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14 February 2008

So long, Bill Irvine

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The world lost the other half of the incredible Irvine partnership last night. Ballroom dance icon Bill Irvine, MBE, passed away in the night just two weeks after his 82nd birthday. He had been ill for some time. Bill's wife, Bobbie Irvine, MBE, lost a battle with cancer on May 30, 2004 at the age of 71. To the very end, even through her illness, she continued to play an active role in teaching, judging and guiding major events like Blackpool. Bill was no less involved.

He began a career as a butcher's assistant in Scotland, but all he wanted to do was dance. He became known for practicing his Waltz, Quickstep and Foxtrot behind his delivery van, drawn by a horse called Doodles. Unable to find the right partner in England, he met Bobbie in Johannesburg. At the time, she was dancing with Vernon Ballantyne and he was partnered with Aida Kruger. Bobbie and Vernon defeated Bill and Aida at the 1955 South African Championship. Both couples were selected to compete in London. After both were defeated by others, Kruger and Ballantyne retired, throwing Bill and Bobbie together. They married in 1957.

They won their first World Championship title in Berlin in 1960, then won their first British Championship two years later, after the reigning champs Harry Smith-Hampshire and Doreen Casey retired. But four days later, they were beaten by Bob Burgess and Doreen Freeman at another event. They fought back and established themselves as the greatest competitive couple in history, winning three world titles in Latin as well as many in Standard. Between 1960 and 1968, the Irvines won 13 world titles. They won both the Standard and Latin Championships in 1966, a feat unequaled by any other couple before or since. Then they did it again in 1968 in a single day, setting a Guinness Record.

They were jointly awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE) award in 1967 for their services to dancing. Until 1992 Bill was the Chair of the Ballroom Branch Committee. He retired as chair of the British Open Adjudicators in 2001, after 23 years of service. Both Bobbie and Bill were troubled by the new developments in technique, with style and subtlety being threatened by speed and drama. They were also concerned at how Latin dances were becoming indistinguishable from each other except by music.

Next time you're on the dance floor, take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Bill and Bobbie Irvine, and what they gave to this wonderful sport through passion, style, and commitment to flawless technique.