Bill Davies began his competitive dance career in 1964, a different dance era. There were very few competitions in the United States at that time and good coaching was not as readily accessible as it is today. Bill began dancing over 40 years ago but stil
Bill Davies began his competitive dance career in 1964, a different dance era. There were very few competitions in the United States at that time and good coaching was not as readily accessible as it is today. Still he managed to rise through the ranks to an eighth place finish in the world professional ballroom division. He has partnered many wonderful professional dancers, and now the pro/am competition world is excited to have him back on the scene, after being off the dance floor for 15 years. Bill began dancing over 40 years ago but still has the same love and passion as he did back then.
How did you get involved in ballroom dancing?
Having finished High School and not wanting to continue formal education I was looking for something to do with my life. As a lark, I walked into an Arthur Murray studio in Hartford, Connecticut and the owner said, "We'll make you a teacher." I had 10 days of training and off I went! Teaching away and that was my beginning. Then I saw dance shows by Frank Regan and his partner, and an English couple, Pat and Gordon Webster, and it just blew my mind the way they danced. Shortly after that I saw the world champions, Bill and Bobbie Irvine, and that was it for me. I didn't think I could ever be as good as they were but I decided to see how close I could come. I am very glad I started out with such a good attitude and I've had a long and rewarding career.
It sounds like you were always interested in standard?
Yes. I studied that the most. Although I did get involved in the Latin when I danced with Sandra and I really liked it. Recently, I did a lecture with Alexandra Geisher; we taught both rumba and foxtrot and it was great! I had a ball!
Are you originally from Connecticut?
Yes. I was born in Naugatuck Connecticut.
After you started dancing how long was it before your first competition?
I competed a little bit when I was at Murray's, but professionally it took me two or three years to actually get on the floor.
That's not too long, really.
It's not too long and in those days, we didn't have a lot of lessons. I used to get two hours every six months with Bill and Bobbie Irvine. And maybe one lesson a week with Pat and Gordon Webster. They were in New Jersey and I was in Hartford, in those days there was a lot of travel for lessons.
Were Bill and Bobbie Irvine your main coaches?
Yes, But I had several others, Sonny Binick, Eric Hancocks, Peter Eggleton, Len Schrivener, Benney Tolmeyer Charles Thiebault, Elsa Wells, and then the next generation, Richard and Janet Gleave, Ken and Marion Welsh and more.
When did you get more serious and began taking a lot of lessons?
Availability was the problem. My then partner, who became my wife, Bobbie Davies and I, moved to New York. She was pregnant and I wanted to get to New York before she had the baby (Wendi Davies). So we moved to New York and I worked for a guy by the name of Freddie Rust. He was one of the originators of American dancers who danced English Style now known as standard.
There wasn't much availability in the United States at that time was there, or did you travel to England?
Bobbie had Wendi and then about eight months after that we made our first trip to England. Joe and Nancy Jenkins had already been there a couple of times, so they were leading the way.
Were you friends with Joe and Nancy?
Oh yes. Very close friends.
And you all competed around the same time?
That's right. Joe was first, I was second and Larry and Betty Silvers were third. That's sort of the way it stayed.
How long did you dance with Bobbie?
I danced with her until 1972.
Then you danced with Sandra Cameron?
Was your most successful partnership with Sandra or Bobbie?
Well, in terms of statistics, I guess Sandra and I were the most successful. We were eighth in the world, and U.S. Champions. But I've always felt successful with all of my partners. Each one has helped me improve and do better for the next. They've all been great partners and I consider myself very lucky to have danced with them.
After that, who was it?
Amy Block, then Becky Peter, who is now Becky Davies.
Then you retired, right?
Yes. But ready to come back! I danced pro/am a few months ago and it was really fun. It was the first pro/am I had done in fifteen years. I'm planning to do some more.
So you enjoy dancing pro/am?
Oh yeah. I love dancing!
Was it hard to get back on the floor?
No. I had a great girl. Vivian Cappuccio is a really good dancer. I was lucky that she wanted to dance with me! A lot of the students who do pro/am are really fabulous dancers.
Did you dance pro/am when you were competing professionally?
Larry, Joe, Frank Regan, Dennis Rogers, myself and a few others started the pro/am because we didn't have enough money and there weren't enough competitions… so by having the pro/ams we could pay our way to the event and we could also get organizers to run professional divisions if we brought students. That's how the beginning of today's multiple competitions started.
How many years did you compete professionally?
I started in about '64 and finished in '95 and there weren't too many years I didn't actually dance.
So that was almost 30 years. Did you ever get tired of the whole competing thing or get burned out?
