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Strictly speaking

Posted on October 31, 2011


Week 5

craigI fear “Strictly” may be having an identity crisis. In past years, fans have been able to refer to it as a distinct and (let’s face it) far superior creation to other weekend fare. It’s not purely comedic (“Let’s Dance For Comic Relief”) or slapstick variety (“Britain’s Got Talent”); it doesn’t revolve around the judges’ egos (“The X Factor”) or the tantalising possibility of dangerous yet hilarious mishaps (“Dancing On Ice”).

Oh no. “Strictly” may be fabulous entertainment (live band, Brucie “jokes”, fake tan and the contents of John Barrowman’s dressing-up box), but it’s also a dance competition – one which most of the pros and celebs take very seriously. They train for hundreds of hours. They strive to earn judges’ scores. They impress us with their “journeys”. Of course, they also court votes with gimmicks and showmances, but at its heart, the programme is a wonderful tribute to the skill of professional dancers and the ways in ballroom can change people’s lives.

Or it was. As of “Fright Night” Series 9, I’m officially calling for a “Strictly” intervention. Consider the evidence:

  • Ballroom is now strictly optional None in the VTs, not much more in some routines. (We’re veering into “So You Think You Can Dance?” territory.) And I know “It Takes Two” is now packed with goodies such as “Points of Viewers Stating the Bleeding Obvious”, pros dressed as animals (no, really) and Zoe and Ian reliving their glory days, but could we maybe shove some of the haunted house outings over to the weekday show?
  • The theme’s the thing What does Halloween Week actually require of our couples? Is the amount of guyliner and mahogany flesh on display enough of a scare? Or should there be a distinct storyline (not just trick or treat costumes) that ties in with the BALLROOM dance style?
  • The scoring is a lottery Yes, it’s never been an exact science, and poor jet-lagged Len thinks he’s still in LA and it’s a Wednesday morning in February, but you can understand the wrath of some of the pros (and viewers) when the judging varies so dramatically. Speaking of which…
  • 10 Tourette Syndrome Alesha, I’m going to confiscate your 10 paddle. You can have it back at the end of class or when you’ve learned what it’s for – whichever comes first. (I’m secretly hoping she has a mid-to-late-series crisis when Harry rejects her “10” advances, during which she burns every paddle over 2, lets Tess’s stylist dress her and takes to slumping over the desk, chain smoking and hissing “You was crap, babe.”)

Of course, Halloween Week was always going to be the worst culprit when it comes to veering dramatically off course – this is the week that contains the entire series’ budget (50 per cent on dry ice, 50 per cent on pumpkin remodelling of the judges’ desk), with creative direction split between Helena Bonham-Carter and the Non-Stop Party Shop.

Nevertheless, a few performances showed there is still hope for the competition…


Ah, the group number. I love the group number. Whatever dance skills the celebs develop with their partners completely evaporate when they join forces, like serious, high-minded adults reduced to bickering over the contents of a Quality Street box after two days of family Christmas. Also, Russell and Audley were reunited – how it made my heart sing!

And in case there was any doubt that “Strictly” is now one long trailer for the panto season, Wicked Witch Craig made a Widdy flying entrance. Can’t you butch it up a bit, darling? 

Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?

Bling! Leather! Hoochie earrings! Another Croydon facelift! So depressed.

But the real scare in the wardrobe department came from Alesha, whose dress spent the show trying to devour her. Either that or it contained a generous pouch for her Halloween stash. (In which case, kudos! Is it on the “Strictly” Shopping Channel?) 

Russell and Flavia – Hell’s angels

russellsimply_so_so“X Factor” who? We don’t even need to keep fabulous Russell at the end of the show to compete with you any more! Ha! Poor fabulous Russell is battling with a knee injury, yet their VT was entirely devoted to cringe-worthy Halloween “spookiness”, a segment type that will be referred to in this blog as SCARY…that this WAS ACTUALLY BROADCAST (SWAB). The odd couple continued their run of campalicious yet commendably ballroom-filled performances with a devilish samba which included Russell using Flavia’s abs of steel as bongos (steel drums?). Russell came as Alan Carr dressed as a tomato, catsuited Flavia came as Male Viewer Bait.

