Marcus and Karen Hilton Reflect on The Time of Their Lives

May 01, 2000

We should have known. It's so easy now to review the tape of the interview with the Hiltons conducted last April in Manhattan when, in answer to Jackie Roger's query about the future, Marcus replied, "to improve on our last performance, I suppose."

We should have known when Marcus said, "We're very definite in what we want, but we don't really plan that far ahead because you never know what could happen."

Well, now we know 'what could happen'. Marcus and Karen Hilton, MBE, the world's darlings of DanceSport, the dominant force of the decade, the 9-time World Champions, 7-time British Cham-pions and holders of at least another 17 titles, have hung up their competitive shoes. They bid their emotional farewell to adoring, stunned fans at their favorite venue, Blackpool's Winter Garden, after an exciting team match. Expected to vie for one more record-breaking championship title, the gracious Hiltons left the door open for the next deserving couple. (See box on page 4 for more information). Bill Irvine, who announced the surprise retirement, said it best: "They are not only beautiful dancers, but they are wonderful ambassadors for ballroom dancing. They will be sadly missed."

How true! The Hiltons have been circling the globe spreading the 'friendship of dance' for more than 20 years. And even though they retired from competition, they will continue to contribute to the sport they love for many years to come. Marcus estimates that very little will change-they'll continue to take lessons from their coaches and, of course, give shows all around the world. By concentrating on the teaching side of the business the Hiltons hope to fill the void left without competition. Marcus feels that, "taking a much more serious outlook in teaching others our beliefs and art form will be a competition of a sort. It will be a challenge we will relish."

The Hiltons are the closest thing to the ideal-an ideal version of the perfect romantic couple-'Fred and Ginger' waltzing effortlessly across a beautiful ballroom perfectly in sync, marrying movement and music. Marcus and Karen Hilton are living proof that one can have it all. Here you have world-class athletes with awesome talent and grace, breathtaking beauty and charm whose tremendous fame and accomplishments have not tainted their wholesome personalities. Marcus and Karen are the genial couple next door-the down-to-earth, affable, witty chap and his smart, radiant (and gorgeous) loving wife and partner who just happen to be the world champions of dance. Marcus and Karen Hilton attribute their incredible success to strong family values and loving, supportive parents and siblings, coaches and teachers.

Let's take a peek into their background and see how it all began.

Marcus Chooses Dance Over Football
Like so many other young men, Marcus, who was born in Rochdale in 1960, was torn between football (soccer) and dancing. He started dance classes at eight because his parents danced but gave it up to pursue football and other sports. He played serious football for his town and was the captain of his school team. Then he caught the dancing bug again. "It was a difficult time, to say the least, because for a boy to dance in England wasn't fashionable," admits Marcus, who was ridiculed a great deal in those days.

By the time he was nine, he had completed his medals and was ready to tackle competition. He'll never forget his first challenge and still has the bronze medal to commemorate the experience-Marcus and his partner, a little girl from dance school, were disqualified because they performed illegal steps.

Liverpool Spawns Another Star
Karen, born and raised in the home city of the Beatles, started ballet like most others when she was four. She studied ballet until she was 14, began ballroom dancing at six and one half, completed her tests, and partnered with her older, blonde sister, Cheryl, in order to compete. At nine she teamed up with a proper partner and by 10 found herself in the junior division (because the young man was 12, an allowable practice then) where she quickly matured, gaining invaluable experience. She learned early on how to win and lose. Karen recalls her mother's sage advice, "If you can't lose; then you can't win," issued one day as six-year-old Karen suffered a painful loss.

Kiss and Chase, Kiss and Chase
No, it is not the name of a new kid's game; but the game Marcus and Karen played as new teenagers while competing in the Sunday circuit in the North of England. That's how they met and became fast friends. Marcus would run after Karen and then, hand in hand, he would steal an innocent kiss along the way. They weren't partners yet-Karen often beat Marcus because she was dancing with an older boy. Near their mid-teens, Karen's teacher attempted to pair them up, but Marcus was being groomed for a Latin career so the plan fizzled. A few years later a secret, midnight tryout was scheduled. Karen quickly picked up his routines and kicked her legs so high that Marcus and his teacher were soundly impressed. The clandestine February tryout a success, they crammed for five straight days for their first competition together. It was 1978. They needed to qualify for the United Kingdom Championship to be held the following January and for the popular TV show, Come Dancing. Their first time out they won the TV audition and placed second for the UK Championship qualifying. There was 'no looking back' now.

Marcus was happy. He chased Karen right into his arms. He claims he, "always went for the long-haired, dark type" and now she was his. Karen was happy. Her 'very, very good friend' who always told her jokes was to be her partner in dance, and later, her partner in life.

"Amicita Saltare"
'Friendship Through The Dance" was the motto emblazoned on the blazer pocket, the uniform that Marcus and Karen proudly wore as junior ambassadors for their country. They fondly recall the custom of all holding hands and bowing at the end of team matches as the announcer repeated the Latin phrase "Amicita Saltare" which bound them in friendship with their team mates and competitors. It was another lesson learned early on that has held them in good stead throughout their stellar 21-year career. Their parents encouraged them 'to do their best, that's good enough', to avoid unpleasant tantrums, and to uphold a positive image. It was and still is a great thrill for the Hiltons to represent their country around the globe. As world champions the Hiltons hold a great deal of responsibility. Since they are often asked to do interviews, to sign autographs and have photographs taken, they take pride in their appearance and practice in shirt and tie and a body suit and skirt. Their teachers promoted a 'look good on and off the dance floor' policy to which they continue to adhere. Nowadays, it is difficult for Marcus to fathom how some couples turn into ragamuffins off the floor.

