The Birth Of The Blues

The Blues dance originated in England, the creation of British pairs skater and ice dancer Robert Dench. With partner Lesley Turner, Dench first showed off the long, deep edges of this dance at the Streatham rink in 1934. Set to twelve bar blues music played on a piano or organ, the dance was meant to be skated to a tempo of twenty two or two four bars per minute, or eighty eight or ninety six by the time of a metronome. However, Dench noted, "The Dench Blues, however, can be skated as fast as 26 bars per minute, but then it is difficult to execute the steps correctly. We often do the dance to fox trot time, but only if the music is slow enough so that the graceful effect of the dance is not lost."

In his book "Pair Skating And Dancing On Ice", Dench described the original steps of his Dench Blues dance thusly: "This dance is started hand in hand, with the lady on the man’s right side and holding his right hand with her left. First of all, strike onto right-forward-inside edges, after which the lady turns a forward-outside-three on her left foot and drops onto the right- backward-outside edge, while the man holds a left-forward-outside edge for four beats of the music, which brings him face to face with his partner. Now come the first steps of the dance itself. The lady takes a left-backward-outside edge followed by a right-backward-inside, crossing it over the left. She then takes a left-backward-outside, uncrossing her feet. (This is a crossed chasse.) The man, on his first step of the dance, brings the lady to his right side and strikes onto the right-forward-outside edge. This is followed by a left- forward-inside crossed over the right, then a right-forward-outside. (This is a progressive chasse or run.) Now the lady strikes onto her right-backward-outside, then a left-backward-inside crossed over the right, and finishes on the right-backward-outside. (This is also a crossed chasse.) The man, having finished his first chasse or run, now crosses his left leg over the right and turns a three, coming onto his right- backward-outside edge. The three is turned at the lady’s left side, so that after the turn his right hip is just behind the lady’s left hip. Both skaters are now on right-backward-outside edges and skating close together, with the man slightly ahead of the lady ('ahead' meaning further along in the direction of travel). During this backward edge, each partner slowly swings the free leg back past the skating foot. From here on, both skaters face the same way and their steps are identical. Strike together onto the left-forward-outside edge, which should be short and held fairly straight so as to simplify the cross-roll (crossing one foot over the other, from an outside edge to an outside) which follows. Place the right-forward-outside over the left and hold it for four beats, increasing the bend of the skating knee on the third beat of the music and straightening it on the fourth. This applies to all the four-beat edges. The free leg passes the skating leg as the knee is straightened. The next step is a left-forward-outside placed in front of the right foot and held for two beats. (This is a walking step.) Now comes a quick little running step that is very fascinating if done correctly. Start on the right-forward-inside (one beat), then place the left-forward-outside ahead of the right (also for one beat), and again place the right-forward-inside ahead of the left and hold it for two beats. Now comes the difficult part of the dance, which is a Choctaw - the change from an edge on one foot to the opposite edge on the other foot. Stroke onto your left-forward-inside, directing the edge almost straight down center ice and not towards the boards or center of the rink; next bring the right foot close to the heel of the left (right instep to left heel); then turn the hips, dropping onto the right-outside-backward edge. These edges are held for two beats of the music. After the Choctaw, cross behind the right foot with a left-backward-outside. Hold it for four beats; then step forward onto the right-forward-inside edge, ready to recommence the dance. For the Choctaw, the man should strike just ahead of the lady - forward of her left hip. This enables her to make the turn more easily and to drop into position for the right-backward-outside edge of the Choctaw."

The dance caught on extremely quickly both in Europe and overseas and enjoyed (like almost all compulsory dances) countless alterations and adaptations. By November 1939, it earned a coveted spot amongst the Kilian, Viennese Waltz, Rocker Foxtrot and Three-Lobed Eight Waltz in the USFSA's Gold Dance Test. However, in England during the same era, the National Skating Association only considered the Blues a Silver Test dance. By the fifties, it was considered a Pre-Gold Dance in the United States, a Second Class (Gold) Dance in France and a Silver Dance with the International Skating Union. Ironically, Robert Dench passed away in 1975, the same year the Blues was introduced as a prescribed rhythm for the OSP in international competition.

Whenever someone comes up with a great idea, it always seems to spawn others. In the years that followed, countless Blues dances cropped up in both North America and England. Many, like The Buckingham Blues, Koala Blues, Manhattan Blues and Border Blues, fell into obscurity. Others, like the perennial Preliminary Dance Baby Blues and Roy, Sue and Mark Bradshaw and Julie MacDonald's Midnight Blues (which debuted in Vancouver in 2001) caught on like wildfire. Though we don't have the pleasure of enjoying compulsory dances in international competitions these days, the influence of the original Blues dance still resonates in the performances of ice dancers from Streatham to South Africa today.

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