Song: “Better The Devil You Know”, Kylie Minogue 

Judges’ comments: Len spotted a few mistakes, but Russell “has the feelgood factor!” (“X Factor” who?) Bruno thought he turned hell “into camp heaven”. Russell went wrong a few times, but that was because there was more content, so good effort. Craig: “You’re one wig away from being Mystic Meg.” A few timing problems but great double bounce action.

Judges’ scores: 4, 6, 6, 6 – 22

Overall: Impressive given his injury.

Chelsee and Pasha – Wicked wardrobe

chelseesimply_so_soSometimes, the solutions don’t even come from the same planet as the celebs’ problems in these VTs. Chelsee struggled when it came to sexy time with Pasha (I know!), so he took her… to a school. Right. Their tango kicked off with mad scientist Pasha conjuring Chelsee out of a cauldron. Alas, his spell also created her bag-lady outfit with torn tights doubling as sleeves. After a strong start, poor Chelsee’s confidence was knocked by a near-wardrobe malfunction (damn you, feather boa curse of Series 9!), leading to a series of stumbles and timing issues.

Song: “Love Potion No 9”, The Clovers (Bill and Karen’s cha cha – tut, tut) 

Judges’ comments: Alesha praised her for covering the incident well and raising her game – “this partnership is working”. Bruno: “The wicked little witch is a wicked little dancer!” Craig wanted flexed knees, but thought it was feisty and fiery. Len compared her with a Lancashire hotpot. In a good way.

Judges’ scores: 7, 8, 9, 8 – 32

Overall: Great potential, shame about the “incident”.

Audley and Natalie – Shop til you drop

audleystruggles_sparkleAudley’s really cracked this reality TV thing. In danger of elimination? Play the adorable daughter card AND mention it’s your birthday! Also, ask your partner to dress as a corsage attending a luau so as to divert attention to her for approximately 90 per cent of your jive while the viewer tries to find order in a chaotic universe. Did their manic number have some connection to Little Shop of Horrors? Who knows.

“Little Shop of Horrors” from the musical…yeah 

 Judges’ comments: Despite his “terrible footwork”, Bruno thought he got into the spirit of it. “But it’s hard for anyone, let alone a great big oak!” Backhanded compliment no 93. Craig praised his gallant effort but called it “heavy, cumbersome and flat-footed”. Len said he had good rhythm and timing and didn’t go wrong.

Judges’ scores: 3, 6, 6, 5 – 20

Overall: Did you know, jive’s hard for tall people. Hey, I could be on “Points of You”!

Alex and James – Drac attack

alexsimply_so_soHow do you pick up your partner’s spirits after dismal judges’ comments? Take her abseiling! James should totally work for the Samaritans. Speaking of things MAKING NO SENSE, I had some trouble following the narrative arc of their performance. James is a vampire (albeit a ten-year-old trick or treating one) and Alex is in floaty white and a floor-length wig, so presumably he’s preying on her. Yes? Then how does that translate into them being in hold, doing some rather posey paso? I wouldn’t try that form of self-defence in east London, Alex.

Song: “Bring Me To Life”, Evanescence (Sarah and Brendan’s paso – tut, tut) 

Judges’ comments: Craig liked the idea of Dracula chasing virgin blood – he found it far more erotic than last week’s rumba. “But that probably says more about me…” (Sorry to bring this up again – I know you’ve only just finished repressing it.) Len applauded her for doing a solo section and liked the attack, but there was a bit too much frock wafting. Bruno liked the loony Kate Bush vibe. Naturally.

Judges’ scores: 7, 8, 8, 8 – 31

Overall: Enjoyable, if puzzling. The Sudoku of dance.

Holly and Artem – Birds of a feather (But not lovebirds. Really, Kara)

hollystrictly_sensational“You have nothing to fear. The Russian is here!” He’s a one-man quipping machine. Inspirational t-shirts, mugs and key rings available from the “Strictly” Shopping Channel. Another SWAB, during which Artem was trapped by the vengeful spirit of Kara. (I read between the lines.) Artem, Holly, the contents of 200 feather pillows and a lake of dry ice created a gorgeous, lyrical performance, but doth a couple of foxtrot steps an American smooth make? Leave your thoughts below. Also, it was pretty clear neither of them had actually seen Black Swan. Hint: it’s not a cheery tale.