Both Karen and Marcus believe their parents set them on the right path with no pushing, just sacrifice. Marcus declares, "our parents really helped us to keep on the right way and bring us back down to earth when things went well or wrong." Marcus suggests that his first coach was perhaps one of the biggest influences on his life because he taught him dance and how to live within the dance world. Furthermore, Karen believes that much of their strength as a couple comes from within. She acknowledges, "We've both been so strong individually, we don't rely on anybody else to give us any strength-we've always had a great support team. Particularly the studio we're involved with-The Starlight (owned and operated by Bill and Bobbie Irvine). We live very close to them and they have been very close to us, particularly in the past few years." Karen continues, "when you get out on that floor and you hit those pain barriers (which are there no matter how hard you train), and when you get out on the floor and you have those mental pressures, we're not just sports men and women-we're dancers and artists who have to perform. You can't calculate the energy that it takes, the inner strength that comes so you burst through the pain barrier-you must be able to do it yourself.

The 3 D Effect
Dedication, Determination and Discipline are the three D's that help develop a true champion, according to the Hiltons. And they have them in spades. But one day the third place couple jumped up and beat them. Devasted, the pair went on holiday with their extended family. The two defeated champions were relegated to the kitchen for the washing-up chores. The rest of the family was viewing a video of the defeat and Karen's five-year-old nephew exclaimed that the video must be wrong because Auntie Karen could never lose, she never, ever lost. This had never happened in his five years on earth. An eye-opening experience, Marcus and Karen briefly thought about retiring and considered opening a dance school. But they still had plenty of winning in them so they chose to practice and practice some more, devoted themselves anew to the three D's and came back stronger and smarter and started a whole new winning streak.

Dedication, Determination and Discipline helped get them to their unparalleled position at the top of the DanceSport World but their poise, charm and grace as ambassadors for England and dance surely helped them win the Queen's favor when they were presented with the coveted MBE in June, 1997, on the occasion of the Queen's birthday honours. (The MBE is an Order of the British Empire. It is one division of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the order of knighthood instituted in Britain in 1917 by King George V to reward civil and military wartime service. Currently, the honor is granted for service to the country in peacetime as well as wartime. Bill and Bobbie Irvine were the first dance couple to receive the MBE in 1967.)

The Hiltons call it the vintage year in their life, and Karen says, it is "the greatest accolade we've ever had because it's not something you can work for, it is an unexpected recognition of what we've done, given on its own merits. We're really proud." They had a chat with Prince Charles who represented the Royal Family (Marcus said he was very charming and quite talkative, asking about the film, Strictly Ballroom.) The ceremony, attended by their proud parents, was captured on video. It included sportsmen from every walk of life such as pro golfers, footballers and boxer Lennox Lewis. One curmudgeonly newspaper reporter asked why dancers were included in this fabulous line-up. The committee lady gleefully replied that the Hiltons had amassed more world titles than the sum of all the other sports awardees. So there.

Fred Who?
The comparisons to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is inevitable. Astaire, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year (May, 1899 to June, 1987), was a master of making dance look easy. "I suppose I made it look easy." "But gee whiz, did I work and worry, "Astaire once said. Marcus concurs, "the art of any champion is to look good-to make it look easy." And does he ever. Marcus credits his posture and his shape as natural attributes which 'look good'. His long neck, sloping shoulders and long arms coupled with a great partner of the right height (with dark, long hair of course) 'look good' to the legions of Hilton fans and the judges who marked them champions hundreds of times. Karen, who was once asked to dye her tresses blonde to match Marcus' (she refused), can dance circles around any Astaire partner. Her exquisite shape, gracious style and exotic beauty completes the perfect picture.

Close your eyes. Think romance. Imagine a handsome, princely gentleman sweeping gracefully, effortlessly across the dance floor with his beautiful beloved in his arms. Who do you see?

Marcus and Karen Hilton
List of Achievements

World 10 Dance 1981/82
World Latin 1982/83

British Rising Star 1984
World 10 Dance 1986
European 10 Dance 1986
World Segue 1989
World Cup 1990
World Masters 1990
Norway International Open 1990
World Trophy 1993
World Grand Prix 1993
World Classic Show Dance 1993/94
Super World Cup 1994
Woman of the Year Rochdale 1994-Karen
Man of the Year Rochdale 1995-Marcus
Carl Alan Award 1993/95/98
Japan Open 1994/96
BDF Award 1989/92/93/95/96/98
World Ballroom 1990/91/92/93/94/95/96/97/98
European Ballroom 1990/93/94/95/96
USA Open 1989/90/91/92/93/94/95/96/97
British Ballroom Championship 1990/92/94/95/96/97/98
German Open 1993/97
International Championship 1991/92/93/94/95/96/97/98
United Kingdom Championship 1991/92/93/94/95/96/97/98