THROUGH ten series of Strictly Come Dancing, celebrities have enjoyed the limelight, but the professional dancers have gained a big boost from it too, they tell Kelly Apter
One of the longest running programmes on British television, Come Dancing, dropped off the BBC schedule in 1998 – 49 years after it first aired – and with it went the whole genre. Our love affair with ballroom, already waning for some time, was finally over. It lived on only in the mind’s eye of those who enjoyed it first hand during the glory days of social dancing.
Who could have predicted, then, that a revamped version of the show would capture the public’s attention with such tenacity just five years later? Now in its tenth series, and with over 13 million viewers tuning in to watch the recent final, Strictly Come Dancing has found a home on prime time television and shows no sign of moving out. Not only that, but over five million of those viewers have left the comfort of their sofas to watch the live tour which follows each series, the latest of which plays Glasgow this month.
The mix of professional dancers, contestants of varying dance ability, backstage banter and caustic judges has proved to be a winning formula for Strictly, and there is no shortage of celebrities queuing up to join in. For actress and singer Denise Van Outen, taking part in the last series was a “dream come true”, especially when she waltzed into second place.
“When I was younger, I thought ballroom was fuddy duddy and didn’t imagine in a million years that I would end up doing it,” she says. “But my opinions have changed over the years, watching Strictly on television and thinking, ‘I want to be there.’ The whole thing is so glamorous, it’s like dipping into a dressing up box and coming out a different person.”
While costumes are undoubtedly part of ballroom dancing’s charm, simply pulling on a sequined dress and heels won’t get you too far with the judges. With her background in musical theatre, Van Outen was better placed than most to wow the crowds with high kicks. But when you’ve got to master 14 different dance styles as diverse as the Viennese waltz, foxtrot, jive and tango, even she could only reach a certain standard.
“We had four days to learn each dance, so it was very intense. I was rehearsing ten to 12 hours a day, but to be honest you would never get to a professional level because those dancers have trained for about a year just to get a cha-cha-cha walk right – so to learn a whole style in four days is pretty impossible.”
Having received the maximum ten points from each judge for her Charleston, Van Outen and professional partner James Jordan will be recreating that dance in the live show. Van Outen’s popularity each week was an obvious reflection of her skill, because despite the odd comedic anomaly (John Sergeant) it’s the talented contestants the audience loves to watch. And for those with a strong appreciation of the artform, nothing beats seeing the professionals demonstrate just how skilled and precise ballroom and Latin dancing can be.
Of all the professional dancers who have taken part in Strictly, Brendan Cole, Erin Boag and Anton du Beke are the only three to have appeared in all ten series. So it’s no surprise to find they are the ones who have built up a following of their own. No longer shackled to a celebrity, all three have put together live shows with great success, and it is this that proves the true popularity of ballroom dancing in Britain today.
Anton & Erin Go To Hollywood will pay homage to the golden age of MGM musicals in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow this February, while in the same month, Cole’s Licence To Thrill tour will visit Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
New Zealander Cole echoes Van Outen’s sentiments about the marked difference between a good celebrity dancer and a professional.
“When people see the celebrities do their thing and say, ‘Oh they’re amazing, they could be professional,’ that’s a bit of a misconception,” he says. “They get to a very good standard over the three months of the series, because they’re being taught by some of the best dancers in the world. But a lot of the time they’re being dragged around, and when you get professional dancers who have trained their entire lives, there is a difference in quality, execution and ability that enables us to push boundaries.”
Licence To Thrill is Cole’s second live show and has, he says, “got my fingerprints all over it”. It features a 14-piece band and six dancers, and Cole hosts the show himself, giving audiences a chance to get to know him a little better. After ten years dancing in the shadow of celebrities on Strictly, how does it feel to be out there on his own?
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done professionally. Before Strictly, I never thought it would be possible to have my own theatre show, but boy am I lucky it’s turned out this way. Knowing that you are doing the thing you’re passionate about, taking it around the country to 40,000 people who have paid their hard-earned money to see your show, it’s incredible.”
Although Cole chose to specialise in Latin dance in his teens (cha-cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, and jive), after years of studying ballroom (waltz, foxtrot, tango, quickstep and Viennese waltz) he says that’s now “where my heart lies”.
One thing all ballroom and Latin dances have in common is partnering. And perhaps that is what lies at the heart of its popularity. Dance in all genres is increasing in popularity, onscreen and off – but few have the appeal of Strictly. Cole thinks the talent and hard work behind the genre may have something to do with it.
“Personally I think partner dancing, and in particular ballroom and Latin dancing, is probably one of the hardest dance forms you can do,” he says. “You’ve got to think about what you’re doing, what your partner is doing – and then somehow make it look easy and effortless, but the reality is it’s bloody hard.”
• Strictly Come Dancing: The Live Tour is at the SECC, Glasgow, 25 – 27 January. Anton & Erin Go To Hollywood is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 3 February; Caird Hall, Dundee, 15 February; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 16 February. Brendan Cole: Licence To Thrill is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 20 February; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 24 February; Music Hall, Aberdeen, 25 February; Perth Concert Hall, 26 February.