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Strictly Speaking

Posted on September 5, 2016

Marianka Swain assesses the class of 2016

Ah, 2016: so bananas that the UK’s former shadow chancellor donning sequins is only the fourth most eye-popping political event of the week, let alone the year. Yet here we are, with Ed “Glitter” Balls actually taking to the floor – just one high-profile member of the strongest line-up Strictly Come Dancing has fielded in recent years.

Will that excellent casting mean the producers jettisoning the fever dream distractions that have plagued the programme’s modern era? On the evidence of the launch show, unfortunately not. The neverending opening sequence was a lo-fi sci-fi embarrassment, complete with creaking Star Wars references and an oh-so-hilarious Uranus joke. It made the BBC’s current sitcom nostalgia fest look positively avant-garde.

Strictly has always been a precarious balancing act: between ballroom and entertainment, tradition and innovation, inspiring life lessons and conservative Fifties social values. Change is certainly afoot, with Len hanging up his “Seh-ven” paddle after this series and a crop of new pros cha-cha-ing onto the scene. How the show handles that transition, while maintaining what has made it so beloved – by both the dance industry and the wider public – will be crucial to its survival.

Still, at least any ructions on the dancefloor will pale in comparison to the impending political apocalypse. 2016, you guys! At least we have Glitter Balls.

Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?

Claudia Winkleman, Tess Daly - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Claudia Winkleman, Tess Daly – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

The ill-advised asymmetry is back. Never change, Tess. (Actually, yes – please change.) Claudia gamely distracted from the one sleeve confusion with a hot-pink highlighter number.

Other highs and lows:

  • The wonderful Claudia jokes also returned, from telling the celebs to “bed in” with their new partners (haha no, but seriously – the Mail Sidebar of Shame doesn’t write itself) to a long jumper visual gag that alone justified the booking of Greg Rutherford, “Don’t be sick on me – this is a borrowed dress”, and telling Baby Pro AJ he looks about 11 and half. HIGH
  • The Family Prop Points, they cometh early. Pace yourself, everyone ­– save that Mum Card for a dismal samba in Week 4. See also: ringer protestations. LOW
  • With 15 celebs and 17 pros, two newbies got benched: Neil Jones (I guess we’d made our ginger quota with Rutherford) and Baby Pro Chloe Hewitt. They’ll both get decent exposure through It Takes Two and group dance appearances, but a shame not to see what Neil might have done with a partner – particularly as we already know exactly what we’re getting from Anton… LOW
  • The outer space intro did offer a glimpse into a chilling dystopian future where the producers can just manufacture bots rather than shepherding humans into their preferred narrative. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE. On the plus side: a green Gio to match Shrek Pasha. HIGH
  • A mixed bag pro dance wise, though admirable commitment to the angsty contempo waffle, a glimmer of actual samba, all the fringe in the known universe and FIRE, plus Brendan threw down the gauntlet to the Olympic gymnast with, err, half a cartwheel. HIGH/LOW
  • It’s a good year to bear the Clifton name, with all three landing a promising celeb. Might there be a backlash against Kevin at least, who – in contrast to the other pros – has never once been given cannon fodder? Next to queuing, and complaining about queuing, there’s nothing us Brits love more than calling out unfairness. LOW
  • Can we please ditch the current champ encore tradition? They will inevitably be rusty and therefore disappointing – Jay’s long-awaited repeat jive was decidedly ropey. Though kudos to Aliona for managing to crowbar in a mention of her two wins on the way out the door. LOW
  • While Rebecca Ferguson and Olly Murs’ performances were about as exciting as a PowerPoint presentation on the history of celery, you have to admire the producers for casually swiping two X Factor stars, while spanking their rival in the ratings. Strictly’s gone gangsta. HIGH
  • Less impressive: the sound issues that persisted for about 10 minutes. Possibly caused by Natalie blowing out the mics with a glorious scream when finally given a decent partner. LOW
  • Ed Balls boasted he has a “big finish” in store. 2016, you guys! HIGH

And now let’s meet the new class…


Louise Redknapp

Louise Redknapp, Kevin Clifton - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Louise Redknapp, Kevin Clifton – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Danced professionally as a pop star, but MANY MILLENNIA AGO and she has done NO PREPARATION – she hasn’t so much as looked at a jar of salsa since she got the call! Yup, major ringer protestations already, along with a narrative: this is her time, after concentrating on being a mum (while studiously forgetting her stage school training, performing numerous dance routines, and judging on So You Think You Can Dance). Expect strategic employment of the footballer husband too.

Partner Kevin Clifton

Most likely to… Face a shock mid-series exit – high ringer expectations, and struggles won’t be met with sympathy.


