Few people living in Southwark know that that an unprepossessing building tucked away near North Dulwich Station has, for decades, been an international centre for ballroom dancing.
Now the hidden treasure on Village Way could be in line for a blue plaque to recognise its place as the ‘Wimbledon or Twickenham’ of the sport, thanks to decades with dance superstars Bob Burgess and Doreen Freeman at its helm.
Today’s Grafton Dance Centre was built in 1910 by a Dulwich resident, Charles Day, as a public hall and later used as a communal kitchen to help the war effort.
The hall was reinstated as a dance academy in 1957 by Phyllis Walker who later passed it onto Burgess and Freeman in 1972.
The pair were icons in the heyday of the sport, dancing together from 1961 after the death of Burgess’ first wife and dance partner, Margaret Baker, and after Freeman’s dance partner and husband, Victor Barrett, had retired.
With Baker, Burgess had been placed second in 1947’s British Open Amateur Championship and as finalists in the professionals of 1952 and 1953.
Freeman danced her first professional competitions just a year after meeting Barrett in 1946.
Barrett, then number two in the world, spotted her raw talent and offered to train her for free before taking her to the famous Josephine Bradley for coaching.
Remarkably, just a year later, they came second in the British Open Professional Championship and won the World Professional Championship. The pair went on to marry and have a daughter, Wendy, but eventually divorced.
As partners, Burgess and Freeman won the Star’s championships in 1960, were placed second in the World Professional 10 dance championship in 1962, won joint and individual Carl Alan Awards – known as the ‘Oscar’ of dance – and danced as demonstrators at Arthur Murray’s studios in New York and at top venues across the UK.
Burgess was also founding member of the British Dance Federation, playing a huge role in advancing the sport.
At the height of Ballroom’s popularity, they reached a wide audience thanks to the silver screen.
Freeman was a TV superstar during eight years partnering with Victor Silvester on BBC Dancing Club, while Burgess performed in Dance Hall with Petula Clarke and Diana Dors.
Grafton quickly took off and became an international hub for the sport, producing competitors and beginners alike.
Votes for a blue plaque have come in from Strictly’s Shirley Ballas and Len Goodman, who have both tread the Grafton’s boards, along with Dulwich locals and MBE holders Marcus and Karen Hilton, nine-time world champion winners.
Dancers George Coad and Pat Thompson were close friends of the couple before and are now highly-respected coaches themselves using the experience they gained dancing alongside Burgess and Freeman as competitors.
“When I first saw Bob dance I was a novice, dancing in a competition, and he made a strong impression on me,” said George, who is now in his 90s.
“I didn’t know people could learn to dance like that – there was something magical.”
Burgess was known for what George describes as an ‘academic’ and ‘clean cut style’, and Freeman for her dancing flair and Elizabeth Taylor looks, with Pat describing her as a diva in the true sense of the word.
“Her style was much more outward going than most girls those days,” George explained. “She wasn’t just dragged around on the dancefloor, she was much more flamboyant.
“As a pair the two contrasting styles made a very effective partnership and something the others didn’t have.
“I think the style they adopted set the style for at least 20-30 years which makes them so outstanding.
“Top couples of today are dancing what Bob and Doreen taught all those years ago.”
Freeman continued running the studio after Burgess’ death in 1998, and was still coaching as late as 2009 after it was taken over by Brenda Bishop. Today the 88-year-old is fully retired in year-old lives in Scotland.
Since 2010 it has been leased by Paul Burbedge, who first danced in the building as a 15-year-old competitor.
Dancers who have trained at the studio include current world professional ballroom champions Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova, and dance coaches Michael Stylianos and Lorna Lee, from TV’s Bad Teen to Ballroom Queen.
Paul has been slowly restoring parts of the unlisted building, which is part of the Dulwich Estate but has no formal heritage protection.
He said many people in Dulwich and Herne Hill walk past ‘the funny little building by the bridge’ everyday but few know its history, describing it is a ‘treasure amongst their midst’.
“Just about every World, European, United Kingdom and British ballroom dance champion since 1972 have danced on the very boards laying here today,” he told the News.
“Famous names such as Len Goodman, Shirley Ballas and Anton Du Beke have all been here at one time or another.
“The Grafton was the hub of the ballroom dance world, synonymous with Bob Burgess and Doreen Freeman.
“What better way is there to acknowledge, that Grafton Hall is to Ballroom dancing what Wimbledon is to tennis, Wembley is to football, Twickenham is to rugby, than by placing a blue plaque on the front of the building?”