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Strictly Speaking: Launch show

Posted on September 20, 2021

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Marianka Swain introduces the Class of 2021

Hurrah, we’re back! Hello, fellow Strictly watchers – I’m so glad that our Saturday nights are sparkly once more. The show really got me through the darkness of winter 2020 and it promises to be a joy again, this time with a full run, a cast of 15 celebrities, and plenty of new faces. 

Who is set to be the new Bill Bailey, astonishing a nation with their unsuspected ballroom brilliance? How will our first ever deaf contestant fare, and our first ever all-male duo? Can Adam Peaty possibly get more naked? Good grief, he’s already been scolded by Instagram for his racy fake tan pic – if he brings those antics to the dance floor, Shirley might actually expire.  

We met our new couples via elaborately staged, occasionally interesting VTs, instead of the live Blind Date format. It did mean the loss of that split-second look of either sheer elation or utter horror on the faces of the pros (alas), but then in return we got Greg Wise riding an actual horse, smouldering for Britain. I’ll take it. Anyway, series 19 looks set to be properly brilliant, so let’s dive straight in… 

Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?

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Strapless white jumpsuit with confusing waist versus Claud’s glittery black blanket. WE’RE BACK!

Other hits and misses:

  • Was this the most the sparkly pro dance of all time? I can still only see in sequins. Add in Oti and Giovanni giving us serious Blue Steel, Nancy climbing Johannes like a tree, Dianne sprinkling stardust from a moon à la Taylor Swift in Cats (only with more narrative logic), Luba winning the jumpsuit lottery, Tess in pony heaven, and Claudia co-opting Russell Grant’s cannon, and there truly was something for everyone. HIT
  • Anton “Ha ha marvellous” Du Beke officially joins the judging panel in Bruno’s absence. So far, he hasn’t done much except cradle the glitterball trophy – it only took leaving the competition entirely for him to finally get his hands on it. MISS
  • A joy to see last year’s champ Bill Bailey reunited with Oti for an encore of their Rapper’s Delight number. He’s now a total Strictly evangelist, and quite right too. HIT
  • Speaking of returning… We have an audience! Well, a limited-capacity one, but still. Just think: it won’t be long until Tessbot is treating an alarmed relative to her inimitable interviewing style. HIT
  • The couples are still at their cabaret tables instead of crowding round Claudia, per COVID-19 protocols. Actually I’m happy to see them stick to last year’s system – it makes the chats more intimate, and you get to see the contestants watching their competitors on the floor, which adds a whole other layer of drama. HIT
  • We have new baby pros! Not sure why they were introduced via an Argentine tango flirt-battle in a dusty abandoned warehouse, but such is Strictly. Their instant Seven Dwarves-style signifiers: Classy, Fiery, Cheeky, Energy. Two have a celeb partner, two will join the pro troupe and perform with musical guests. Also: Ginger Neil is back, and Nancy finally gets a partner, woohoo! HIT
  • A weird amount of chat about the virtue of early-morning starts. Is this series sponsored by Weetabix? MISS
  • Anne-Marie… made Claudia utter the words “Kiss My Uh-Oh”. New pros Jowita Przystał and Cameron Lombard did a vague Latin mash-up. Cameron wore trainers, because he is Sporty Spice. MISS

Right, without further ado, let’s meet our Class of 2021… 

Robert Webb

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Vital stats: Peep Show, author, will forever be known as the man who gave us That Flashdance Performance on Let’s Dance For Comic Relief and left the judges very sexually confused. Can he repeat the feat on Strictly? Does he still have the leotard? First up: cha cha to “Rasputin”. 

Partner: Dianne Buswell (now with 500 per cent more hair!)

Most likely to… start surreal, get sincere in ballroom.

Katie McGlynn

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Vital stats: Working her way steadily through every single soap, proud Northerner, has already hit the reality TV show cliché bingo. That combo alone should give her a decent run, plus this isn’t the strongest year for the girls, so she can lead the charge on that side of the cast. 

Partner: Gorka Marquez 

Most likely to… just miss out on the final.

Rhys Stephenson

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Vital stats: CBBC presenter, can do a half-decent pigeon impression, genuinely this is all I know about him so far. However, by far the most confident and exciting mover in the launch show, so prepare for a nation to learn at least one more thing about Rhys *checks notes* CBBC guy!

Partner: Nancy Xu

Most likely to… shoot to the top of the leaderboard, then face viewer fatigue.

Sara Davies

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Vital stats: Entrepreneur, another proud Northerner, apparently billed as the “nice” dragon on Dragon’s Den, if that’s not a total contradiction in terms. Already gunning for the Family prop points with superfan dad Frank and her judging kids, so… there’s that.

Partner: Aljaž Skorjanec

Most likely to… give us a wedding disco dance or two, disappear early.

