Q&A with Dance Legends, Marcus & Karen Hilton MBE

Published by Amy, with Marcus & Karen Hilton MBE on 15th Jan 2020

The legendary Marcus & Karen Hilton MBE have worn our shoes since the 1980s and there is no couple more idolised than them in the dance world. With the first major competition of the year coming up in Bournemouth next week, we thought we'd talk through the career of the world's most successful couple ever!

You had an incredible career dancing together and are widely renown as the greatest of all time, winning trophy after trophy and achieving idol status across the dance world and even status within the British Empire! What was the highlight of your career and why?

Marcus: The highlight of my career I feel is split between two things. Firstly; winning our first Professional Ballroom Championship in 1990 in Tokyo. The event was spectacular in the famous Budokhan Hall, and became somewhat of a duel between ourselves and the then current World Champions John Wood & Anne Lewis (now Gleave). We won by winning 3-2 dances, and the audience participation as the adjudicators first place marks were placed onto a very large square TV screen hanging from the ceiling of the hall was deafening.

Secondly; being honoured on the Queen's Birthday honours in June 1997 with MBE's for services to charity and the Ballroom Dancing industry. It was such a wonderful occasion to receive such honours especially with all our family with us for the occasion in Buckingham Palace.

Karen: Much the same as Marcus although winning our first World Amateur Latin American Championship in Aarhus, Denmark in 1982 was a very special highlight in our career, it was our first World Championship win together. Winning our first British Open Amateur Latin & Professional Ballroom Championship was also a very special occasion in 1982 and 1990 respectively. Receiving our MBE's from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace was a dream and something we will never forget and will always stay in our memories.

How did you both get into dancing and at what age? How did it all begin?

Marcus: I started dancing at the age of 8 at my local dance school in Rochdale called Turner's Dance School. Both my parents and sister went to the same dance school and were doing their medal tests at the same time in Ballroom and Latin American. I only lasted a few weeks as I was hopeless and couldn't pick up the routines!! I had no idea how to dance the rolling off the arm in Samba and all the other kids in the class laughed at me! I was a very good athlete and sportsman so I decided to stop dancing and continue playing Football (my favourite sport) and Rugby and also running and Cross Country (my second favourite sport)!

Karen: I started dancing at the age of 5 with Ballet but soon decided to switch to Ballroom and Latin American as my sister had started to dance Ballroom and Latin and her trophies and prizes were much more and bigger than mine!! I danced with my sister for two years at the George Coad and Pat Thompson School of Dancing in Maghull, Liverpool.

For a couple as successful as you, when did you decide it was time to hang up your dancing shoes?

Marcus: We had broken the record for the amount of Professional Ballroom World Titles (winning 9 times) and felt that we had reached the peak of our careers and achieved all we wanted to achieve in the competitive field as competitors. We knew a new stage in our life was about to begin with the birth of our son Henry James!

Karen: Both Marcus & I felt that we had achieved everything we wanted to achieve and we had danced our last Professional World Championship in Miami, USA in September 1998 gaining 54 first places out of a possible 55 and we couldn't do much better than that! We felt we had danced as well as we could and felt very clear about retiring at the British Open Dance Festival in the Invitational Team Match the following May.

In your opinion has the style of dancing evolved since your competition days? If so, have you needed to adapt your ways of teaching?

Marcus: Yes, most definitely!! Largely for the better but sometimes with a slightly negative effect. I don't feel we have had to adapt our ways of teaching as there is only one technique for Ballroom dancing, you can't reinvent the wheel.

Karen: I feel generally the style of Ballroom dancing hasn't really changed since we retired, only the shape and dynamics of the couple has become fuller. This was one of our main points during our career to make everything more dynamic and effective so really we are teaching everything that we attempted ourselves. Of course each couple we teach have differences; shapes and sizes, plus points and negatives so your teaching has to change according to each couples individual needs. The main change for the man in Ballroom is the fact that the tail suits are much tighter and almost like a second skin which is something that both Marcus & I are not keen on. The girls dresses in the main part are becoming better and better with lots of individual preferences coming into play. The dresses must flow and compliment the shape of the lady and the couple.

Having been judged for many years in various championships and now judging many of those competitions yourselves, what advice would you give to the dancers that want to follow in your steps?

Marcus: My advice would be to use the 3D effect. Determination, Dedication & Discipline. Those three thoughts helped us a great deal in our career. We also tried to enjoy ourselves and work very hard to attain our goals. Nothing and nobody could change our minds in the quest to become the best in what we did. Also, we would suggest always being polite, respectful and courteous to your peers, competitors and most of all your families.

Karen: I would say work as hard as you can and practice makes perfect. Make sure you put the hours in so that when the time comes and you are competing you know you are ready. Eat well and rest and sleep well!! Enjoy what you do and always trust your peers and teachers, but in the end it's up to you!

For competitive dancers, what are the important things to look for in dance shoes?

Marcus: For myself it's comfort, support and look. My heels are quite thin so the back of the shoe would always rub so I had my own last made that kept the top of the back of the shoes slightly lower than the norm and also slightly lower around the sides. I also had cushioning put into the heels under the non slip suede sole and also inside the shoe under the ball of the foot. The man's shoe should also look elegant and the correct shape at the toe to enhance the look of the foot, ankle and leg line.

Karen: Comfort, support, beauty and style. It's also important that the appearance through the competition of your shoes is first class. Marcus used to clean my shoes between every round in case they looked dirty and maybe because he had stepped on my foot (although he always said if that happened it was me who put my foot in the wrong place!!??)

You both now spend long hours on your feet teaching in the studio. What are the important factors of your teaching shoes?

Marcus: Once again I would say comfort and support. I need the sole to be rather firm as my feet and arches have slightly dropped since we retired some 20 years ago!!

Karen: Again as above comfort, style but most of all support. We can be teaching up to 8 hours per day sometimes so we need our shoes to make us feel as good for the last lesson as for the first!

For any of our customers, sponsors or followers working towards their goals in this new year, if you could give them one bit of advice, what would that be?

Marcus: Dancing is a wonderful art/sport to be involved with. It keeps you healthy and young in every respect and should never ever be considered something of a burden. Work hard, very hard to achieve your goals and never ever give up. Treat people as you would like to be treated yourselves.

Karen: Enjoy the music, the hard work and all the pressure that goes into something so special as being a competitive Ballroom dancer. Live your life like a true professional. Live, eat and sleep your passion and always be positive in all you do. Leave all the arguments and negatives in the practice room!

Above: An advert from the early 1990's! Don't take note of this address though because we've outgrown two factories since then! Phone number is now 01908 319937!


Marcus & Karen Hilton MBE have not only worn our shoes for close to four decades, but have been a big part of the International Dance Shoes family from the very beginning. To this day they continue to teach the next generations of champions in our shoes with Marcus mainly wearing the 'Tango' in Black Calf and Karen wearing the 'Heather' in Black Calf. These styles are based on support and stability rather than flexibility and are perfect for the long hours of teaching that they describe above, with extra cushioning and support for the arches which Marcus describes now being standard We're proud of our association with these incredible people and thank them both a lot for taking some time out of their incessantly hectic schedules to help us put this together for you!

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