The rise of BBC1's Strictly Come Dancing has given a whole new kudos to sequin-clad hoofers. But when the programme debuted in 2004 it was the celebrities people were tuning in to see. Whether they had two left feet, like loveable John Sergeant, or sashayed to the top with grace and rhythm, like Natasha Kaplinsky and Alesha Dixon, it was the household names who brought in viewers.
Slowly, however, something began to shift. The professional dancers propping up those celebrities started to win over a few hearts of their own. Their place in the BBC pecking order remained unchanged, with the dancers reportedly paid 30,000 for the entire series – considerably less than their partners, judges and presenters on the show. But for those watching, the professionals have become almost as famous as the people they're dancing with.
Consequently, when Strictly Come Dancing: The Professionals rolls into Edinburgh for a six-night run at the Playhouse it will play to a packed house – and rightly so. Between them, the ten dancers have racked up decades of dance tuition and competitive success, as well as choreographing everything we see on Strictly Come Dancing. So when Flavia Cacace, Matthew Cutler, Brian Fortuna, James and Ola Jordan, Kristina Rihanoff, Vincent Simone, Ian Waite, Natalie Lowe and Aliona Vilani walk on stage, you know you're getting a lot of talent for your ticket.
When I met up with Fortuna and Rihanoff in Edinburgh, they were half-way through the Strictly tour – a live version of the TV show, featuring whichever celebrities haven't moved on to pastures new. Siberian Rihanoff has a beauty reminiscent of Hollywood's golden era, with her platinum blonde hair and stunning figure. Very quickly it becomes clear that it's not only skin deep – Rihanoff speaks with a touching humility.
Fortuna, on the other hand, appears to have been front and centre when they were handing out self-confidence – no bad thing when you're a competitive dancer, but disarming up close. When I suggest the dancers must take pleasure from the fact that on the Professionals tour, people are coming to see just them, not the celebrities, Rihanoff immediately concurs.
She says: "It's a really great feeling. Fans are writing on my blog, saying they can't wait to see the show, that they bought a ticket just to see Brian and I – that makes me feel really special."
As far as Fortuna is concerned, however, he's already as big a draw as actress Ali Bastian, his partner on the show and off. "To be honest with you, when I perform on stage I feel as though people have come to see both Ali and I," he says. "I don't look at it as being on any different level."
Either way, the pros have got a show lined up worthy of any ballroom and Latin fan's attention. It's a full-on mix of tango, mambo, salsa and rumba balanced out by a few more sedate numbers, all backed by a live band. And no sequin shop has been left un-plundered for the dazzling array of costumes. After years on the competitive circuit, followed by stints on Strictly and its US counterpart, Dancing with the Stars, it must be nice to walk out and face a smiling audience rather than a disappointed-looking Craig Revel Horwood.
"It's very rewarding to do a project like this," says Rihanoff. "Because we're not being judged, so we don't have to worry about how it's going to turn out. We can just go out there, do our best and enjoy the night."
Fortuna agrees. "When you're in the competitive arena, the majority of your thought process is on your technique and you have a real urge to win. But on a tour like this, it's more about the performance. It's about going on stage and making people smile, making them feel like they're part of the routine – that to me is more of a joy than competing."
Aside from the short and sweet routines the professionals perform each week on Strictly, the dancers have little opportunity to show their true skill. Especially if they're paired up with a lame duck like John Sergeant, as was Rihanoff's fate in 2008. Fortuna fared better with Bastian but nothing compares to dancing with another world-class performer.
"With somebody like John I obviously had to explain everything many times, and go at a very slow pace because it was quite challenging for him," says Rihanoff. "So you're kind of limited in what you can do. But when Brian and I work together we can push boundaries and make something unique.
"On this tour, all the couples have solo numbers and each of us chose our speciality, like salsa or hustle. We've put all our knowledge together to create something fabulous."
Strictly Come Dancing: The Professionals is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, 14-19 June