changed and sat back to watch the rest of Wright Rhythm dance their hearts out and one by one come back to wait for the results.  Steve had qualified in the ballroom and I was convinced he would qualify in the latin as he enjoys it so much, which he did. 

As they were calling out the numbers for the latin qualifiers, I was happily sitting in the upper seats having already changed and reflecting on the day’s events.  They called my number and I didn’t react.  It wasn’t until I caught Paula’s eye and she gestured to me that I realised I had qualified and was expected to go onto the floor!  I mumbled incoherently as I passed Steve and stood among the Wright Rhythm section still expecting someone to pull me off!  As I walked back I couldn’t believe what had happened to me.  I had qualified in both events and would actually be dancing at Blackpool.  But it wasn’t just me that qualified.  Yes I danced as well as I could and I did enjoy it but I didn’t do it alone.  Without all those I have mentioned above who helped me so much I couldn’t even have considered it.  So whilst they made it “all about me” ~ without them I wouldn’t have stood a chance.  So a very public thank you for a very personal experience.


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