Naga Munchetty

Tess Daly, Naga Munchetty, Pasha Kovalev - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Tess Daly, Naga Munchetty, Pasha Kovalev – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Following in the footsteps of illustrious BBC Breakfast alumni Chris Hollins, Bill Turnbull, Susanna Reid and Carol Kirkwood (Carol very much the “And Peggy” of that sentence). Also has a half-decent death stare, which is…something. Rather an unknown quantity, but seems assured so far and handled the group dance well, plus in good hands with Pasha – they’ll have a decent fan base between them.

Partner Pasha Kovalev

Most likely to… Emerge as a (Strictly cliché alert) dark horse couple.


Anastacia

Brendan Cole, Anastacia - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Brendan Cole, Anastacia – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats From performing on the show to competing (dear god, does that mean Olly Murs is headed our way in 2017?), the outspoken American singer is already excellent entertainment value. Began her career as an MTV dancer, but has since faced serious medical issues, so a ringer-lite. Cheerfully proclaimed in her intro package that she didn’t want a militant partner bossing her around, which means someone has a wicked sense of humour, because…

Partner Brendan Cole

Most likely to… Give us fiery Latin, dubious ballroom, and bow out after a few weeks.


Laura Whitmore

Laura Whitmore, Giovanni Pernice - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Laura Whitmore, Giovanni Pernice – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats TV presenter. Once showed Tom Hanks her robot (not a euphemism). And, um, really likes watching the show. Could be a contender – can certainly pull off Big Bird fringe ­– but has some major ground to make up in recognition terms, though a tabloid-bait potential showmance pairing with the newly single Giovanni helps her there. (And his ex Georgia is Laura’s BFF! OMG!)

Partner Giovanni Pernice

Most likely to… Get strong judges’ scores, but wash out close to the final.


Melvin Odoom

Janette Manrara, Melvin Odoom - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Janette Manrara, Melvin Odoom – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats His Mum’s very excited, which is nice. DJ, so may have good rhythm, and certainly not averse to questionable wardrobe choices. Very much of the “There is a silence – it is my duty to fill every inch of it” school of contestant, which can either be engaging or grow old very fast. Paired with the similarly extrovert Janette – definitely a high-risk strategy.

Partner Janette Manrara

Most likely to… Have one wow dance (most likely salsa), before disappearing midway through.


Greg Rutherford

Greg Rutherford, Natalie Lowe - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Greg Rutherford, Natalie Lowe – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Break out those flags and claim to understand the rules of the omnium! It’s another Olympian, hoping to capitalise on our summer of interest in otherwise totally disregarded sports. A gregarious personality to go with his talent for travelling really far in a sandpit, plus a handy cute son. Us Ringer4Nat campaigners will be hoping he’s not another Pendleton – if he’s got a modicum of dance ability, they’ll be ones to watch.

Partner Natalie Lowe

Most likely to… Be serious contenders for the 2016 title.


Judge Rinder

Oksana Platero, Judge Robert Rinder - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Oksana Platero, Judge Robert Rinder – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Dispenses justice in bitchy fashion to poor saps who’ve wandered onto daytime ITV, and also – rather improbably – Benedict Cumberbatch’s best man. Will we get a Sherlock sighting in the Strictly studio? Unlikely, but Rinder has promised an extended catfight with Craig Revel Horwood, so panto season has definitely come early. That rivalry will get far more attention than his partnership with new Ukrainian pro Oksana (from Dancing with the Stars).

Partner Oksana Platero

Most likely to… Provide copious one-liners, exit in Week 5.


Danny Mac

Oti Mabuse, Danny Mac - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Oti Mabuse, Danny Mac – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats The Hollyoaks star with a shirt allergy has fully embraced his role as Strictly heartthrob. That should serve him well, though the overt gigolo vibes might be a bit much for a BBC teatime crowd. Another ringer (performing arts school, appeared in Wicked), but doesn’t tend to be as damaging for the guys. Look forward to seeing what Oti can produce with a celeb who starts the show with all his limbs intact.

Partner Oti Mabuse

Most likely to… Gradually shed clothes, challenge for the trophy.


Claudia Fragapane

Claudia Fragapane, AJ Pritchard - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Claudia Fragapane, AJ Pritchard – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Olympian number two, and all kinds of promise as a female gymnast, particularly one with a razzle-dazzle floor routine. High heels might prove challenging, but at 4’7” she certainly needs them – ballroom hold may already be tricky. Paired with new Baby Pro AJ, they’ll be subjected to Tess’s full arsenal of itty bitty wickle cutie patronising comments, before going on a “Discovering emotional maturity” J word.

Partner AJ Pritchard

Most likely to… Reach the final, base a showdance around Snapchat while the rest of us ponder our mortality.


