Interview with Marcus and Karen Hilton
By Ruth Gledhill
Exclusively for

To the loss of the world of competitive dance, the legendary Marcus and Karen Hilton hung up their shoes last year after more than 20 years on the floor together. Their honour dance at Blackpool in May 1999 brought tears to the eyes of more than one professional. It is ironic that, knowing they would never have to compete again in front of a panel of adjudicators, they manged to produce what this particular pro called the closest thing to 'perfection on legs' he had ever seen. It seems unlikely that this couple at least will be making a 'come-back'.

They admit here that they are not missing the competitions at all, and are relishing the reduction of the stress in the build-up to the majors with which every competitor is familiar. But anyone who imagines that their departure from the competition scene will mean a lessening of their influence, that the technique in which they excelled can now be thrown away, is mistaken. The Hiltons are still deeply committed to dance sport. They remain involved, as coaches, judges and demonstraters, but primarily as dancers. From their base at the Starlight Studio in Streatham, where they teach alongside other luminaries such as Bill and Bobbie Irvine, the Hiltons are continuing to maintain their deep and abiding love of dancesport.

After teaming up as juniors, the Hiltons went on to become amateur Latin champions and then switched over to standard. By the time they finished they had had notched up nine World, seven Open British and countless other titles.

Their teaching techniques include referring to the 'standing leg' as the 'action leg' and encourage the man to 'follow his own shadow' as he dances. Marcus, we're all following yours, not our own! This was their first big interview after retirement. Besides coaching tips, it contains some useful tips about what the Hiltons are looking for when they come out to judge - so read on!

'We are really enjoying life after competitions, although we do get slightly itchy feet when watching the big competitions,' says Marcus. 'I wouldn't say we are missing competing though, in fact, quite the opposite. There is a lot less stress in the preparation for the major competitions. We are very busy teaching, more or less right upto the competitions, so we are thinking of our pupils rather than ourselves and it is getting very difficult to put in as much practice as we would like on our own dancing.'

They are still demonstrating all over the world - this interview was conducted over the Internet in between dems in Japan - and they recognise that to do this, they feel they need to look as good and dance as well as when they were competing. As a result, they are still having lessons. 'It is important for someone to give you inspiration and to tell you when you look good or bad,' says Marcus. 'Sometimes your own feelings can be wrong. I think every competitor knows what I mean!'

Recently, I snuck a quick look at Marcus and Karen as they watched the dancing at a competition, to see if there were any signs of regret on their faces that they were not on the floor. In fact they looked not at all regretful, but they were clearly not bored either. They appeared utterly absorbed. This turns out to be a true impression. 'As we watch the big competitions we feel every step with each couple as if dancing ourselves,' says Marcus. 'It's like being on that floor with them. I believe everyone who has competed at some stage will be able to feel some of the pressure, fatigue and pleasure that the couples feel, whilst dancing to that famous music on those superb and also not so superb dance floors.'

Of course one of the aspects of their retirement which inspires nerves in many contemporary competitor is the prospect now of having the Hiltons out there, notebook in hand, judging. How would their marks fall? What would they look for? How could we have the courage to dance in front of the reigning World Champions?

We recently experienced this for ourselves. Marcus came out to judge at the English, when we danced the Senior. He stood at the corner of Watford Colisseum and, would you believe, spent the whole day watching the couples and cracking jokes with the spectators behind him. His corner was the best-humoured corner of the entire venue. Every time we spun or scattered into his general direction, he and everyone behind him were laughing or smiling. When we danced a bit too close to his toes for comfort, he joked about that too and did a little pepper-pot out of our way with a laugh and a quick-witticism that made us laugh too as we danced away. And he didn't even mark us down for it!

'Judging is something that we have done from time to time since 1983, when we first turned Pro,' he says. 'Since retiring of course this has escalated and we both enjoy standing on the floor with pen in hand. It's as if it is something we have been trained to do all our dancing lives. I think as a judge, the first thing we see is the silhouette. The shape of the dancers as they take up their hold is very important to the eye. Whatever shape the couple have they should show a balanced and connected hold which should be clean and effective.

'We then notice the movement across the floor and the maintenance of the shape. I think in the early rounds in particular, when the judge only has a few seconds to watch each couple, these two points are the most important factors.

'Through the rounds the judge is then mentally forming an opinion of each couple as they progress. Once the competition draws to a close we have more time to watch each couple and therefore many other aspects come to the front of your mind. The footwork, timing and leg action together with the movement and shape, now are very important and depending on the standard of the competition, feeling and choreography also plays an important part.'

He is not overly concerned about the increased amount of 'shadowing' on the floor, a form of gamesmanship where some couples try to intimidate their closest rivals by dancing close behind or in front of them. 'With regard to shadowing. I have no problem with this aspect in competition as long as there is no intentional contact from couple to couple. I think to put another couple under pressure is very important if you know what you are doing! There is no need to push or clash, it's just a case of letting the other couple, the judges and the audience know that you mean business. It is very important however, to only attempt this strategy if you are worthy of such a pursuit. If you end up with egg on your face, like some couples have, then it is a complete waste of time. '

Once, in an earlier interview I did with Marcus and Karen for 'The Times', they told me they dance 'on the edge of balance'. They achieve their extroadinary look by pushing the balance between them as far as it will go. But how is this actually acheved? 'When we dance, we believe we dance from foot to foot and in particular the swing dances this means dancing from out of balance to out of balance, much the same as when we walk,' says Marcus. 'We start to move our body from our legs and the feet then this propels our body weight forward and we then collect our body with our feet.

