Blackpool may seem like an ordinary seaside town in the United Kingdom, known for its tower and entertainment on the piers, but it is also home to the world’s oldest and most prestigious ballroom and Latin dance competition.
And despite its low popularity in Canada compared to Europe and Asia, Canadians excel at this sport.
Four-time world finalists Virginie Primeau and Nikita Druzhynin, who came to Blackpool from Montreal’s South Shore, defeated more than 100 couples in the amateur ballroom category (which actually means professionals aged 18-30) and reached the semifinals this week.
The Blackpool Dance Festival dates back to 1920 and is held annually in the Empress Ballroom, inside the city’s historic Winter Gardens venue. Thousands of athletes, from more than 50 countries, compete every year. In 2023, a total of 18 Canadian couples competed at the championship.
For Primeau, a 13-time Canadian champion, representing her country on the world stage is a dream come true.
“I’m usually the only one waving the flag. That makes it even more special,” she said.
The couple started dancing together in 2018, when Primeau booked a one-way ticket to Kyiv, Ukraine, for a tryout with Druzhynin, a three-time Ukrainian champion.
They knew each other as competitors, but then decided to combine their talents and dance together, aiming to achieve greater results as a couple.
Druzhynin moved to Canada in late 2020 after finishing his master’s in innovation management in Kyiv. That’s when he was introduced to Primeau’s ballroom tradition, which has been running in the family for decades.
The Blackpool Dance Festival is a special place not only for Virginie Primeau, but also for her mother, Christiane Primeau, a Blackpool champion herself.
She was the winner of the Rising Star Latin category in 1984.
A family legacy
For Christiane Primeau, now an international ballroom and Latin judge, Blackpool is one of the few occasions where she can just sit back and enjoy the tournament when her own daughter competes.
But she says that nearly 40 years later, the emotional intensity is the same, if not stronger.
“I find it more difficult to see your child dance than to dance yourself. Because when you dance, you can control things. And when your child dances, you’d like to help, but you can’t change it,” said Christiane. “All you can do is support.”
Primeau and her husband, André Poirier, have been training generations of dancers, including their daughter and Druzhynin, at the family-owned Centre de danse Primeau Poirier in the Montreal suburb of Mercier, Que.
Last year, Primeau and Poirier — who, like Primeau and Druzhynin, became dance partners after first being rivals — witnessed the younger couple make it to the final round of Blackpool.
“Virginie has the temperament of an Olympian,” her mother said. “She is very energetic, on fire, more sanguine, while Nikita is calmer, more temperate. So they complement each other very, very well.”
Virginie says participating in competitions like Blackpool comes with a lot of sacrifice.
“That’s our life. It’s all we do,” Primeau said. “Some people would call us crazy, but we put all our money and energy in our dancing. We train for four hours a day, we teach [dancing] the rest of the day — so we’re on our feet dancing, teaching or training all day long.”
What makes Blackpool championship special
For most dancers, the Blackpool competition is regarded as the pinnacle of one’s ballroom and Latin career.
Formally recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, ballroom and Latin consists of 10 dances, with five in each program.
In the ballroom (Standard) program, where Primeau and Druzhynin compete, dancers must master the slow waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot and quickstep.
As many as 20 couples compete on the dance floor in every heat, having one minute and 30 seconds per dance to impress the judges and qualify for the next round. Besides focusing on technique and the beat of each dance, the athletes also need to avoid crashing into other couples.
Samba, cha-cha-cha, rumba, paso doble and jive are the five Latin dances. In this program, the costumes and movements are more representative of the South American vibe: the beach, the sun, la fiesta.
While one’s technique and musicality are key to success at any competition, there is more to ballroom and Latin than pure movement.
“The most important thing is to enjoy and have fun,” said Virginie Primeau, adding that it’s the energy shown on the dance floor that makes the biggest impression on spectators.
With a capacity of 3,000 at the Empress Ballroom, the event has welcomed tens of thousands of spectators between May 25 and June 2 this year.
“It’s definitely a privilege to be able to do it,” said Natalie Hayes, organizer of the Blackpool Dance Festival, in an interview with CBC News. “When you see everybody out there, seeing everything fall into place, it gives you a real warm buzz, you know?”
Disruptions due to COVID-19, war
Besides being cancelled in 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the only other time the Blackpool competition was put on hold was during the Second World War, between 1941 and 1945.
Despite the sport’s popularity in Eastern Europe, many Ukrainian couples did not make it to Blackpool this year, for a similar reason.
“They’re just hiding in shelters and trying to survive,” said Druzhynin, who stays in close contact with his dance competitors from Ukraine. “How can one talk about dancing when the question is: can they survive?”
“I think for a lot of people, [the Russian invasion] ruined their careers.”
Hayes also noted a smaller presence of Ukrainians in Blackpool. She said the tournament made the decision to stop displaying athletes’ countries, as a result of the war in Ukraine.
“Everyone’s dancing as a neutral, as themselves in the ballroom,” she said. “Hopefully that will change in the future.”
Reviving the city
Among the British, Blackpool does not have a great reputation.
Home to one of the oldest tramway systems in the world, this city of 140,000 has been attracting tourists since the mid-1700s. Now, however, locals often describe Blackpool as a city past its prime.
The dance festival is helping to reverse this effect, playing a crucial role in the city’s tourism industry to this day.
“It’s a massive event for us,” said Coun. Lynn Williams, leader of Blackpool Council and a cabinet member for tourism, arts and culture.
The city is locally known for its piers by the Irish Sea, the 19th-century Blackpool Tower, casinos, roller coasters and live entertainment for all ages.
The Blackpool Dance Festival brings in about £6 million ($10 million Cdn) annually for the local economy, according to Williams.
“It’s wonderful to have that business. [The tournament] goes on for two weeks, so it’s a really important day in the calendar for us,” Williams said. “And long may it continue!”
The city is also a staple destination in the popular British show Strictly Come Dancing, where celebrities and their professional dance partners head to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom as a symbol of reaching a key milestone in the show.
Reaching the Blackpool semifinal is an achievement many ballroom dancers can only dream of.
Over the past year, Primeau and Druzhynin made the finals of the other two major competitions in England: the U.K. Open Championships in Bournemouth and the International Ballroom Dancing Championships in London. Their results were a first in Canada’s entire dance history.
The couple confessed they were aiming for more in Blackpool.
“So that’s the nature of this sport. This is life,” said Primeau. “But we really enjoyed ourselves tonight. … I actually think it was one of our best semifinals ever, our teachers are also very happy with us.”
In fact, the couple has another reason to feel proud, this time as teachers. Last week, their students Richard Leclerc and Martine Lambert made it to the finals in the British Open Over 50 Ballroom Championship in Blackpool this year.
Next up, Druzhynin and Primeau said they plan to compete all across North America this summer.
Next year, Primeau’s mother plans to be back at the Winter Gardens on the 40th anniversary of her own triumph there.
Christiane Primeau noted that ballroom and Latin dancing was quite popular in Canada in the 1980s, but the sport’s recognition gradually waned in the decades that followed.
Recently, however, she has noticed “the beginning of a new wave” of ballroom and Latin in North America, and she hopes her daughter’s results will inspire other Canadians to join the world of dance.
And her daughter is determined to come back for more.
Virginie Primeau said, “Canadians can expect to see us again in Blackpool in 2024. We will be back for sure — every year until we retire.”