Janet Gleave... The Elegance That Is Ballroom

There probably isn?t a single competitor in any country who doesn?t know the name Janet Gleave, eight time World Professional Standard Champion and winner of every major event worldwide. Janet, always humble and sincere, epitomizes the style of Standard B

Date added to ADN: Friday, Nov 01 2002
Originally Published: Friday, Nov 01 2002
By Christine Zona


There probably isn't a single competitor in any country who doesn't know the name Janet Gleave, eight time World Professional Standard Champion and winner of every major event worldwide. Janet, always humble and sincere, epitomizes the style of Standard Ballroom Dancing and truly enjoys sharing her wealth of knowledge. Janet graciously talked with Dance Notes about her competitive career, her thoughts about the dancing today, her teaching and so much more. She will be in the United States for a seminar in Los Angeles on March 1 and 2. For more information call Maja Serve 310-541-7052.

Tell me about your background.

I started dancing when I was a child and it grew from there. My mother and father decided I ought to do something, and the norm then was children's dancing classes. I took my medal exams and joined a formation team and made lots of friends through that. From that, a competitive career started. That's quite a few years ago now! More than I care to remember!

When did you know that dancing was what you really wanted to do?

Well, I suppose when we were being a bit successful. It was like a progression. I was a secretary at the same time as dancing, so, if the dancing didn't take off, I had that. But I didn't really decide, it just was going to be, and we became champions. From amateur champions we went through to professional, and it was what I wanted to do. I enjoyed dancing; my hobby became my job, which is rather nice.

Did you have any other amateur partners before Richard?

Not really, just Richard. I did dance Latin first, my partner was Ray Rouse, but we didn't do that well. It's a funny story and I always tell this story against myself, really... at the same time he was dancing with me Ray was also in the Frank and Peggy Spencer Formation Team. I wasn't very happy with our progress in competitions and I said to Ray, "I don't think you can spend your time doing both. If you want to be successful in this, we must devote more time. You've got to choose between doing the comps with me or the formation team." And he chose the formation team! Then he went on to do quite well with another partner, so there's a little moral in that story somewhere!

When did you start dancing with Richard?

We got together I think in 1962 or 1963, and our first Blackpool was '63 or '64. We started as amateurs and turned professional in 1970. We won the amateur championships three times.

When you first turned pro, where did you come into the rankings?

The next year in Blackpool we were in the final and tied for third. It was very fast. A little bit was timing and luck because a few of the established professionals retired in the early 70's. So there was space in the finals. Being in that final was terrific.

How many times were you professional world champions?

We won the Worlds eight times, and the British eight times. We won our first British in 1973. Which was very unexpected. Anthony Hurley and Fay Saxton were the reigning champions. They'd won it four years running. It was quite exciting to win. It was a thrill in one way and a sadness in another… that you knock over an established champion. It was a funny feeling that night.

When you were the World Champion, did you feel you were successful?

Oh yes, in the sense that it's being reiterated every time you win and how clearly you win. That gives you a sense. But we were never really satisfied with the way we danced. We were never complacent with that; we were always searching for something better. Occasionally, we thought we danced well, but not very often!

Who were second and third when you were champions?

Robin Short was second to us, and Byron Charleton was also in the final then. I think he was about third. Joe and Nancy Jenkins were also main rivals at the time.

Did you feel challenged by them?

We were chasing them at first, because they were already in the final. We slipped in there. I don't know really, how close it was in those stages. We were just pleased that we were quite successful.

When you were the champions, were the other people close to you?

No, we won quite easily, thank goodness! Which in one way was very nice, but in another way there wasn't that motivation of somebody chasing, and the uncertainty. We were always uncertain in our own minds. We didn't take it for granted that we were going to win. But we had to motivate ourselves quite strongly after three or four years. In that sense it was a little more difficult than having a good old battle with somebody to motivate you. There's not a clearer motivation than fear!

I've heard that you really changed the style of modern dance.

I'm not sure if we did or we didn't. We just did what we believed in and we danced the way we wanted to dance. I think there was an influence because all champions have an influence on what the style is and the general way of dancing during that era. But whether we changed the style or not, is really a by-product of what we did.