'The process then continues as we walk or dance. I think the more advanced we become the more shape we should produce. This will mean that our head weight must become very active, but with a still look.'

Sounds impossible Marcus, but perhaps it is achievable. But where does this all come from? 'We do this by applying as much pressure to the feet as possible. To do this in a balanced way and the perfect shape, it is important to understand the body balance, both separately and also together when dancing as one, which is Ballroom Dancing.'

This is where a positive middle line is important, he says. 'While shaping, it is of utmost importance to maintain physical postural perfection and this can only be done by using the correct foot and ankle action.

'While moving backward for either the man or the lady, it is important to retain a certain amount of balance toward the front foot. The poise for the lady should be towards the moving foot and the balance toward the front foot. ' This, he feels, is where most ladies go wrong. 'The sides of the body should always remain positive and should never show a broken line. To produce the correct shape the knees must be used at every opportunity, they are the hinges of the lower body. The correct use of the standing leg, or action leg as I like to call it, together with the action of the moving leg should be studied ] to produce the required action and movement.'

With relation to the male dancer, the most common problem he sees is slightly different. 'With regard to the man, the biggest problem is in relation to movement in a forward direction. I think the biggest problem is that of swinging down into two legs in the moving dances and the positioning of the man's right arm and point of balance in the Tango.

'Generally the man puts too much pressure on the lady to move backwards if he moves into two legs. It is important to remember to use one leg as the supporting/action leg and the other as a swinging/moving leg. In Tango, if the man places his right hand too low on the lady's back he can produce a heavy look in the lady's back-line. This will also produce a look of back balance in the lady. Also, if the man, while having his weight in the centre of his foot, has a backward balance, this will always produce a heavy look in both the man's legs and body. I like to feel the balance is carried forward in the Tango whilst keeping the weight in a centred position. I sometimes like to explain this as following your own shadow, which is in front of the man and behind the lady, producing a type of sandwich effect.'

These are not impossible aims, he believes. But even if a dancer's technique needs work, and we all feel that we all need more work all the time, it is still possible to lift a competitive performance to beyond that which perhaps the dancer's technique merits. Marcus explains how: 'It is upto every competitor, no matter how old or of what standard, to focus on each round of the competition as well as the competition as a whole. During our career we have found that the most important rounds to make your impression to the adjudicators and the public, are the first round and the semi-final. It is also very important to sustain and if possible lift your performance for the final. It is also very important to make sure that you are both mentally and physically prepared for the whole competition.'

Finally, Marcus has his own view on the contentious Olympic question. 'With regard to dancing as a sport or art, I particularly think it is an Artistic-Sport. A ballroom dancer needs the style, elegance and flair of a ballet dancer and at the same time the energy of a marathon runner and the leverage of a high, triple or long jumper. A mixture of these aspects will produce the complete Ballroom Dancer. If dancing was to be included into the Olympics it would be a great advertisement for the Dance industry. At the same time it could create many problems with our current format of competitions, something which will have to be looked into in great depth.'

His role models include Peter Eggleton, and of course the Irvines. 'For me personally, I have many heroes who have danced in the past, both from inside our world of Ballroom and Latin American and also from outside our world. To name a few, Alan and Hazel Fletcher in Latin because of their complete look as a couple and their image. Also Donnie Burns and Gaynor Fairweather because of their total package of dance, energy and charisma and Bill and Bobbie Irvine for their "King and Queen" of the dance world image and for their continuing effort to promote and help the dance scene in their own inimitable way. Also for the competitive edge that they always produced as terrific competitors. Also Peter Eggleton for his imaginative ideas into developing the undeveloped in dancers and for his great detail into producing bigger and better shapes through movement.

'Outside of our world I am a great fan of Fed Astaire and Gene Kelly for their wonderful but totally different interpretations of movement and balance to music. Also in the magical world of ballet the two men who spring to mind are Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Bareshnikov who are both wonderful performers with a superb presence both on and off the stage.'

[Marcus does not mention this but Bareshnikov once said of Fred Astaire: "He is genius, pure genius!"] And then there is Margot Fontaine for her sheer beauty and elegance through line of body, movement and musical expression.'

Ruth Gledhill

Marcus and Karen Hilton demonstrating at Blackpool 2000
Marcus and Karen Hilton at Blackpool 2000

Marcus and Karen Hilton at Elsa Wells International 1998
Marcus and Karen Hilton at Elsa Wells International 1998
P. Sosabowski

Marcus and Karen Hilton at US Open 1998
Marcus and Karen Hilton at US Open 1998
Art Curths

Marcus and Karen Hilton at US Open 1998
Marcus and Karen Hilton at US Open 1998
Art Curths

This article is part of and should be seen in the frame context of Dancesport UK