Why did you enjoy it so much?
Improving… figuring out a way to get better. My favorite thing was to go to England and have lessons and then practice all day.
You loved to practice?
Loved to. Especially now that I understand so much about what the woman has to do. She's really got a tough job. And so much of the teaching is really negative towards her.
What do you mean negative towards her?
Well, they belittle her, they say, "Just shut up and follow." What a horrible idea. The girl has to be so active and so clever and so able to cope with the guy perhaps not being as gentle as he could be!
Do you think it's harder for the women teachers dancing pro-/m than the men teachers?
With the exception of a few, I don't think a lot of the women are very good teachers when they teach men, because they don't know how to dance as male. And if a woman can't dance as a man really well, I don't see how she can teach it. I don't think teaching by feel is a good thing.
But the men teach women better.
Well they know how to dance both parts. It's built into their training. They're the leaders and they have to learn the woman's part to show the woman, so they're really doing two things. Where because of this following idea the woman's put in a negative role, so when she goes to teach she doesn't have that experience. When I had a studio, it was mandatory whenever we had a coach in that the girl staff members had to dance as man in the coaching. A better idea is for the woman to learn how to lead while dancing as lady. That's even better.
But on the competition floor, do you think it's harder for the male student to do well dancing against a female student?
Yes. I try and judge by the student and not by the couple, as much as I possibly can. In a pro/am situation, if I see a man dancing better than what the female is, even though she may have a top line pro, who helps to make her look good, I tend to mark the man.
Do you like to judge?
I think so, because I do a lot of it.
Does it get really tiring, just making decisions all day long?
It gets tiring trying to be fair. If it's a situation where I have couples out there who I've coached and couples that I haven't coached, being willing to mark the couples I haven't coached over the couples I have coached is emotionally difficult but necessary. I certainly want somebody that I've taught to do well, but... my job as judge is to mark what I think is the best.
Is it harder to judge pro/am as opposed to an amateur couple or a pro couple, or is it all about the same?
It doesn't matter. What's difficult is if you have six couples who are equal, and then have to make the decision of who you mark first, second, third...
What do you look at first? What's the most important thing to you?
Well, my three basics are—floor craft, musicality and partnering. Those are my basics.
What do you mean by floor craft… not running into other couples?
I don't consider floor craft getting away from or getting into trouble. I think that's common sense.
It was with me. I was pretty good at not smashing into couples or avoiding them smashing into me. Floorcraft is how you present yourself on the floor… the way you move around the Line of Dance using the centerline then back out to the wall, how your choreography works in relation to the room. The other part is just common sense.
Do you think the dancers can do that? I see people that really just run into other dancers.
Well, getting back to men being taught in this country. The most vital thing that men and women should be taught in the beginning stage is direction. And they're not taught direction, they're taught foot position. That's a really big mistake. So, many times in the pro/am section, men have no clear defined direction that they're moving and because of that, they're like zombies on the floor. They're in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the time, but don't know it.
How did you know that dancing was what you really wanted to do? Was there something that it awakened in you?
It was like falling in love with a beautiful woman at first sight. I fell in love with the dancing… total passion.
Do you know what about it made you fall in love?
The combination of physicality, floorcraft, musicality and partnership.
As opposed to maybe another style of dance like jazz or something?
For me the partnership wins out rather than doing solo ballet or jazz. I really enjoy the partnership. I've had many partners in my life. I don't know if that means I failed a lot or succeeded. You could look at it that I failed because I didn't stay with one partner all my life. But each partnership has been a fantastic experience and all of my partners have been really terrific people.
You got along well with all of them?
The hardest one was my first wife, Bobbie, because I didn't know... I wasn't very smart and I just blamed her for everything. So she suffered my immaturity, for which I'm really sorry.
But it got better?
Each partner got better because each time I knew more as I went into the partnership, I had less to say to my partner. My job is to partner her, not to make myself win the competition. It's to get her to win the competition.
Since Becky was your student first then your partner, was it a different kind of situation for you?
Becky's a pretty unique person… probably the cleverest, coordinated and smartest person that I've ever known, a lot smarter than me. The transition was pretty seamless. She wasn't experienced in world class dancing, When I took her to Blackpool the first time I told her that I was taking her to a seaside resort. She was pretty shocked! But it didn't take her long to fit right in.
Why did you retire if you really enjoyed it?
She told me I was too old.
How did she tell you that?
"You're looking too old these days, Willie." I think she wanted to stop and I was okay about it. I had done my thing.
How old were you?
I think I was about 55 or 56.
