International Ballroom Dancing

?Ooh, look at that peach one.?


?There, in the corner.?

?No, that?s salmon.?

?I love the sleeves on that purpley one.?

?Bit hazardous, mind you.?

?Did you see her shoes? She?s got matching purple shoes.?

?I wouldn?t mind a pair of those.?

Yes, we had come to watch the dancing ? the top amateur and professional Standard and Latin dancers in the world battling it out ? but we had also come to admire a sparkling clothing cornucopia that would leave Elton John reeling. Dancesport and fashion fetish naturally go hand in hand, and the visual feast at the Albert Hall kept us riveted throughout several hours of intense competition.

The eye-wateringly attired participants of the 55th annual International Ballroom Dancing Championships used every sequined weapon at their disposal to outdo the surrounding dancers, the women wearing anything from floating swirls of chiffon to?well, practically nothing at all. In the ballroom rounds they resembled a box of Quality Streets, their gold, emerald, pink and sapphire gowns shining under the roving spotlights, material piled up like a layer cake, frothing with every movement, or left trailing like a bridal train.

The looping sleeves, sashes and scarves proved effective, if somewhat unpractical, additions, with one poor dancer becoming increasingly entangled in her purple sleeve, which wrapped around her like a gauzy shroud. ?I said that would happen, didn?t I, Viv?? crowed a woman in the adjoining box, and her companion nodded sagely.

The Latin rounds were almost blinding, with a million sequins twinkling and winking under the lights like a psychotic Christmas tree. Plunging necklines and backs showed off tangerine fake tans, and, as if not scantily clad enough, a blonde European dancer made use of one of her greatest assets by beginning every routine by lifting her miniscule skirts and flashing her lycra-covered behind at the judges.

The frills, tassels and Barbie Doll glitter made these dresses every little girl?s dream?only somewhat more revealing, and occasionally rather more eccentric. A particular favourite was the twitching, figure-hugging black dress that was surely the death of several hundred ostriches, and which malted spectacularly as its wearer made her way around the floor.

And, of course, there was some dancing going on too. The top Standard couples in the world showed their class from the first step, sweeping effortlessly around the floor and only occasionally into each other. There was something almost otherworldly about the way they traversed, seeming to hover in the air with a natural ease and grace that belied the complexity of the figures.

However, some of the entertainment came from watching these exquisite dancers try to regroup as their rivals cut in front of them, restraining dancefloor road rage impulses and continuing to smile sweetly at the assembled photographers. The couples plunged simultaneously into the centre at the start of each foxtrot, skidding towards each other like well-dressed bumper cars, and dived into any free space that would allow them to fly across the floor and draw gasps from the audience.

Despite the old-fashioned tails and gowns and batting eyelids, this is a down and dirty competition, and with each round the tension mounted as the couples strived to impress with ever more dramatic movement. The tango saw a face-off in the corner between two Italian couples, and an elegant waltz ended in disarray as three women were spun into one another by their relentless partners. In the quickstep two couples literally raced across the floor, while the fabulous Charleston of another couple was overshadowed by their competitors jetéing between them and the watching judges.

The breathtaking competitive skill continued in the Latin, with gorgeous extensions and fearless spins and drops (one of which prompted a companion to clutch my arm in fear). The couples demonstrated phenomenal musicality, with an almost magical connection drawing them together, the power of which could be felt up on the second tier. The mixture of showmanship, passionate energy, control and beautiful storytelling kept us enthralled.

But part of the excitement of seeing live dancing is experiencing the sudden shock of a missed catch or body-slamming crash. As a viewing experience it is not unlike the opening of Casualty (you just know the cute little deaf girl on the slide, ignored by her acrimoniously divorced parents, is coming to a sticky end) or the start of a You?ve Been Framed clip (don?t leave the skateboard by the side of the pool while grandpa?s carrying that tray of custard pies!), waiting for the inevitable disaster to occur.

One of the collision highlights was the end of an intensive paso doble round (the almost literal fight to the death signalled by the stamps that echoed around the hall as the dancers took to the floor), during which two couples went for a big leaping finish ? and performed an accidental wife swap, with a competing leader and follower ending in a dramatic heap on the floor, their partners posing uncertainly on either side of them. Perhaps the Logans and Jordans should try something similar in this season?s Strictly Come Dancing?

Speaking of which, fans had the surprise treat of Karen Hardy emceeing (presumably with some time on her hands after going out with partner Brian Capron in the first week). Her familiar dulcet tones prompted a sea of speculation on either side of us (?That?s not her off Strictly?? ?Which one?? ?You know, she danced with the serial killer.? ?And that Mark Ramprakash?? ?Ooooh yes!?), and she brought her celebrated enthusiasm to the proceedings, encouraging the audience?s applause and catcalls.

It was somewhat surreal to hear Karen calling, ?Have you got a favourite? Let them hear their number!?, answered by shouts and whoops, ringing out in the rarefied environs of the Albert Hall, but this was an intrinsic part of the electric atmosphere. Chanting Chinese fans supported their country folk from up in the gods, while a massive Danish contingent packed out the front rows, waving flags and screaming in rock concert fashion whenever their couple sailed by. Unfortunately many of us made the mistake of recalling our favourites by the colour of their costumes ? which left us utterly confused when all the dancers changed outfits for the grand final.

As well as getting caught up in the thrill of the contest, my fellow ballroom students and I tried to pick out familiar steps in the dances that we are currently learning, but such was the flair and individual style of the performers that many of the figures were unrecognisable. However, we did occasionally stumble upon something we knew (?Oh! Spanish press line!?), and it was incredibly inspiring to see how lyrical, sensual, dramatic and expressive these dances can be. Something to aim for in our next class?