Song: Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky

Judges’ comments: Len wanted the clocks to go back immediately so he could see it again. (It hasn’t happened yet in LA!) He did, however, ask for more in hold. Alesha loved the concept and thought it showed Holly is a real contender. Bruno loved her “exquisite topline” and said they lived up to the Swan Lake music.

Judges’ scores: 8, 9, 9, 9 – 35

Overall: Beautiful, but was it a smooth?

Nancy and Anton – The zombie dance of love

nancy2struggles_sparkleNancy wanted a coffin (a plan with popular support, I’d imagine), so Anton got her one, but ick! It was all dirty and coffiny! Never fear – there’s nothing the “Strictly” elves can’t bedazzle. Sadly, Nancy didn’t stay in the coffin, but I did like that she emerged with a sequinned champagne glass. (That’s going on my Christmas list) I thought she had a leg cramp from her internment, but in fact those spasms were solo “dance moves”. Interesting. Anton rose from the grave sporting tinfoil trousers and Philip Schofield hair to join her in their patented lurching, illegal lifts and flashing. They’re nothing if not consistent.

Song: “Spooky”, Dusty Springfield 

Judges’ comments: Alesha called her a walking disaster and suggested she try not to have her legs so far apart… Bruno said she looked like the queen of the night, “but danced like the walking dead – the zombie of Bond Street!” Craig labelled it “dance horrible” and criticised them for recycling the same lift. (“It wasn’t my idea!” sniffed team-player Nancy.) Len thought there were “moments of Mills and Boon and moments of Meals on Wheels”.

Judges’ scores: 2, 5, 3, 4 – 14

Overall: Ghastly, darling.

Harry and Aliona – “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate…” 

harrysimply_so_soAliona is convinced Harry has a “dark side”. Because McFly are renowned for their tortured, soul-searching, nihilistic music. Yet more SWAB, including “the scariest place in the UK” (no, not Bruce’s dressing room). Their routine contained the requisite Harry rolling on the floor and Aliona hair flipping and backbends, plus some “messing about” with thrones and masks which meant they couldn’t actually get into hold until the last few bars – a real waste, as the bit of actual tango Harry did was impressively sharp and grounded.

Song: “Psycho Killer”, Talking Heads 

Judges’ comments: Bruno: “I can feel your power getting stronger and stronger. You can bite as much as you like as long as you keep dancing like this!” (It’s possible Harry has broken Bruno.) Craig loved the storytelling but wanted more in hold. As did Len, who counted less than eight bars of tango – “What’s annoying is when you are in hold, you’re fantastic.” Alesha thought he was “too cool for school”. (Does anyone still say that? Alesha does, apparently. Next week: “You’re far out, man. Dig it!”)

Judges’ scores: 8, 7, 10, 9 – 34

Overall: For the love of god, Aliona, let the boy do some ballroom.

Robbie and Ola – Just thrust a move

robbiesimply_so_soOla wanted Robbie to face his worst nightmare…the make-under! (Bald cap, bad teeth, white make-up.) I’m guessing she just wanted one VT where she looked prettier than him. Robbie (who came as Chippendale Santa) thrust himself energetically at Bruno, who nearly wept with joy, while Ola (slutty Pocahontas with a blackbird family as a skirt) wafted around vaguely like a babysitter chasing a toddler on a sugar high. Robbie ended his dance (I use the term loosely) by vaulting onto the judges’ desk, leaving Craig staring at his groin in trepidation. Haven’t you been listening, Robbie? That’s not what he’s into.

Song: “Bad”, Michael Jackson 

Judges’ comments: Craig “could have done without all the lascivious hip thrusts” and wanted more drive, less soup-ladle hands (not spatulistic?), but “apart from all that I suppose it was amazing”. Len didn’t like him thrusting his wobbly bits and thinks Robbie’s a ballroom boy. Bruno claimed the thrusting “scared the hell out of me, three times” (yes, “scared”…), “but go for it if you’ve got it – you know what you’re good at now”. Sadly, it’s not dancing. 