Was it harder physically as you got older?
I don't think so. Maybe if I had to do six rounds, I'd have trouble on the third or fourth. But when I danced with Vivian recently I was fine.
Did I hear that you had a knee replacement?
Yes I did, about two years ago.
And it works just as well?
I've heard so many stories about your early dance years with Larry Silvers and Joe Jenkins… that you were pretty wild and drank a lot.
Did you drink before a competition?
I did once and I never did again.
What did it do to you?
I was horrible. I couldn't dance.
But didn't Joe and Larry always do that?
Yes, they did.
How did they manage it?
They just could do it. They drank all day when they were teaching so it was normal for them.
A lot of the Europeans that I've interviewed have mentioned Joe Jenkins. What did all of you add to the world dancing scene?
A ticket for a lot of coaching! It was quite an advantage for the English to have an American in the final… in terms of then visiting America and coaching. But at the same time, Joe and Nancy were terrific dancers and really great competitors. I think better competitors than artists, but that's what they were doing, competing.
What makes a good competitor?
Wanting to win more than anything else.
I heard they had a big fight right before a world championship.
They had a big fight every night! They were pretty volatile.
What was it like being around them?
You got used to it. We were all friends. We hung around together. One night we all ended up in the police station in Shepherd's Bush. I've forgotten the details, but I think the girls ran to the police because we were fighting. It was a raucous time...
You ended up in the police station? The six of you, or were there more?
Six of us. At that time we really looked at them as good times. There was a lot of emotionality and difficult times. It was not like today's crew that seems to drink vitamins and go to bed at nine o'clock.
Did you all fight with your partners?
With our partners and with each other!
Why would you have a fight with each other?
We'd just argue. You know...
About anything! You know, get drunk and argue!
Did you talk dancing with each other?
Well, we were competitive with one another, so I don't know how much help we were giving each other. We might have been saying things we were hoping would twist each other into pretzels! But at the same time there was a real camaraderie about it. I remember the first time I walked into the Palais in Hammersmith, which was a big ballroom where we used to practice. Somebody came up to me and said, "Are you like those other Americans?" because Joe and Larry had been there first! I said, "Oh, no, no, no!"
Besides Bill and Bobbie Irvine, who were your mentors when you were dancing?
Well, there was John and Betty Westley, who were known as being really musical. Ken and Marion Welsh were super musical dancers but they were always third, they never got to first. Should have been, but they never did. The Irvines were gorgeous. Richard and Janet, when they were amateurs, were unbelievable… although wonderful when they were pros as well.
Why do you think that was?
Because of whom they were as people. It comes down to who you are as a person as to how excellent you can be.
Why were they better as amateurs? Did they change?
Well, perhaps because of their youth. They had a lot of knowledge as amateurs. They were very sophisticated. So their youth enabled them to produce some of the most beautiful dancing I ever saw. Then it gets a little different as you get older.
Looking back on it, would you have done anything different when you were competing?
It would be easy to say from this point of view, but at the time, I don't think I could have done anything different. I did the best I could. Living in England would have been the best thing to do. Sandra and I talked about it. We were asked to stay there and assured that we would do very well if we did, but we both decided that we didn't want to eat the English food and suffer the English weather.
Do you mean it was political?
It was implied. It is political.
Is it more so now than before or is it the same?
I don't think it's just a coincidence that there's always an English winner. And always another Englishman ready to take over.
Did everyone get wrapped up in it then, like "Oh, I've got to take from this person to get better marks."
Yes. You had to. But by taking from everyone, you also got a wider spectrum of knowledge which helped your dancing. So it isn't all political, but there's a political element mixed in with the rest of it.
Now you train people for exams. Do you have a certain system?
I did my exams with Elizabeth Romaine, so I do the same as Elizabeth did. It's going through each individual figure and presenting it in a way that you have to for an exam. I just started doing it as a fluke. There were six girls that I trained and they passed the exam highly commended. Now all of a sudden I'm the one to go to.
Do you enjoy it?
Yeah, I enjoy it. I only do an hour and a half a week, so it's a nice break from the norm.
Is it a big class?
There are 12 right now and it's just started. It's not unusual for the 12 to go to 5 pretty quickly!
Did your daughter, Wendi, like dancing from the beginning?
When she was little she did a couple of dance classes with her sister and they weren't too keen.
She has a sister?
She has a step-sister. Bobbie had a daughter, Cindy. Cindy rode horses and Wendi swam, so dancing was just an occasional class. But when Wendi was in college, she came into my studio every weekend. I had a big school in New York and she loved being in the school. She was kind of in the center of things. We started dancing together and we did some pro/am comps. That was really great. Now she's married and going to have a baby.