Daisy Lowe

Daisy Lowe, Aljaz Skorjanec - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Daisy Lowe, Aljaz Skorjanec – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Model and apparently wrote a cookbook, though not about to trouble Mary Berry. Already protesting she’s not that coordinated, but the British public are often dubious about otherworldly beautiful people claiming to be (romcom-esque, adorably) clumsy. In a cast of big personalities, she’ll have to fight to make an impression, even though Aljaž has experience making models palatable.

Partner Aljaž Škorjanec

Most likely to… Do some pretty ballroom, be nervous of Latin, not last long.


Lesley Joseph

Lesley Joseph, Anton Du Beke - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Lesley Joseph, Anton Du Beke – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Beloved Birds of a Feather actress. The oldest contestant, but some dance training in her past and – from early evidence – both a confident performer and wonderfully mischievous personality. Her pairing with (sigh) Anton means she’s been placed firmly in the comedy category, though will hopefully manage some half-decent routines alongside the inevitable camp entertainment – and may outlast a couple of the bland young things.

Partner Anton Du Beke

Most likely to… Go full hen party amidst the “inspiring older people” narrative.


Tameka Empson

Tameka Empson, Gorka Marquez - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Tameka Empson, Gorka Marquez – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats The EastEnders firecracker is already one of my favourites. She leaned heavily into Bake Off-esque innuendo while describing her dream partner, has already started planning her showdance, and when asked by Claudia what she was thinking, she glazed over and started singing the Strictly theme tune. Being paired with new hunky Spanish pro Gorka (coming to us from Burn the Floor), AKA Gleb 2.0, will certainly help her chances.

Partner Gorka Marquez

Most likely to… Be this year’s surprise package.


Ore Oduba

Ore Oduba, Joanne Clifton - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Ore Oduba, Joanne Clifton – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats Will also be hoping for an Olympic boost, after helming some of BBC Four’s coverage (though the clip chosen for his intro involved nearly falling into the sea). Has already promised strategic tears, and can turn the theme tune into a high-pitched nervous breakdown on command. Joanne gets a chance to prove she can choreograph for someone decent (and, you know, for adults) – let’s hope she’s up to the task.

Partner Joanne Clifton

Most likely to… Gather some 10s on the way to a semi-final battle.


Ed Balls

Ed Balls MP, Katya Jones - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Ed Balls MP, Katya Jones – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats ED BALLS. Former MP and shadow chancellor, whose dance experience is limited to boogieing with Yvette at the Labour Party conference. Will doubtless produce some eye-watering attempts at human movement, in a variety of unkind outfits, and yet still be a more serious prospect for Prime Minister than Jeremy Corbyn. Latin champion Katya is wasted in dance terms here, but should get a few weeks’ exposure, since it is ED. BALLS.

Partner Katya Jones

Most likely to… Be this year’s people’s champion, AKA celeb we’re totes laughing with, not at.


Will Young

Will Young, Karen Clifton - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Will Young, Karen Clifton – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

Vital stats The reality TV snake eats its own tail: Will is the template-setting original Pop Idol winner. Stage school training and appeared in Cabaret, though he too is getting the ringer denials out early – he was hardly there, he wouldn’t know a rumba if it hit him in the face, he’s just like us normals bopping around our normal kitchens! Quite possibly a tonal mismatch with Karen – Will is a grannies’ favourite, trad gentle ballroom boy, Karen…is really not. #rescuewill

Partner Karen Clifton

Most likely to… Reach the final, be scuppered by a showdance.


Group dance

Strictly 2016 Couples - (C) BBC - Photographer: GUY LEVY

Strictly 2016 Couples – (C) BBC – Photographer: GUY LEVY

This is usually a joyful carnival of mismatched attempted sync and genuine threat to human life, but this year’s crop are looking pretty strong – other than Ed Balls, who at least is throwing himself into it, there aren’t many obvious duffers. A few highlights among the shaking of tail feathers:

  • ED BALLS. Thus far, his dancing style can best be summed up as “David Brent’s sixth form disco”, and mainly features wrists and stomach. It is glorious. As is his uneasy coalition of a wardrobe: M&S striped shirt with begrudging scattering of sequins
  • Judge Rinder mainly dances with his face. It is also glorious
  • Confident performances from Ore, Will and Tameka
  • Great rhythm from Anastacia and Naga
  • Louise precise but holding back
  • Lesley, meanwhile, may have indulged in some liquid courage

What do you think? Are you happy with the pairings? Who’s your pick for the final? And what dances and themes do you want – or not want – to see this year? Contact me on Twitter: @mkmswain

I shall return when the competition kicks off on September 23. In the meantime…keep dancing!

Marianka Swain is a freelance writer and social dancer at several London venues. You can find more of her work at mkmswain.com.

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