Who did you train with?

Our mentors and models were Bill and Bobbie Irvine. We saw them competing in a competition at the Albert Hall when we were young amateurs. Their style… the clear, clean, classical line and look of their dancing we liked very much and we decided we would like to do it like that. Also there was a similarity in the height relationship with me being the same height as Richard. Another influence I admired very much was Peter Eggleton and Brenda. But they had a completely different style. Len Scrivener was a great influence on us, and Charles Thiebault also had a big influence on me, as a dancer. They were all completely different, but they were a good mix for us. We had a pretty good team, I think!

So there are different styles in the standard?

Yes. We're all trying to do it technically and basically the same, but we all come out looking different, because we're different personalities, different muscular builds, different height relationships, different physicalities. Richard and I are completely different, so we had to learn to deal with that. So it comes out looking a little different each time.

How do you teach a couple that is a different style, maybe that was mostly trained by Peter Eggleton?

I just deal with the principles I believe in. I don't try to change them. I'm not trying to make them dance like me. I'm just trying to help them do what they want to do better. And I believe in certain ways. I'm not saying my way is the only way. It depends on what you understand and what you're doing. They pay their money and make their choice, I think! That's the thing, you go and gather information from many people, which can be very helpful, but also can be very confusing at times. That's learning, isn't it? You click with certain people. We chose the method that we wanted to dance through, and we went that way, and other couples choose other ways. At the end of the day you have the choice. It's like painting, isn't it? You might like the style of a certain painter, but they're all good. It doesn't matter to me where the dancers have trained or what they're doing. I'm just doing my little bit to help them do it better, make it more comfortable and enjoyable, because it can be very painful!

Do you have certain couples that you work with all the time?

I have a lot of diverse couples. Some couples have more regular lessons, and other couples come and have lessons when they can. It's better if you can have an ongoing continuity, but everything's so international, isn't it? Everyone travels a lot, so it's not the week-in, week-out lessons we used to have.

Do you have couples here that are considered "your couples"?

No, I don't think so. I don't consider couples as our couples or my couples. I'm just very happy to teach them.

Do you get involved in between rounds at a competition?
Oh, no, I never do. I don't really believe in that. That's what you have your lessons for. That's what you have your practice for. It's the way we did it as well when we were competing. We never sought advice between rounds. If you don't know what you're doing on the night, it's too late. To me, you're on your own. It's part of competing, it's part of the mental focus of what you're trying to do on the night, and that's only up to you. There's no quick fix. Ballroom dancing is a very difficult form of dancing.

When you watch do you take notes on what they need to do?

I don't take notes, no, but I assess whether they're having a good night or not. I form an opinion of their dancing. When the competition is over I can tell them what needs to be a priority. I'm not very critical in that sense though. I try and just enjoy the dancing. I just like to see good, lovely dancing.

Do you feel it takes longer for a man to learn ballroom dancing than a woman?

In the sense that the man is responsible for 90% of what the couple does. The woman has a role to play, but the man has to decide on how they're going to dance, what they're going to dance and where he's going to place it in the room. That's the theory. A lot of couples have a routine and just dance it, and so that's really not ballroom dancing. You try to develop this very skillful thing where a man can dance with a lady and she doesn't have to know the steps. And then you've got to do it at fifty miles an hour! Under the scrutiny of a load of people, but that's the beauty of it. That's the thrill of it when it comes off… it's lovely. It does take a man longer to learn to make these decisions, and make these decisions in a split second. The lady is playing her role to allow him to do that. In today's dancing, the lady dances as strongly and as powerfully as the man, but she just doesn't lead, hopefully! I'm still old fashioned to believe that the man should lead and the lady should follow.

What do you think of the dancing today, the phase it's going through?

Some things are terrific and some things are not so good. It's just getting the mix right. The couples are very talented… when I think of how I danced when I was their age; it was nowhere near as complex choreographically. I'm not too enamored with a lot of the choreography that's danced today. It doesn't allow the couples to dance as well as they could. Some of it is very, very difficult, for their ability, and I get a bit frustrated with that. You see some lovely, talented little dancers out there and they're not able to dance, it's all choreography. The dance doesn't have any of the form of the dance. I'm not too happy with the way things are at the moment in that respect. There are some terrific ideas, but some combinations; some of those couples have got no chance, really.

