The British Swing Dance Championships 1999

In May 1999, the first British Swing Dance Championship was held in London.

A packed house clapped and cheered as James Phillips and Leigh Gibson danced their way to victory at the inaugural British Swing Dance Championships, held at The Improv Club in London on Easter Monday 5 April 1999. Following the annual Modern Jive Competition in October, organisers leJive were presenting their first swing dance contest, starting mid-afternoon and ending with The Bus Stop Boys in the usual Monday night Zoot Suit Riot style.

The way in which the competition was structured meant that this was 'swing dance' in its broadest sense. As it was freestyle, contestants were to be judged on musical interpretation. Instead of categories based on styles, there were three sections distinguished only by tempo: Slow Groove, Mid Tempo and Up Tempo. The Slow Groove oozed across the floor between 100 and 130 beat per minute, around the pace of This Business Of Love by Domino. Competitors in this category were mainly from the West Coast Swing/ceroc/jive schools of dance. The Mid Tempo section took the pace up to 130-160 bpm, and music here included Van Morrison's Precious Time. Again, jive and ceroc represented, but it was also good to see some Lindy Hop too. The Up Tempo music was anything above 160 beat per minute, and this is where Lindy proved to be the dominant style. Does anything else look as good as well-performed fast Lindy Hop?

The judges for the competition were Killer Diller editor Porl Smith, Jitterbugs organiser Julie Oram, Zoots 'n' Spangles performer and choreographer Bret Jones and Cosmopolitan Jive's Roger Chin. During the preliminary heats, they had the unenviable task of carrying out Death-By-Cardboard, as each judge had to signify their verdict by holding up a giant hand in a 'thumbs-up' or thumbs-down' position. This was designed to avoid any allegations of fixing, but for this Fearful Four, it only proved that the saying 'Hell is other people' was wrong. Hell is judging other people, especially when so many of them are your friends. Perhaps next year there might be a less stressful way of making a choice between two couples, such as getting them to stand on trap doors, while the judges pull a lever...

There was a good-sized audience for the heats, with regular Monday night dancers audibly boosted by friends and relatives of some of the competitors. There was much to entertain and admire, as well as the chance to question the judges' decisions and sympathise with those who had not got the thumbs-up.

The system of heats allowed all couples to perform at least twice even if they didn't win first time around, although this meant that occasionally some couples had to dance in two consecutive heats. Highlights of this part of the competition included Hakim and Suzanne Benkrid's smooth West Coast style, followed by his touching dedication of first place to Chris Gayton, Rob May and Karmel Gent making full use of their aerial allowance with some spectacular moves, and the experience of Martin Ellis combining with the youthful exuberance of Annabel Kirby to just edge out James Phillips and Leigh Gibson in the Up Tempo section.

Those Tempo-Based Section Results in full:


Slow Groove

Mid Tempo

Up Tempo

First Place

Hakim Benkrid & Suzanne Benkrid

Alex Charles & Jane Eliot

Martin Ellis & Annabel Kirby

Second Place

Mark Wilson & Jackie Robins

Rob May & Karmel Gent

James Phillips & Leigh Gibson

Third Place

Roy Dunley & Maureen Neal

Gavin Taulbut & Trish Northam

Nick Kirby & Marina McDermott

Fourth Place

Phil Howell & Maggie Howell

Mark Whelan & Blaire Palmer


Master of Ceremonies for the day was leJive's Robert Austin, while Claire Hilliard did the behind-the-scenes organising. After the heats, Robert announced that the judging for the Grand Final would be on a points basis. This decision won hands-down approval from the judges. Each first- and second-placed couple now danced to music at all three tempos. Those that had entered the faster heats appeared to have less trouble slowing down than the couples now required to speed up! This was reflected in the eventual result, with the title of 1999 British Swing Dance Champions going to James Phillips and Leigh Gibson. In a reversal of the Up Tempo section result, this time Martin Ellis and Annabel Kirby were second, with Alex Charles and Jane Eliot third and fourth place for Rob May and Karmel Gent.

In a move that surprised everyone, winner James Phillips took the microphone to give a very gracious and eloquent vote of thanks to his partner Leigh, his fellow competitors, the judges and the organisers, including hard-working DJ Pat The Kat. The evening then moved on to Zoot Suit Riot, with most of the competitors and audience staying on to enjoy the music of The Bus Stop Boys. As a first event, the organisers were pleased with the result, and no doubt are already planning something bigger and better for next year.

1999 Andrew Winton.

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