May 20, 2024

Styles Of Dance

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Blackpool ballroom dance festival sashays into Chinese market

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A British institution since 1920, the Blackpool dance festival this week decamped to Shanghai, bringing its sequinned glitz to China’s commercial hub as it pursues the country’s ballroom dancing market. 

“China is an emerging nation in ballroom dancing without a doubt. It’s a billion-dollar business,” said Michael Williams, managing director of Blackpool Entertainment, which operates the festival. “Given those numbers it seemed appropriate to come here”. 

From its origins in interwar Britain, the festival held annually in Blackpool’s rococo-style Empress Ballroom now attracts entrants from dozens of countries. Ballroom dance is popular throughout east Asia, and last year the Blackpool event saw more entrants from China than any other country. 

The Shanghai event — the second held in China — saw contestants foxtrot, cha-cha and rumba in a suburban sports stadium normally used for basketball practice, with the addition of a proscenium arch and orchestra stage. 

“The elements that we have brought are the Empress orchestra — it’s exactly the same set-up and music that we have in Blackpool,” Mr Williams added. 

Peng Mengxue from Guangzhou and her partner preparing to compete © Tom Hancock

China’s tech giant Alibaba live-streamed the Shanghai event online and is investing more than Rmb10m ($1.5m) a year “to promote the Blackpool brand in China”, said Will Wei, vice-president of the company’s subsidiary Alisports. 

He estimated that there were up to 80m ballroom dancers in China, with more than 100,000 at a competitive level. “Facing such a large market, Alisports will continue to attract the best intellectual property from around the world.” 

Alibaba’s involvement highlights a trend of Chinese companies looking to bring foreign sporting competitions to China, typified by real estate conglomerate Wanda’s 2015 purchase of the Ironman triathlon event for $650m. 

Chinese companies have also been competing over live-streaming rights, with tech company Tencent announcing a deal with the NFL American football league this week. “More work with Alibaba will help massively with the marketing and publicity. The Blackpool brand appealed to them,” said the festival’s Mr Williams. 

Blackpool attracts 15m tourists a year but only a “small fraction” are Chinese, said Barrie Thompson of the China UK Business Centre North West. He said the town was seeking more Chinese investment. “It’s a tsunami coming and we want to channel it in the right direction”. 

Backstage, where competitors from China, the US and Russia limbered up, some complained about the smaller scale of the Chinese competition. “The atmosphere is not quite the same as in Blackpool, there are not enough foreign competitors,” said Latin dance specialist Jason Jiao, 26. 

Alisports said 2,800 dancers from 25 countries competed, but the event was sparsely attended, with most seats empty and touts struggling to shift tickets outside the stadium.

“Shanghai Blackpool just started so it’s not very well promoted,” said Beijing-based ballroom enthusiast Andrew Gao, adding: “It’s new to China, but it will be one of the biggest competitions.”

Twitter: @hancocktom

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