The Godfather

Before Strictly and Dancing with the Stars, Len Goodman was the British Fred Astaire

The toe-tapper extraordinaire brought his deep knowledge of dance history to primetime TV – and carried on the ballroom tradition to the end

Ballroom champion: Len Goodman CREDIT: Adam Rose

“He was a wonderful gentleman, elegant, with great humility. All the wonderful things you can say about a person, you have to say about Fred Astaire.” Those words of Cyd Charisse’s might equally apply to the former Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing with the Stars judge Len Goodman, who has passed away aged 78, and who continued that proud tradition of the dapper ballroom gentleman.

In fact, Goodman might be last of the wonderful old-school tribe of toe-tapping gents that we see on our TV screens – although new Strictly judge Anton Du Beke is supplying a decent tribute act. But there was something innate in the show’s original head judge which gave the fledgling ballroom show much-needed credibility, refinement, and an unassailable connection to ballroom’s proud history.

Goodman, like many boys, actually began dancing because he’d heard it was a sure-fire way to meet lots of girls. But he also had a passionate appreciation for this debonair dance form’s heritage. In 2015 he presented an ITV documentary, For the Love of Fred Astaire, paying tribute to his childhood idol – the man whose films brought colour and glamour into his grey 1950s childhood in London’s East End.

Goodman grew emotional when he actually got to hold Astaire’s tap shoes from the legendary 1935 movie Top Hat, and explained in an interview that Astaire “was always in my mind when I was dancing. I was always trying to replicate his elegance.” Goodman rather beautifully summed up the great man’s style as “his lower body was the percussion, his upper body was the melody.” In other words: however fast and furious the footwork, Astaire was always supremely graceful and the ultimate showman.

Goodman also absorbed the lesson that you could maintain those high standards of ballroom while bringing it to a wider audience. Just as Astaire conquered Hollywood and appeared in popular TV specials, Goodman had a surprising second act as a Saturday night primetime judge, and he surely did his hero proud with his gallant but exacting approach.

He was a stickler for the rules, praising couples for including ballroom basics in their routines and paying close attention to the technique, while his fellow panellists were sometimes more swayed by razzmatazz, yet he was always encouraging too. Of course everyone wanted “a 10 from Len”, but there was great pride to be had, too, in his 7 (or “Seh-ven!”) – that was Goodman respecting your genuine effort.

In the early years, he made frequent appearances on Strictly’s weeknight sister show, It Takes Two, giving ballroom masterclasses – with the help (or more often hindrance) of presenter Claudia Winkleman. His desire to open ballroom up to everyone, and in that charmingly old-fashioned format of a gentleman asking a lady to dance, was a lovely tribute to ballroom’s social origins. This was the way in which thousands of people courted and fell in love.

That’s important to understand. Strictly, by its nature as a competition show with weekly eliminations and a big shiny trophy, favours ballroom as a performance or competitive activity. But at its basis – and this applies to its most successful pairings – it’s a connection between two people. The best couples move as one.

That was certainly the case for its most lauded partnership, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Among their many, many glorious numbers captured on film, I particularly adore their Pick Yourself Up number in Swing Time (1936), in which they seamlessly switch between a formal ballroom hold and side-by-side tap in perfect sync. That takes such incredible awareness of one another – and handily, in the story, they’re still strangers and are feeling one another out – and neither tries to out-dance the other.

Instead, there’s mutual respect: your partner makes you better, and vice versa. That is a core value of ballroom, as also outlined by figures like the great Anglo-American pair Vernon and Irene Castle, who helped to revive social dancing through their appearances in silent movies and Broadway shows – and who strongly influenced Astaire.

It’s a quality evident in classy competitive couples like British partnership Marcus and Karen Hilton, nine-time world professional ballroom champions in the 1990s, who encapsulated that ethos. Even in the most fiercely fought finals, they seemed to exist in their own serene bubble, Marcus always showcasing his partner in the most gracious fashion.

Another remarkable English world ballroom champion, Victor Silvester, ensured the future of the art form by helping to codify it via the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, in his 1927 book Modern Ballroom Dancing, and via his own chain of dance schools.

Not only that, he addressed the problem of there being a lack of appropriate ballroom music by becoming a bandleader himself and producing recordings that exactly matched the beats per minute for each style, like foxtrot or quickstep. It was Silvester who popularised the phrase “slow, slow, quick-quick-slow”. He also became a household name thanks to his BBC show Dancing Club, ever the dashing figure in his white tie and tails – a clear model for Goodman on Strictly.

Over in the States, Pierre Dulaine both inhabited the ideal of the ballroom gent and showed how those values could be applied to children of all backgrounds. As shown in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, and fictionalised in the Antonio Banderas-starring movie Take the Lead, Dulaine took his Dancing Classrooms programme into New York elementary schools, encouraging pupils not just to learn dance steps, but to develop respect, discipline and self-esteem.

Dulaine and his fellow teachers stress the importance of taking pride in your appearance – boys are reminded to tuck their shirts in – and provide their students with the sort of male role models that might not be available to them at home, and which are disappearing from popular culture.

As for Strictly, recent changes to make the show more progressive (like introducing same-sex couples, or having its first ever deaf contestant) have been welcome – and, crucially, have made it a better show. That inclusivity need not be at odds with magnificent ballroom dancing.

But I do wonder if the loss of Goodman signals the end of an era: the last of the dancing gents. Of course any art form must adapt to survive, but we can, too, take a moment to recognise the beauty of that long-standing tradition – its polish, chivalry and sheer romanticism, and the joy of an era in which so many men knew how to partner dance, and took great pleasure in it.

With nimble grace, Goodman carried that tradition from Astaire right through to a 21st-century TV phenomenon. It will always be a 10 from me, Len.

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