And she has her own studio.
She is co-owner of Ballroom On Fifth in New York City. She has a house in New Jersey with her husband, Steve.
Sailing is a hobby of yours, right?
It is. Actually trying to pay the bills for the boat is my main hobby!
How many years have you been sailing?
When Becky and I stopped dancing and competing I figured we should get a hobby together. So we went chartering boats together and then we bought one and that was our hobby.
Where do you sail?
She's on the Chesapeake right now… having some repairs, so she's out of the water.
You can't do it in the winter anyway can you?
Yeah. I have a furnace, and a fireplace.
How big is it?
On the deck she's 47'… two and a half staterooms, two showers and a bath plus toilets, galley and salon.
How long are your trips?
Most of the time just for a week or so, sometimes a weekend. It's hard to get away for more than that.
What do you think about all the shows that are on TV?
Great. Fabulous. Wonderful.
Which one do you like the best?
I guess Dancing With The Stars. Although the one that was not specific to ballroom, So You think You Can Dance, had the best dancer I've ever seen in my life.
Has all the TV coverage added to the business of the ballroom world?
I think we hope it will and it's so popular, but I don't think we're getting a lot of people in because of it. It may escalate.
What do you think of today's competitors?
I'm not sure the competitors of today are better. They're different. They're faster. But I think perhaps less musical. But they have a freshness and a speed that we didn't have.
Do you like that?
I like musicality. In the final analysis, after you get through the floorcraft and the partnering, what goes on forever is musicality.
Do you like the direction today's dancing is going?
My greatest disappointment is that we in America haven't created a system that produces really good social dancers and at the same time offers them the opportunity if they wish, to go on to competitive dancing… and not look like they're odd or strange in a social gathering.
Do you think other countries have developed that more than America?
Yes. England, Germany, European countries.
What do you think they've done differently?
They define social dancing in simple terms. They teach the swing dances not having any swing. They call it rhythm dancing. But it's so sensible, it fits into a crowd so well, as opposed to a lot of the stuff that's done here that's almost obnoxious.
What else do you think the American dance world needs?
It would be nice to have more US citizens involved in the competitions.
Why isn't there?
One, their entry points into the industry don't give them very good training. So they can't compete with the foreign dancers that are here because they are so good. How can a starting pro here compete? The system isn't set up to accommodate starting professionals.
They just drop out because they can't get anywhere?
I think so. I would like to see us get rid of amateur and professional categories and just have classes of dancers, A, B, C, D, E, whether they teach for a living or not. I don't see why that should matter. Then they would have the opportunity to dance in the B class to start, whether they're amateur or pro. The total number of couples would be large enough to split them up into classes.
You're very involved in the PDF, right?
Has PDF supported this idea?
Oh yeah. We support that idea. USA Dance has permitted some of their people to teach. If you're going to do that there needs to be competitions that are open to all. If we have amateur dancers, the way it's set up right now and they are teaching and we have professionals who are teaching, it's unfair for the teachers not to compete against one another. Because the results many times determine who takes lessons with somebody. The system we have right now is unfair.
Do you think people just take lessons from big names if they want to compete?
I know that a lot of the pro/am women do, because they don't think they can dance well enough themselves.
It's been so long since you've competed, do you ever worry people are going to forget you and not want to take lessons from you?
I'm always worried that they won't take lessons from me.
There's so much competition now, and as time goes by people do forget, who's Bill Davies?
How do you fight that?
I just do the best I can every day. And I hope my students go and tell people, "Hey, that's a great lesson!" That's about all I can do… maybe doing pro/am here and there.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a musical dancer.
A lot of the things that men have been picked on in their coaching lessons have been caused by the women. If the lady leaves her weight for the man to move, he's in big trouble. She has to anticipate in a very intelligent way and move herself. Another thing is that many times, the man's bad posture comes from the woman's weight. She may be too side, too forward, too back, too whatever. I have never seen a top British winner that didn't have the strongest woman on the floor. But I have seen when the man hasn't been the strongest, but they won as a couple.
Originally published in DanceNotes on March/April 2006 by Christine Zona
About the Author:A health major in college, Christine Zona has always been interested in physical, emotional and mental wellness. She is currently working on combining her dance expertise and healthy lifestyle knowledge to give dancers a lifestyle program that will increase their energy, enhance their performance and reshape their bodies.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the AccessDance Network. Be aware that imagery is copyrighted and often licensed for use on AccessDance only. Copying of images is strictly prohibited.
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