What do you think will be the next trend?

I hope it will go back to a more step and swing dance in the swing dances and the dancers get the character of each dance back. That will be the influences of the champions, really.

You think if they just stop doing all this tricky choreography...

Not all of it, but have some basis of the dance in each dance, and dance each dance with its basic character. That's basic technique. A lot of couples just don't know and I don't blame them. It's their coaches and their teachers who give them these things. It'll evolve. It's going through this period at the moment, but I can see signs of it changing slightly. I'm not against choreography, but when you get all choreography and no action, then it's not right. It gets boring for me. I like to see a good action.

Are the competitors different now than when you were competing?

Yes, in some ways it's better. They're more prepared than we were. We were totally dance orientated. We did do some other things, like Richard did run and he did a little bit of weight lifting and things like that. But at the end of the day, if you're not dancing well and you haven't got a good technique, none of that matters. It doesn't make you dance better, it just makes you slightly more fit, I suppose. You shouldn't have to be an athlete to do what we do, because it's not that type of dancing. You do need stamina though. So all the things that dancers do today, like the dietitians, and the working out do help, but those things don't necessarily make better dancing. The kernel of it is still the dancing itself. We were much more self-service back then. I used to make my own dresses, do my own hair, and dye my own shoes. I'm not saying that's better, but that's the way it was. Those aspects have changed, which is the way of the world, isn't it? Sponsorship in the dancing world is terrific.

Did you practice a lot of hours each day?

We used to practice every day, and sometimes twice a day. There used to be dance halls. We're going back a period now! And we were so lucky that we were able to practice to live music in those days. The big dance bands still played for general dancing to the general public and we would go into those practices. That was terrific because we had to dance amongst normal people. There was a dance called Dancer's Night, and they would have a demonstration by the top professionals. So we would see a show very regularly, and we learned from that. If you wanted to see a top pro dance then, you had to go and see a show. You didn't see them practicing. That whole aspect has changed. You can practice with everybody now. In those days, you couldn't.

When you were the champions, you didn't practice with other people?

We did. We were changing things. But you never saw the older professionals practicing. They practiced in the daytime. We used to practice in the open practice sessions, and we enjoyed it. That sorts it out-dancing with other people and to live music. That was very good for us. We danced on a big floor, big like Blackpool. We practiced three times a week at that place, and then we used to have a little practice other places... sometimes we would practice at two and three o'clock in the morning. Just couldn't get it right! And we would get carried away. I enjoyed practicing most times.

What did you enjoy about it?

Trying to work it out. Trying to figure out why it doesn't work. It's fascinating, frustrating, and you know, argumentative at times, because you get so frustrated that you're not doing it. You did it last night, why can't you do it tonight? The more you do it, the more you learn, the more fascinating it becomes. I just like dancing. But it wasn't all plain sailing.

Do you dance now at all?

I dance all the time when I'm teaching. I can't sit still! I still like doing it.

How many hours a day do you teach now?

I teach about five or six days a week from nine until five thirty. I have a lunch break; I can't work through. But it's a nine to five job now. Very routine. It never used to be!

Do you think the woman's role in the dance world has changed?

I don't think it's changed. We still should be trained to follow and the man should be trained to lead. But it's very difficult to follow a non-existent lead. So it takes time. I wasn't always a good dancer. I had to learn to do these things, so when you're out there on the competition floor; it's a bit of self-service. The better dancer you become, you can deal with uncertainty. You can deal with having to just dance around and find space. You're just dancing together.

What about in the teaching world, has the woman's role changed?

