Essays: Ballroom baloney |
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Ballroom baloney

IF ONE is going to get somebody’s name wrong, it might as well be the name of the biggest bastard in South America. Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that in referring last week to the President of Argentina, General Videla, I called him General Divela. I don’t know what the videl came over me.

Perhaps it was the influence of Terpsichore. The muse of the dance has lately become hyperactive, especially on the BBC, where ballet succeeds ballet in a traffic-jam of tutus. Nor have the humbler branches of the art been neglected. In the Ballroom Dancing Championships (BBC1) the standards of precision kitsch reached a new high.

There were two main areas of competition: old-time and Latin American. The old-time couples were linked visions on weightless feet. The gentlemen with their patent leather haircuts and black crystal pumps, the ladies with their gowns like clouds and their faces like tomahawks, dipped and swooped through the fox-trots and at certain moments during the quick-steps jumped up and down nose to nose, smiling fixedly into each other’s eyes as if not noticing that their magic feet had become a flickering blur.

But it is the Latin American section which leaves your reporter breathless. This year the typical lady favoured a slinky frock composed of sequins and skin-coloured panels, so that it seemed her festoons of fish-scales had been applied to the bare body. The typical gentleman was form-fittingly clad in a polychromatic cat-suit studded with rhinestones. Thus attired, lady and gentleman were free to sway and swivel unhampered through the intricate, undulating rhythms of the samba, the rumba and the jive.

In moments of sensual languor, lady and gentleman would stare at each other from a distance while grinding their heels into the floor as if vainly repressing subterranean forces of lust. Then, at a signal from the bongoes or the congas, they would abruptly switch into a spine-snapping, retina-detaching frenzy, often culminating with an awesome manoeuvre wherein the lady would aim a sudden, lethal kick at the gentleman’s groin. Infallibly, as the stiletto-heeled sandal streaked towards his defenceless crotch, the gentleman would tilt his hips and swerve out of range — a necessary skill, because if he ever got his timing wrong he would have to spend the rest of his life hopping about with his head between his legs.

There are no sane reasons for watching this stuff, but I have given up trying to match the ought to the is, and from now on intend simply to enjoy the pageant of life, even if it includes Terry Wogan. Actually these championships were also notable for the fact that Terry had equipped himself with an assistant commentator.

A lady expert in this field, she told us, in gratifyingly unguarded terms, what the participants were up to. ‘Placing the girl in the position that he wants ... and I noticed how well he used the floor.’ She emphasised that even the most gifted couple need patience and dedication to achieve harmony. ‘Worked hard together to get identical timing for positions ... well chosen position to suit his fine sense of rhythm.’

Humphrey Burton deserves even more credit than be gets. His arts planning for the BBC is not just bold but often good. Dance Month (mainly BBC2) has been a big success. Perhaps my judgment is distorted: several of the ballets struck me as revelations, whereas if I had already been familiar with them from theatrical performance I suppose I would have been more blasé. But surely that is what arts-on-telly is for: to effect the introduction.

By the end of the month even an ignoramus could see that Balanchine and Ashton, to name only two, are formidable talents. I was glad to be given so much evidence that Balanchine went on and on getting better, and as for Ashton — well, if A Month in the Country and Enigma Variations (both BBC2) aren’t absorbing, fruitful work of art, then what are they, and what else is?

The memory of Lynn Seymour in ‘A Month in the Country’ is with me yet. The recollection does something to dispel the impression aroused by her own contribution as a choreographer. Entitled Leda and the Swan (BBC2) and performed to music by Howard Blake, this featured two lovely young people dry-humping each other in various strained attitudes. The lovely young man pretending to be the swan wore a feathery cape and a powerful-looking jock-strap. The lovely young lady pretending to be Leda wore mainly just a look of helpless desire.

Thousands of young ladies sprang around in formation during the opening ceremony of the World Cup (all channels). There is no point being angry about the block-headed intransigence which has led the BBC and ITV to end up duplicating each other’s coverage of this demented carnival for what will apparently be weeks on end. Screw the ought. Enjoy the is. And indeed there was a lot to enjoy about the opening ceremony. For example, there was the inspired oratory of General Videla (who in this column sometimes goes under the name of Divela, for reasons I am not at liberty to vidulge), which was devoted mainly to the thesis that the World Cup symbolises political harmony.

You could see how right he was, There were flags everywhere. The flags of all the competing nations were paraded around the arena. Then the flags of all the nations who were not competing were also paraded around the arena. ‘The national flag,’ explained David Coleman, ‘followed now by over 140 flags of the member nations.’ The thousands of jail-bait schoolgirls then waved smaller editions of the same flags, matching their movements to what was described by David as ‘the traditional tune in Argentina, “The Flag”.’

Even more symbolic than the flags is the World Cup logo, which looks like a blockage in the urinary tract, or perhaps a clapped-out prostate gland. My feelings exactly. With only one channel at its disposal, ITV must needs abandon all pretence of comprehensive programming. The few ordinary programmes it still has time for are billed as extras to the World Cup, in the same way that the trailers and commercials at the cinema are called a supporting programme.

One of the extras in this first week of our agony was a three-part soap opera called 79 Park Avenue (Thames), based on characters created by Harold Robbins. The chief character was a prostitute called Marja. Born in poor circumstances, Marja fought to retain her virtue, but the odds were too great. Here comes Momma, for example, coughing pitiably. ‘Oh Momma, if you don’t go and see Dr Schmock tomorrow...’ ‘Bargh! YAARCH! It’s nothing.’

Marja went to jail for pulling a knife on her stepfather. He was trying to rape her, but for some reason she failed to inform the court of this fact. Everything turned out all right in the end, but the end would have been a lot closer to the beginning if only Marja had seen her way clear to telling people what was on her mind.

The Observer, 4th June 1978