I was at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on Sunday for Symphony Ballroom. A friend bought the tickets in bulk last summer, and I’m pretty sure I just agreed to something dancing-related, without knowing the full details – I turned up with little clue as to what I’d be watching. It turned out to be the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra playing tunes from the 30s/40s/50s, sometimes accompanying ballroom and latin dancers. And it was good fun.
It was my first visit to the Symphony Hall1 and it’s quite the venue. I generally see professional dancers in large, boring rooms2, so it had a strikingly different atmosphere. I was mildly concerned when I realised the show was as much orchestra as dancing, just because sitting still and listening to music usually makes me antsy. Also, big band stuff isn’t particularly my kind of music – I don’t mind it, but it doesn’t do much for me – and I briefly wondered if I’d need to fake not being bored. But it wasn’t a problem: the music was fine, and it turns out that orchestras are pretty visually interesting. I’d never seen a full-size orchestra before, and I don’t know all that much about instruments, so it was a surprising amount of fun working out where all the noises were coming from.
A Grey Haired Old Chap was playing the harp, which is weird as I thought you had to be a young lady to learn that instrument, but I liked him as he looked cheery. Some didn’t. In fact, some looked miserable as sin. Man On Large Drums played, we think, twice, both times for about ten seconds, and spent the rest of the time glowering and possibly plotting ways to lure small animals into his custom-built Shed of Death. Also, there was a Man With Sticks. Just two sticks, which he hit together like I used to in ‘the percussion section’ at school. I have to give him credit as the irregular rhythms were off the beat and did actually sound rather difficult, but the sight of a Man With Sticks reading music is intrinsically funny, and I couldn’t help smiling.
You’d expect professional dancers to put on a good show, but their performances were particularly impressive due to the lack of space. The stage in front of the orchestra was wide but extremely shallow – there were perhaps three strides between the conductor and the edge – yet Anton and Erin somehow pulled off a Viennese Waltz, amongst many others. The Latin couple were last minute replacements for Ian and Camilla and did a good job despite looking rather nervous. Their paso doble was great fun.
I never used to enjoy watching ballroom. The latin was fun and entertaining, but the ballroom impressive yet false – fixed smiles and set routines left a robotic impression on me. I remember describing latin as ‘every couple trying to be different’ and ballroom as ‘every couple trying to be the same’. It was always much more fun to do than to watch. But in the last year I’ve learnt much more technique, and at some point the concept of grace clicked. I now seem to ‘get’ the flow and beauty of the ballroom dances, and I react emotionally rather than just intellectually. Technically speaking, I can also now see how the professionals are doing the same things as me, just a thousand times better. It’s difficult to pick up technique tips from tv demonstrations due to rapidly changing angles, so a live demonstration was great. The footwork was too fast, but the overall stance and floorcraft was understandable. Given the reactions of the crowd, I could certainly do worse than emulate Anton du Beke 🙂
It was a good afternoon. During the interval I recognised somebody from photos I’d seen on their blog, which is the first time that’s ever happened. I said hi, hopefully without sounding too odd, and they turned out to be very friendly3. I think the show was only on for a couple of days, and isn’t touring or anything, and I’m glad I was able to see it. Interesting and entertaining in lots of ways, especially for people unfamiliar with live orchestras.