Judges’ scores: 4, 7, 8 (“Keep…thrusting!”), 7 – 26

Overall: Well, it was certainly unforgettable.

Anita and Robin – Let them eat cake

anitasimply_so_soAnita went method. Channelling the devil woman, she actually ate Robin’s éclair. Diabolical! Speaking of which, she was definitely in the running for Worst Dress of the Week – “Come Dancing” ruffled hem and sleeves left shredded after a vicious animal attack. (Do NOT touch Robin’s éclair!) Although I applauded Anita’s “Grrr!” expression and lethal nails, her tango hold was questionable and she made a few mistakes. Though, in her defence, she had red birds eating her eyes. (Do NOT touch Robin’s éclair!)

Song: “Devil Woman”, Cliff Richard 

Judges’ comments: Len liked that there was lots of content rather than mincing about (ahem… Aliona!), but he criticised her posture. Alesha thought she was convincingly scary and agreed she needs to perfect her hold to get to the next level. Craig: “Acting 10, topline 3” (Chorus Line??), but he loved the routine.

Judges’ scores: 7, 8, 8, 8 – 31

Overall: A decent attempt. With some ballroom dancing. Radical!

Lulu and Brendan – Anything Craig can do…

lulusimply_so_soBatwoman Lulu wanted “bat everything” (big ears? Blindness?) and her wish was “Strictly”’s command. Fly, my pretty, fly! She made a commendably graceful entrance (and genuinely surprising exit) on wires while Brendan WORKED IT with the wind machine, and she also coped well with the dance content, showing greater confidence and stability than in past weeks, but once again Brendan wasted time with stairography and posing.

Song: “Highway to Hell”, AC/DC 

Judges’ comments: Bruno thought she handled the tricks “with great panache” and managed not to go wrong for once. Craig loved the concept and exit, but noted they were out of sync when in hold. Len: “Lots of tricks and quite a few treats”, but she needs to stay stronger in the body so Brendan can lead her properly.

Judges’ scores: 6, 7, 8, 8 – 29

Overall: Great fun, if a tad light on paso.

Jason and Kristina – She nose best

jasonstrictly_sensationalIn another SWAB segment, Jason was visited by the ghosts of “Strictly” past (Widdy), present (Katya – surely also past, since she’s been eliminated…) and future (Joe Calzaghe – does that mean Jason “gets” Kristina if he wins?). The pair mainly escaped the night’s costume disaster zone and Jason was a mean, green quickstepping machine, completely selling the running finishes and jazzy side-by-side work in a lovely Kristina number. Well, what do you know? You can, in fact, have both concept AND a ballroom routine that shows off your celeb’s abilities.

Song: “Bewitched”, Steve Lawrence 

Judges’ comments: Craig did some more peculiar Australian muttering and switched back to English (or at least Craig-speak) to call it “fab-u-lous”, bar a few mistakes. Len thought it was harsh to pick up on any errors, “given that some of them have done a tango and haven’t even done a tango!” (I guessing he and Aliona won’t be hanging out in the bar later.) Bruno thought it was “bewitchingly brilliant and slightly barmy”, in a good way. Jason was “back on track”.

Judges’ scores: 9, 9, 10, 9 – 37

Overall: Phew! At least we ended on a ballroom high.


Jason and Kristina – 37

Holly and Artem – 35

Harry and Aliona – 34

Chelsee and Pasha – 32

Alex and James – 31

Anita and Robin – 31

Lulu and Brendan – 29

Robbie and Ola – 26

Russell and Flavia – 22

Audley and Natalie – 20

Nancy and Anton – 14

Jason’s regained his pole position, Holly’s finally making progress, Harry could be higher if he ditched Aliona and Nancy’s settled in at the bottom. Choreography controversy aside, we do actually have an excitingly competitive top four, so fingers crossed for the rest of the series.


A “spooky” pro cha cha to Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”. Of note: occasional 1980s touches, Ola’s Indian headdress and the dry ice returned and Robin accidentally kicked Pasha in the head. Take that, new boy! Tess then magicked the pro girls into the judges. Yes, this is SO live.

