Grabrede anläßlich der Beerdigung von Bill Irvine am 21. Februar 2008

Bill Irvine, M.B.E. (30.1.1926 – 14.2.2008)

William was born in Kilsyth, a little village in Scotland. The man had ambitions even at a very young age. He wanted to support the family financially and worked for a few shillings carrying newspapers, before he added a second job: he delivered milk to the households with a horse and cart. The horse was Doodles and for a while Bill’s best friend. He even worked as a butcher’s assistant.

He enjoyed going out to the dances in Kilsyth and the other villages around although he did not have the foggiest notion what dancing was all about. Another employee at the butcher’s shop by the name of Fanny Burns was a keen dancer and showed Bill his very first steps. He asked a girl to dance with him regularly, practiced and entered a little Amateur contest in which he won 2 Shillings. Following the rules of that time an Amateur couple was not allowed to receive cash prizes. So Bill was a Professional from when he was 16 years old.

He was drafted to the Royal Navy towards the end of World War II. In the Navy he got an education as a Physical Training Instructor. Through that he got his first insight into the anatomy of the human body, a knowledge which proved invaluable in the times to come.

When he came back from the navy he decided he wanted to become a dance instructor. He enrolled in a school which was very renowned for technical education. Up to his final days he always claimed the basic education from Alec and Peggy Proven was the foundation for everything he did. It was at that time that Bill received a lesson from Josephine Bradley who happened to visit Glasgow. Miss Bradley actually mentioned this lesson in her diary. The inscription reads: “I gave a lesson today to this young boy. Exuberant with puckish charm. Loads of talent. No technique at all!”

He received lessons from the great Henry Jacques, who very fast realised that Bill was obsessed not only with Ballroom Dancing, but very much so with a very clear image of his ideal partner. “So what YOU look for, Bill,” he said, “is a ghost in a skirt.”

He got an offer to go to Johannesburg in South Africa to work for the famous British Champions John Wells and Renee Sissons. Despite the advice of Henry Jacques to stay in England Bill left and looked for the adventure.

He partnered Aida Kruger and danced competitions. He won the Gold Cup in Durban and gave interviews to a newspaper, which referred to him as the South African Champion. The actual South African Champion happened, however, to be Mr. Vernon Ballantyne dancing with a certain Bobbie Barwell. The first contact Bill had to Mr. Ballantyne was a letter he received from him quoting: „YOU are not the South African Champion!” Bill was kind enough in returning a very ambitious answer:” Don’t worry! I’ll be in a month’s time.”

However, his wishes did not materialise in the upcoming Championships as he and Aida were placed second behind Vernon and Bobbie. But this was the Qualification to go London for a Team Match. After the Team match both Vernon and Aida decided to retire from competitive dancing. Bill and Bobbie were alone together in England and spent a lot of time together. It still took a few months before Bill and Bobbie formed a partnership. They went back to South Africa where Bobbie was first educated by Bill for her teacher’s examination. It was during that period that they fell in love. The natural thought was to dance together but Bobbie decided that she was too tall for Bill. As their love affair blossomed they decided to make the dance partnership working, however big the efforts might be. They could not live apart from each other anymore. But even worse: when they entered the studio they realised their clash of strong personalities. They could not work together, either. Despite these problems Bill and Bobbie married in 1957. They won the South African Championships several times and moved to England to study dance with Major Eric Hancox, Len Scrivener, Charles Thibault, Constance Grant and later Sonny Binick. In 1960 they won in Berlin the World Professional Ballroom Championships as well as the Nine-Dance and were second in the Latin.

One of the first encounters with Peter Eggleton and Brenda Winslade took place in Glasgow in Scotland awhile before the time of their famous duels. During a television rehearsal Bill went up to Peter: ”I know you will win tonight but one person in the audience will totally disagree with this. My Mother!” When they danced in the evening the audience was roaring for the Scotsman Bill Irvine and his wife. In the middle of the floor Peter and Brenda passed Bill and Bobbie and Peter said to Bill: ”That’s your mother?”

But it was 1962 that brought the Irvines to the very top. They won, totally unexpected as they had been fifth the previous year, the British Professional Ballroom Championships in Blackpool. It was then when Bill and Bobbie introduced their famous Stalks in the Tango.

From now on they were to win the British 3 more times in Ballroom and in 1966 managed to win also the Latin on the Wednesday the same week as the Ballroom.
They travelled the World to collect Professional World Championships: 7 in Ballroom, 3 in Latin and 3 in Nine-Dances. Actually their 12th and 13th title respectively they won on the same day 1968 in the Royal Albert Hall placing them securely in the Guinness Book of Records. Over their career they got worldwide practically every award that any dancer could dream of and have been made honorary members of most Professional Associations all over the world. It is impossible to name them.
They lectured and demonstrated all over the world: From Europe to America, from Asia to Australia and naturally Africa.

In 1967 Bill and Bobbie Irvine got out of the hands of Queen Elizabeth II. the M.B.E. Certainly that day was a highlight in their lives. Bill was president of the Imperial Society, British Dance Council and the Worlds Council President, that of the ICBD.

His further career brought him live and “in concert” to newer generations: The job of the Chairman in Blackpool. Dancers from all over the world saw him now on stage. “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!” His voice was the Voice of Blackpool and for many people Blackpool and Bill Irvine was synonymous. He gave this traditional and illustrious and most important of all Dance Festivals in the World his personal signature.

