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History of Latin American Dance

Latin American dancing was first brought to the UK in the 1930s by Pierre Jean Phillipe Zurcher-Margolle (known professionally as ‘Pierre’), but it wasn’t until 1947 that a section of the Ballroom Branch of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing was formed under the name of Latin and American Dancing. The committee, chaired by the renowned Pierre, created the first Latin American syllabus consisting of Cuban Ballroom Rumba, Brazilian Samba, Spanish Paso Doble and American Swing (Jive). All of these dances were based on the national rhythms of the countries in which they originated.

The syllabus included ‘crush’ versions of each dance. This was deemed necessary as due to the popularity of the style in the venues where Latin American music was played they were notoriously crowded, hence ‘crush’ style. The demand for examinations had to be met by the only three examiners employed at this early stage: Pierre, Doris Lavelle (who had been his dance partner since the early 1930s) and Doris Nichols.

In 1951, approval was given for the transformation of the Latin American section into a Branch of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. The existing committee at the time of Chairman Doris Nichols, Constance Grant, Dimitri Petrides, Gwenethe Walshe and Harry Tucker remained in office and were joined by Pierre, Doris Lavelle and Holdora Mac. In 1963, Pierre and the Latin American Branch committee were honoured by the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing when they were asked to describe the official technique of Latin American dancing for a published textbook. This technique would then be the one adopted by all societies on the Board. Pierre was to be the recipient of the 1962 Imperial Award, a unanimous decision of Council, for his unique contribution to the technique and development of Latin American dancing. The Award was to be presented to him at a luncheon at Quaglino’s restaurant, London on 3 April 1963 but sadly Pierre passed away just a week before the event. His colleague and partner, Doris Lavelle, accepted the Award in his memory and the Pierre Trophy was purchased for the Branch as a memorial. The inscription on the trophy begins with: ‘Commemorating his pioneer work as exponent and teacher in introducing Latin American dancing into Great Britain’.

Circa 1972, a sub-committee of the Latin American Branch, comprising Doris Nichols, Doris Lavelle, Peggy Spencer, Elizabeth Romain, Dimitri Petrides and Sydney Francis, had been meeting at the Society Headquarters every week to work on revisions to the Latin American technique. The long awaited book of the complete revised technique was completed by 1974 and was subsequently adopted by ADTV (trans. General German Dance Teachers Association), the supreme examining body of Germany and was also translated into Japanese for use in the Far East. Peggy Spencer became the third Chairman following the retirement of Doris Nichols and served until 1999 when Elizabeth Romain took over.

The performance presentation of Latin American dance has moved with contemporary cultural trends. For example, since the 1980s, the music has slowed down and costumes are constantly changing in line with fashion. Recently, Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC has enhanced the popularity of Latin American dancing, especially with adults.