Tess’ dress: impressed or depressed?

Depressed. Yet another Croydon facelift and blue flared mini dress with a pink puddle. Meanwhile, Alesha refashioned Anton’s tinfoil trousers into a frock and Claudia went for a velvet curtain.

the-wantedThe recap happened. Nancy remained mystified that the judges don’t appreciate her genius. Well, you need thick skin in showbusiness, right? Or in…law, or advocacy, or whatever it is she actually does.

Safe couples: Lulu and Brendan, Alex and James, Jason and Kristina, Holly and Artem, and Chelsee and Pasha. In the bottom two: Audley and Natalie. Ahhh. Jive’s hard for tall people.

Zoe’s doing OK, but I desperately miss Claudia’s barmy interviewing. Cutting off Alex’s bland rambling: “Your eyelashes are amazing. Sorry. Just thought I’d mention it.”

Ooh. The Wanted (pictured above). They’re Britain’s hottest boyband, apparently! No wonder, they were all wearing black duffle coats. This isn’t just a funeral. This is an M&S funeral. They shunned our pros, but their performance was still “Strictly”fied – stairography AND dry ice!

What we learned from the judges and Len’s lens:

  • Goodman had a crack at the “Bewitched” nose wiggle. Noseography, if you will
  • Bruno and Kate Bush were separated at birth
  • Alesha called Artem and Holly’s smooth “really unique”. My inner grammar nerd died a little. She also said it didn’t warrant a 10 because it lacked ballroom content. Whereas Harry’s tango…?
  • Bruno praised the fun ideas, but noted the judges can’t just score on concept. Well, quite
  • The Grant, shaking his (devil) tail in slow mo – A-MAZE-ING! Was it equally hilarious each of the four times I rewound and rewatched it? Hell yeah (pun intended)

nancy-leavesThe other safe couples: Anita and Robin, Russell and Flavia, Harry and Aliona, and Robbie and Ola. In the bottom two: Nancy and Anton. “Really?” murmured Nancy. Seriously. Skin like a rhino. Bruno summed up her appeal: “Someone so beautiful, yet so clueless on the dancefloor! Can she get any worse? Let’s see!”

Thankfully, the pros restricted the Halloween elements of their American smooth to Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and what I can only presume were cobweb sleeves. Either that or a furious animal got to them. (Do NOT touch Robin’s éclair!) A welcome injection of ballroom into the weekend’s proceedings.

My favourite exchange of the series so far:

Claudia: “Nancy, is your rumba the final ‘nail in the coffin’? I feel bad asking, but I… had to.” (Every tabloid editor understands)

Rhino-skin Nancy: “What do you mean? No!”

Claudia: “You enjoyed it, though?”

Rhino-skin Nancy: “To be in the coffin?”

Claudia: “The dance.”

Rhino-skin Nancy: “I need to watch it again. I think definitely the judges have been too mean to us. Definitely. But definitely…I will watch it and see.”

Claudia tries to move on –

Rhino-skin Nancy: “But did I enjoy it? Oh YES. I did!”

And with that, the demented Italian’s “Strictly” journey ended, although she topped Chelsee’s wardrobe malfunction by dropping her earrings during her exit interview. What did she take from the experience? “Well, I learned dancing… partly.”

What do you think? Did you enjoy the Halloween madness? Was it time for Nancy and Anton to leave? And do you agree with the judges’ scoring and comments?
Next week, Baby’s in the ballroom as Jennifer Grey replaces Len on the judging panel. Will there be “Dirty Dancing” jokes galore? OF COURSE! Join me in a spot of Jennifer Grey Bingo:

  • Nobody puts Baby in a corner
  • That lift
  • Patrick Swayze/Johnny
  • Watermelon
  • Partner chemistry
  • She’s like the wind
  • Dirty dancing
  • I’ve had the time of my life
  • Spaghetti arms
  • This is my dance space
  • (Long shot) You just put your pickle on everybody’s plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me

Till then… keep dancing (and thrusting)!

Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Today she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success. Her debut novel, The Girl Before You, was published last year in paperback, ebook and audiobook.

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