I think in our world we've been very fortunate in that we've had a lot of prominent women in the business. We're equal. We've always had equal pay for the job. In that sense the dance business is very good for the women who want to teach. Not all women want to teach, and didn't teach years ago. Josephine Bradley was the leading lady of dancing. She started dancing in the 20's and she grew up with it, she nurtured it, she helped to form it. And I'll always remember when we turned professional, she said to me, "Are you going to teach, dear?" I said, "Yes, of course I am," and she said, "Very good, you must pass on the feel. It isn't just the information, you must give people the feel of what it is you're trying to do." I think that is a very important role of the teacher. We can all copy things, but what does it really feel like at a very high level, and what are you trying to achieve? I'll always remember my first experience of feeling what the champions, Bill and Bobbie, felt like. I couldn't believe it, and I thought, "My goodness me, we've got a lot to do here!" That was always in the back of my mind, it doesn't feel like.... so you have to know the feel, how light and flexible it is. You've got these two bodies that should be in constant contact. And you've got two weights trying to swing weightlessly with each other.

What was the best compliment you've ever received?

How do you do it? You make it look so easy.

And what did you say to that?

I said, "Thank you very much. I wish it was as easy as it seems to be!" I think that's a great compliment, when you make something look easy. That's the whole mark of a very good anything-tennis players, runners. They make it look easy, don't they? I watch tennis sometimes. The speed at which they have to get back to that ball, the good ones just do it. They make it look easy. I can't even get it across the net, let alone anything else.

Have you studied any kind of movement analysis or anything like that?

I wouldn't say studied hard, but have studied it. I'm fascinated by it. I started not knowing a lot about the body but I've learned a lot by just using it and going through instinct and feel. I try and find why does this feel right and that doesn't? What is it that makes this feel correct? If it's difficult, you can't be doing it properly. This is the way I always look at it, because what we're trying to do is natural movement. We're not trying to interfere with the way the body works. It's been designed to move in certain ways, so you have to enhance that and use it and not change it. The body's a very complex machine, isn't it, and it works quite well. I've researched into things to really try to understand why.

Have you changed what you teach over the years?

I still believe in the things and the way we danced. I still believe in the basic fundamental things, because they're principles and principles don't change. I've developed them, but I haven't changed them. I've come to understand more of what we did and how we did it. When we were dancing we were getting information and doing research on the method we were trying to dance… weightless on each other, not effortless, but weightless, light, flexible. We were always trying to get information on how we could achieve that. So, it was developed, but not changed.

Do you think you and Richard teach the same?

We teach the same principles, but we don't always describe things the same way. Richard is very intellectual and very verbal and explains things in an intellectual way. I tend just to do it! And put it more simply. I feel I have information behind the simple methods, so if somebody wants to know why, then I boil it down to something but in a little bit simpler way, but it's the same.

So, you've been coming to Blackpool for a long time.

Nearly 40 years. My goodness! I was very young when I came!

Have things changed much, besides it's gotten bigger?

Oh yes. It's much bigger; the competitive numbers are bigger. It's got very, very international, of course. When I first came, it was an almost all British audience, all British competitors, and the top right hand balcony was reserved for overseas visitors. There would be 10 or 12 people in there and they would get introduced. On a Thursday or Friday night there used to be an introduction of all the overseas couples, and that didn't take very long, but then they had to stop that because it took too long! Now you just read it in the program. The spread of the word has been very successful. There are so many countries that come to Blackpool now and so many young dancers that experience the specialness of Blackpool. The number of dancers from other countries has been the biggest change.

When I started dancing, the English dancers were always the best in standard. But there doesn't seem to be as many now.

We don't have as many British dancers competing. Our numbers have dwindled in that sense. I still feel what we do have is a high quality. The word has been spread. Our British teachers and coaches have traveled the world and trained dancers and so it's inevitable. Why should dancing be any different than anything else the British do and teach other countries to do? Sometimes they end up doing it better! Or they are as good, and so therefore we're outnumbered. We can't be number one all the time because there are so many good dancers from other countries now. The job has been done. If we hadn't done our job well, we wouldn't have it so worldwide, would we? I think it's great, to have done what we did... our tiny little world in England has spread so much and there's these millions of people doing ballroom dancing. I think it's fabulous. There's some fabulous dancing. There's also some terrible dancing, but that's not confined to a nationality!

Why do you think there are fewer British dancing now?