Dan Walker

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Vital stats: BBC Breakfast and Football Focus broadcaster, “danced” to the BBC theme live on air, freely admits he’s this year’s Tall and Awkward Celeb. Should last a few weeks at least with his high profile (not a tall joke, though not not a tall joke), but it’ll be Dad dancing ahoy.

Partner: Nadiya Bychkova

Most likely to… make us bleed from the eyes when he attempts Latin.

Rose Ayling-Ellis

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Vital stats: EastEnders actress, our debut deaf contestant, and totally adorable in her launch interview. Really excited to see how Rose handles her Strictly run, and what we can all learn about making dance more accessible – plus she looked decent in the group number. First up: jive.

Partner: Giovanni Pernice

Most likely to… be this year’s breakout story.

Adam Peaty

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Vital stats: Olympic swimming champion, star of Tokyo, and VERY comfortable wearing very little, so that’s our gift for the series. Will certainly bring stamina and competitive spirit, but it can go either way with athletes. Sidenote: when do we get the Underwater Strictly spin-off?

Partner: Katya Jones 

Most likely to… mysteriously lose all his shirt buttons, every week.

AJ Odudu

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Vital stats: Presenter of TV shows I’ve never watched, yet another proud Northerner (specifically: Lancashire), talks…a lot. Like… A LOT. Can’t wait to see how long Kai can maintain his suave James Bond/chilled-out teacher shtick while in the path of Hurricane AJ. Popcorn at the ready.

Partner: Kai Widdrington

Most likely to… give me a migraine.

Greg Wise

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Vital stats: Gaw-jus as the dreamy cad Mr Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, lately of The Crown, talented baker and jam-maker, and Mr Emma Thompson. Let’s just drink all of that in. We know he can do romantic leading man, but also seems to have a welcome goofy side.

Partner: Karen Hauer

Most likely to… set hearts a-fluttering.

Judi Love

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Vital stats: Stand-up comedian, Loose Women panellist, treated us to a stealthily rude bath anecdote that made Motsi howl and froze the Tessbot in a block of ice. Based on early impressions, her time here will be short, but it certainly won’t be dull. First dance: American smooth to Aretha.

Partner: Graziano di Prima

Most likely to… give us a filthy Latin, bow out swiftly.

John Whaite

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Vital stats: Great British Bake Off winner, and, together with the lovely Johannes (who popped out of a sparkly cake, because OF COURSE), the first ever all-male partnership on Strictly. About time! John was sweetly nervous, but already looks promising. First up: tango.

Partner: Johannes Radebe

Most likely to… make a real run at the final.

Nina Wadia

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Vital stats: Goodness Gracious Me and EastEnders actress, played Jedi mind tricks on Anton on the launch show, definitely seems like a great time. Her dawning horror at being sentenced to “steamy” samba on Week 1 (which: surely illegal, if not I’m starting a petition) was truly brilliant.

Partner: Neil Jones

Most likely to… have a likeable mid-series stint.

Tom Fletcher

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Vital stats: Singer, children’s author, 83 per cent glasses, following in the footsteps of bandmate and Strictly champ Harry Judd (no pressure). Ringer-ish, as he studied at Sylvia Young, but conversely his training will be disrupted by touring. Paired with a total stalker superfan, so, er, good luck with that.

Partner: Amy Dowden

Most likely to… finish as a runner-up.

Tilly Ramsay

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Vital stats: Chef, presenter, social media personality and… Oh, who are we kidding? Daughter of Gordon. Expect to see plenty of “Dad”. Paired with a new pro who is wearing the floppy hair of every single 90s boyband member put together. First dance: the waltz.

Partner: Nikita Kuzmin

Most likely to… split the generations of Strictly viewers.

Ugo Monye

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Vital stats: Former rugby union player, sports pundit and new team captain on A Question of Sport. Trotted out the word “finesse”, which is more than Matt Dawson ever managed. Most important, he’s got king-maker Oti, so expect hard work and steady improvement.

Partner: Oti Mabuse

Most likely to… have a satisfying “J word”.

Group dance

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Ah, my favourite bit, but not much carnage this year – boo. Early impressions:

  • Tom and Rhys are already strong
  • Adam can both move his hips and shimmy. This is huge
  • John and Johannes have great chemistry 
  • Ditto Oti and Ugo
  • Nina, despite her protestations, has rhythm
  • So does Rose
  • Katie is nervous but promising
  • AJ likes the lifts
  • Robert can, but should not, pull a lot of faces
  • Greg has the makings of a super-ham
  • Judi… is not a fan of moving
  • Nor is Tilly
  • Nor Sara
  • Nor Dan

What do you think? Are you happy with the pairings? Who’s your new favourite? What are you hoping for in this year’s series? Leave your thoughts below or contact me on Twitter: @mkmswain

I’m back next week when the competition begins in earnest. In the meantime… keep dancing!

Photographs by Guy Levy, courtesy of the BBC.


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

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

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