I met Bill in 1977 when I was 17. He was a guest teacher in my club in a little German town called Münster. As a present and an encouragement from the club I got one lesson with the famous Bill Irvine. I knew who he was from Pictures and Television but I never ever met him in Person. He greeted me very friendly: “Hello, my name is Bill Irvine,” he said as though he needed to. I was wondering if this man was the real Bill Irvine. I could swear Bill Irvine was 6 foot two on television. The moment he took a hold with my partner I decided that this is the real Bill Irvine. When 20 years ago my own father died much too young, Bill took his place.

He told me about meeting all my screen heroes: when he told me he was sitting in the plane next to Fred Astaire he was still beaming, taking a sunbath on a cruise ship next to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, dancing at the Carl-Alan-Awards with Princess Grace of Monaco and having a drink in the Fontainebleau Hilton with Frank Sinatra. I was jealous!

When we were discussing who the best actor was to ever play James Bond I confided my favourite was Sean Connery. He agreed with me, not forgetting to remind me: “No wonder, Olli. He is a Scotsman!”

Bill Irvine – the Man! What a performer he was! His last public appearance was at the Bill and Bobbie Irvine Awards in May 2006. He went on the floor for the price presentations and performed straight away.

Can’t we all remember the lessons with him? His logical explanations. His philosophy was: “Ballroom Dancing is simple. Not easy to do, though, but simple in concept. Olli, if it sounds difficult, I guarantee it is wrong in the first place.” Another lesson he taught me was about teaching methods. “Teaching is touching.” he used to say. That was actually his big talent as a teacher. He touched certain spots and the problems ceased to exist. These hands were magic hands! And the kissing!! “Darling, I love you! But you have got terrible feet!” One day I was so proud. He kissed me and right on the mouth. I was beaming with pride when Bobbie came over to me: “Don’t think too much of it. He kisses everybody. If nobody’s around he kisses the dogs.”

Have you ever experienced that Bill Irvine was a true magician? You could sit in his house at the dinner table. In the middle of a conversation suddenly you realise he is not at the table anymore. He already went to bed. I think it was Mr. Peter Maxwell who started to call him Houdini.

Actually I remember only once that he informed people that he would leave. During a big competition, where Bobbie and I were on the same panel, we heard his voice behind us: “I’m gone! I feel too sorry for the couples having to dance to that crap music. I go!” Said and done.

An interesting story is, when Bill wanted to go back to play some Golf seriously on his days off. He had a lesson with his golf teacher and at the end of the lesson the golf teacher gave him a summary of his faults: “Mr. Irvine, if you would like to be a Golf player of a good level, it would help you if you studied the laws of how swing is produced and how foot, knee and hip can work together.” Needless to say he continued with an occasional game but never took another lesson.

He and his wife are responsible for so many changes and developments in Ballroom Dancing. We will be indebt to them forever. I am sure nearly all of us who were fortunate enough to get to learn from this man remember that at least once during our career he went into his office, returned with an old edition of the Revised Technique, saying: “Olli, this is my bible of dance. But it is not the most important WHAT is written here. You have to know WHY it was written this way.” Remember his Dance News FrontPage article that read I do not throw my technique book out of the window! He was very concerned about the current developments in Ballroom dancing. The loss of the history, the missing knowledge about technique and the ignorance of the music being played. He made a foreseeing remark: “In 20 years nobody will know what Ballroom dancing looked like if it continues like this.”

Bill has touched so many people’s lives. Making notes for today’s service I was remembering the movie “It’s a wonderful life”, the famous Frank Capra Christmas movie with James Stewart, who played a man who had the chance of getting an insight in how the world would have been if he never had lived. Can anyone here imagine what our little world of Ballroom Dancing would have been without Bill Irvine? He was and still is a part of many people’s lives as he had influenced the whole business like nobody before or after yet. The death of Bill Irvine marks the end of an era which will never ever come back! But people are only dead if they are not remembered. We have to take the responsibility to carry on with his legacy. That is our duty!

The loss of his beloved wife, the Queen of Ballroom Dancing, Bobbie Irvine, M.B.E., turned Bill naturally into a different person. Losing his wife after 47 years of marriage left a wound that never even began to heal. Apparently it was his destiny that this strong man, who was famous in the Business as the man of perfect balance, lost, due to a serious sickness, his equilibrium. That forced him to stop the only thing left he loved: to teach dancing!

I want to take this opportunity to thank Doreen, Marcus & Karen and Sammy & Barbara for everything they have done over the past years for Bill. It cannot be valued high enough.

On a personal note I have to add that for me a time has ended when I could turn to Bill and Bobbie for any kind of advice. They are responsible for what came of me both in private life and professionally in my career as a dancer as well as a teacher. Without Bill and Bobbie I would be nowhere and that is not an exaggeration! Now the surviving half is also gone forever. - No, Bill, that is not quite true! I promised you already in your lifetime to remember everything you said and act accordingly! And I will! I will be forever grateful to you both!

The only solace for all of us who mourn his death is the strong belief, that now he is reunited with the love of his life. He is where he for the last 3 years always wanted to be: he is with Bobbie.

Listen, all you angels up there in heaven: you got the famous Bill and Bobbie Irvine in your midst. We were fortunate to know them and I am very sure of this: They will take you by the hand and help you with whatever you need. They are not in favour of countries, colours or religions. But angels, if you intend to dance: from now on you better watch your footwork when they are around!!

Oliver Wessel-Therhorn