Back with my dance buddy
Yep, here we are again! Back at Elstree to rehearse a big dance routine for the Strictly final on Saturday. After leaving the contest I thanked Karen again and again for her gravity-defying feat of dance instruction and Venezuelan patience that got the two of us to week eight – only a fortnight before Peter Andre was eliminated. Since leaving Strictly I have followed the show, as I’m sure you have, on my TV at home. Always willing Karen on in her professional dances and feeling desperately sorry when friends like Peter Andre were ejected. So today was special — a chance for everyone to assemble at Strictly towers. It brought back so many memories.
Remembering the Adventure
I think the photo above is my favourite of all the hundreds taken. It was our first dance, the cha-cha-cha. I had at least half a dozen surprises that day (not a reference to Karen’s remarkable abs). But I realised the crazy world I had got into when they erected a polling booth on the stage and told me the curtain would suddenly jump open and Karen would dance out of it. Bearing in mind that my BBC career has been on the serious side so far — journalism, warzones etc, and the last time I was at the Elstree studios was for the General Election programme in May with David Dimbleby — this was what they call “a facer.” I just remember giggling a lot in the run-up to that first dance. A lot of people asked me, “Why did you laugh all the way through Craig’s insults after your cha-cha-cha?” [He had said, “You wouldn’t even get booked for the National Dad Dancing Contest in Devon”]. The answer is:
I just felt joy all the way through. Joy is the ultimate inoculator against pain, injury and Craig’s three-paddle.
And this is another one, again from the first week. In the Strictly corridor (one of the least glam places, by the way: it always smells agricultural) beautician Michaela is helping smooth Anita’s complexion as she and I chat. We were probably all a bit hyped up. Two news people in fancy dress. I look at this and think of the friendship I developed with Anita. When she was eliminated, I tweeted that she was one of the greatest celebs Strictly had ever booked, and about 1,000 people favourited the comment. She had massive public support and when I came to see the show in Blackpool I sat next to her parents. Her mum is a born dancer and I could see how much Anita’s powerful performance meant to her.
Back to the present
Here is the same corridor — I am rather excited that our picture has now been plastered to it! When a group picture is photoshopped because everyone was photographed individually, they always shrink down the tallest types (me, Jay) and people who are perhaps just a little shorter get expanded up, but also sideways. I find the effect bizarre. And it leads me to the question I often used to ask as I ploughed down this concrete alley, through the sequin dust: “Is anything here actually real?”
To which the answer, I now know, is yes. The dancing and the friendships are real.
“The impact of the live floor will drain 30% of your technique on the spot”
I remember writing that in a blog during the contest. Katie Derham famously said that when the music started and she stepped out, “I couldn’t feel my legs.” So now I am back, what does it look and feel like? Bear in mind this picture was taken just yesterday. The answer is that right now, under dirty light, with no audience and no music, it’s just a floor. I see Natalie Lowe in the background there, walking with her eyes on the floorboards as if she is asking herself: “Wait. Is this the actual floor? Because it doesn’t feel like it.” But it is. The reason it doesn’t feel the same is that it was never the floor itself that drowned us in adrenaline. It was a combination of everything: guitars, lights, rumpus, and above all the knowledge that when you emerge to do your dance you will be seen by ten million judges. Whoever said it was only four got it badly wrong!
Who is that Masked Man?
I don’t want to spoil it for you. If you heard (or rather, didn’t hear) my Radio 2 show yesterday you will know I lost my voice and had to be stretchered off. It didn’t stop me arriving in Elstree to rehearse — you can dance without a voice, after all — and I found at least one other celeb struggling with a bug. Shall I tell you who the bug-struggler is, who has considerately covered his face to stop anyone else being affected? Come on, you can see which one. Clue: not Helen George. Another clue: Not a mysterious girl.
So Here We All Are
Gradually we are rounded up for our dance rehearsal — no easy matter with so much socialising going on. Daniel is here from Ireland, as always the glue that binds the group together. There’s Joanne, Aljaz, Helen, Anita and Gleb. Anita and Gleb have just been practising a rather extraordinary move for the final dance about which I can say nothing. Helen is in great form: she went out too early, of course, but at a certain point in the contest I think everyone who is still in realises that they have had a brilliant experience and cannot be too fussy about the way it ends, given that the whole show is built around the drama of elimination. I remember Carol and I saying to each other at week 5: “It’s all fun from now on!” Besides, there is one advantage for us all this weekend — we can go crazy for our friends, the fab four in the final.
I did this little pic for our famous friends. (If you have an iPhone, the app you need is Juxtaposer. To add text, use the app called Over). Recently Georgia posted a two-minute clip of us all dancing in August, when we met for a two-day introductory session in Roehampton. At the time it looked to me like a jumble of bodies. Now I view it with more insight: I can see who moved well and who didn’t (no names). I could tell, for example, that even back then Georgia and Helen had incredible control and grace when they span around or twisted. But I also know how hard these four have worked. And Jay nailed the biggest moment of the entire contest: the Pulp Fiction jive, which Bruno said was the greatest dance he had ever seen on Strictly. When I am 89 and struggling to remember who was in the contest, when I got eliminated, who won, who the judges were … I will still remember watching that jive from twenty feet away. Electrifying.
The Final Rehearsal
Here you see boxer Anthony Ogogo (grey coat, his back to us), and Oti Mabuse, who was his pro partner and is ADORABLE!! Here, the two are quietly discussing a move with Kristina, Daniel and Pasha (hidden by Oti). On the right is the most important person, though — if you love Strictly, you will probably know his name by now. Jason Gilkison is in charge of all choreography and gets stuck in when the pros need advice on their individual routines. He understands it from the dancers’ perspective, having been an Australian Latin dance champion. He was always extremely helpful and encouraging to me — he understands that some people aren’t natural dancers and just wants to make sure, not that their routines don’t challenge them, but the opposite — that they are just as ambitious as the contestants who are more experienced. One thing I loved about Strictly was that I was asked to do things I never thought I could do: dropping Karen headfirst at the end of this routine is an example. Thank God she survived.
Looks like that move is sorted
Away they go. While we have Oti in shot here, let’s just remember the dramatic way she was introduced during the very first programme. Such superhuman power! I was standing just a few feet away from this group pro dance. Watch Karen’s vertical splits with Gleb in the very last frame.
Russia meets Ireland
These two get on so well! It’s a genuine friendship. And behind Kristina and Daniel, on the stairs at the left, are Aljaz, Brendan, Gleb and Tristan. After the show, with my poorly voice sagging, Daniel and I shared a cab to his hotel and talked about the contest. He talked, I whispered! We both felt really good about it. We both felt lucky to have been asked to do it. Where people have felt aggrieved — because they went out too early or felt harshly judged, or because for some reason the press and social media backlashed them — it often besmirches their entire memory of the experience. But the experience is not only the contest. The experience is everything around it.
So This is How They Knew
I always wondered how it was that the security people at Elstree had the most photographic sense of who was in the competition. Answer: hidden behind the desks at the front and back are these actual photo-boards. I just discovered one. So that is why none of us ever had to show a wristband. It is a reminder, once again, of all the extra toil behind the Strictly stage and the hard-workers who do it. For every 37 people with special status are 370 who come in at ungodly hours to man the doors or mend the electrics. I’ll hopefully be here for you with a fresh blog when the Final is over. Meanwhile, Jason is speaking …
Back to Rehearsal!