Everything goes in cycles. You get a surge of dancers and then it goes down. Every country will see the same thing. In our heyday it was the music of the day, and there were dance halls about. It was the form of dance and now it's not, it's a specialty. Now you go to clubs, that's the dancing of the day, that's the music of the day. What we do has been sidelined to a specialty, whereas it was the form of dance, that's why it grew. That's why it was so popular. You've got to search out the music you want to dance to now.

Do you teach mostly people that are at a high level?

I don't teach beginners, but they're not all at a high level. They all try to be at a high level, so it's a specialty. They're competitive dancers, mostly. I don't mind what level they are, or their goal. It's fascinating. As long as people are interested and enthusiastic about what they want to do, then that's fine. They don't have to be good. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a job, would I? It doesn't matter. It's the attitude and the enthusiasm and the interest of the person that's taking the lesson at the time. That's what I enjoy. Just to see a little improvement is lovely. And if they're not improving, I say to myself, "Well, I can't be explaining this very well. I'll have to find another way of explaining." And that's fascinating too, because some people are do people, some people are don't people, some people are feel people, other people want to know the words. That keeps you on your toes all the time. That's the fascinating part of teaching, finding the priority for that couple at that moment. And when you see a little improvement, it's real. I always think somebody else has done it, not me! I'm very lucky to be paid for my hobby and my love! You meet such lovely people.

Have you ever had a time when you just had enough of dancing?

One practice I think I did, yes! I thought, "This is it. I'm no good. I'll never get this. I'm giving it up. I'm not going through this." And then I slept and practiced the next day.

Just one time!

Yes, really. In a fit of anger and pique, I think. I soon got over that. I think the next practice must have been quite good and I thought, "Oh well, that was just a bad day."

Do you like to judge?

It's not the favorite aspect of my job, but I do think of it as a responsibility.

Are there a lot of differences between judges and how they see things?

Sometimes, yes. That's why you have a panel of judges-we all see things differently and we have different priorities. We all come to it differently, don't we? Hopefully, we're all basing on the same thing, but we see it differently. We stand around the room in different places. We don't see things at the same time. When you see a couple they may be doing something good, by the time they get down to the end of the floor, they're making a right hash of it, so they look really awful.

Do you think you're harder on couples that you teach? How do you separate it?

They've all got clean slates out there, and if they're dancing well they get my mark; if they're not, they don't. I hope the couple whose dancing I like are dancing well, so that I can mark them. You know they're good dancers, but out on that comp floor, it might not be happening, and it's happening for the other couple.

Do the dancers come to you and question your marks?

Oh yes. Nina Hunt once said the right thing when somebody questioned her. She said, "I mark by comparison and you didn't compare very well," and left it at that. It depends how it's questioned, of course. They would generally know anyway.

Do you have any goals?

My goal when I was dancing was to be the best dancer. Now my goal is to be the best teacher, to do what I want to do well. For me, you never achieve it, because you're always learning, you're always developing. I love teaching, but I'm still learning, I'm still developing. You don't stop. You're developing yourself all the time. I love it. Getting the people to do what they can do to the best of their ability. They're not all going to be champions. It's not possible, but it's important to get people to try and achieve their ability.

Coach's Corner

Many couples have their arms and head... men's arms out of position and lady's head and shoulders out of position. They can't possibly balance. One of the quickest things that you can improve is how you place your arms in position to balance the body. If the couples would just take a little time and learn to balance their arms in the right place, they hang down by our bodies most of the time don't they? We have to carry our arms in this position for two minutes, and the majority of dancers put them in the wrong place. It would be just as easy to put them in the right place and have them do the job that they are supposed to do… to balance us and to hold each other. Get a good balanced hold. Not just because it looks right, but it must be balanced. The hold is not paid enough attention to. Today everyone wants to be wide and big. The fact that the lady may be short and small seems to have nothing to do with it!

Also, over-poising of the ladies to get the so-called "big top." The lady's bodyline should be in balance. They are different aspects but the two really go together. The man is pulling the lady and the lady is pulling on the man all the time, which is not the idea at all. The lady's bodyline is a little more difficult to do, as usual! Everything the lady does is a little bit more difficult!

Originally published in Dance Notes on Nov/Dec 2002 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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