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Strictly speaking

Posted on October 29, 2012


Week 4

Something wicked this way comes…

Two theme shows in a row, and sadly Strictly went from bad to totally crackers.

Past Halloween Weeks have seen plenty of lunatic antics – Nancy’s drunken coffin rumba, Lulu’s batty flight – but genuinely interesting dancing does make it through on occasion: Holly and Artem’s black swan smooth, Kara and Artem’s Phantom paso, Scott and Natalie’s spellbinding Viennese.

Unfortunately, few of this year’s couples managed to transcend the theme; all but three dipped dramatically in performance level, and arguably two of those three were scored rather generously as the judges reached a point of desperation.

Worse, it was not just the dances that were sucked into the Halloween mire, but the entire show. Perhaps I’m not the target audience (if I was five, and high on free sweets, I might – MIGHT – think Tess’s spooky voice, mummy extras and interminable spooky skits were side-splittingly funny), but I found it immensely frustrating to have to play one long game of “Spot the ballroom” in what used to be a dance show.

I’d hazard a guess that I’m not alone in despairing of the “comedy” VTs and wishing the couples weren’t forced into music, styling and stories that bear only a passing resemblance to the dances – and make performing them a constant battle. It wasn’t surprising that many previously sure-footed celebs looked tentative, and most of the dismal scores in another mixed bag were pretty fair (although I was baffled by Darcey continually picking fights with Craig…and then giving the same mark. Is her “6” really code for “8.5 and a biscuit”?).

At the risk of sounding sappy, I fear the producers are missing what makes Strictly magical for so many viewers. It’s not fire and props, themes and tricks, budget-blowing styling and elaborate gags; it’s watching someone progress from their first anxious steps and a hail of criticism to an assured performance and well-deserved adulation, their self-confidence growing with each dance as they form an unshakeable bond with their partner. It’s about – yes, I’m using it, dammit! – the journey.

This week, Natalie’s unwavering determination and Michael’s sporting grit resulted in a breakthrough dance, a Darren Gough moment. That performance came from hard work, teamwork, partner work. Not glamorous, perhaps, not “hilarious”, not showbizzy, but both inspiring and human, the kind of dedication we celebrated again and again this summer. I only wish, somewhere between Brucie’s rambling links and Tess’s cauldron cackling, we’d been allowed to witness it fully.


thriller-numberIt’s difficult to decide what gave me more joy in this chaotic, dinner party from hell “Thriller” opening: seeing Craig reach new levels of hamminess or watching Artem’s grim determination to make it through this torture, drawing on strength born of a long, hard Russian winter.


Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?

Tess got into the Halloween spirit by coming as Swamp Thing’s floozy. Darcey paired bin liner bondage with a skull fascinator. I now know the true meaning of fear.

Dani and Vincent – Those meddling kids

dani-vincentsimply_so_soDo two canine-themed dances in a row signal a dog/dance mash-up strategy? Can anyone pull off orange knee socks? And was badly wigged Vincent meant to be Fred, Shaggy or Boris Johnson and Ann Widdecombe’s lothario love child? Sadly, Papa Smurf went back to choreographing something fast and challenging that Dani could only just do, rather than fully deliver, resulting in a scrappy(-doo) cha cha.

Song: “Scooby-Doo Theme”, Hoyt Curtin and singers

Judges’ comments: Len called it a sausage sandwich – “tasty, satisfying, sets you up for the day”. Bruno likened Vincent to Denise Welch and praised Dani’s tight footwork, but wants her to extend her movements, as she did last week in ballroom. Craig enjoyed the clean spins and footwork, but agreed with Bruno on the need for extension and finishes. Darcey disagreed, loving the sheer volume of steps, but wanted more hip action.

Judges’ scores: 6, 6, 8, 7 – 27

Overall: Decent, but not making the most of her potential.

Richard and Erin – Fired up

richard-erinsimply_so_soErin is on a mission. The judges wanted more campery? SHE GAVE THEM CAMPERY. They wanted butch? SHE GAVE THEM BUTCH. Or, at least, attempted to. Fire! “O Fortuna”! Angry eyes! She’s going to get Richard to the end or die trying. OK, so he mainly walked through his paso, but her mohawk fountain ponytail and his pretend five o’clock shadow meant serious business! If all else fails, Erin’s gradual descent into passive-aggressive madness will remain wildly compelling.

Song: “O Fortuna” from “Carmina Burana”, Carl Orff

Judges’ comments: Bruno called Richard “Gary Newman in a bad temper”. He liked the drama, but criticised the artistry, lines and posture. Craig wants him to dance into the floor more, spot on his turns and never attempt a jeté ever again. Darcey suggested clenching his glute muscles – Oversharing Len achieves that by putting a threepenny bit up his bum. Yes, that image is seared into my brain.

Judges’ scores: 5, 5, 7, 5 – 22

Overall: Well, definitely not dull.

Lisa and Robin – See me after class

lisa-robinsimply_so_soI really wanted to love this. Lisa has the most wonderful, joyous energy and Robin is such a gorgeous support for her. BUT they have essentially danced the same number (disco-y side-by-side moves and animated faces) three times now, and the ballroom content this week was tenuous. The styling didn’t help – why was teacher Lisa wearing a mini cape and radioactive green tights, and exactly how many students (even achingly ironic Doctor Who-loving students) wear flannel shirts and bowties? AND HOW DOES ANY OF THIS RELATE TO THE CHARLESTON?

Song: “Witch Doctor”, David Seville

Judges’ comments: Craig thought it was acted well but danced poorly, with a severe lack of swivel action. Darcey was blown away by the sheer speed! (So far, if you want to impress Darcey, just dance lots of steps really really fast.) Len loved it because it was “sort of a parody of a Charleston”. Next week, satirical samba! Bruno wanted sharper footwork, but it was enjoyable to watch.

Judges’ scores: 6, 6, 7, 7 – 26

Overall: Fun, as always, but disappointing.

Sid and Ola (and Iveta) – Something strange

sid-ola-2struggles_sparkleAs much as I want to pretend the VTs never happened, I have to take a moment to salute Iveta – arguably the best dancer on the show, and the worst actor. Her fabulously awful delivery took their skit from spooky haunting to bad D of E camping trip in about 10 seconds flat. Awesome. Back in the world of Ola’s hooker dressing-up box, this week saw the debut of the sexy Scout playsuit. It might have been enough to distract from Sid were he not making toddler airplane arms and gulping like a goldfish during the most wooden cha cha imaginable.

Song: “Ghostbusters”, Ray Parker (COPYCAT KLAXON)

Judges’ comments: Darcey liked the increased dance content, but could see Sid’s concentration. Len called it too safe. Bruno thought it lacked detail, power and accuracy. Craig: “Halloween nightmare.”

Judges’ scores: 2, 5, 5, 5 – 17

Overall: Painful.

Nicky and Karen – Stomp!

nicky-karensimply_so_soNicky, Elton John called – he’d like his suit back. And you can return Karen’s blood-red torn-tutu dress and hedge hair to Helena Bonham Carter while you’re at it. It’s good to see Nicky putting some energy into his performance, and you can’t fault his commitment, but finesse isn’t exactly his forte. The wild grimace suggested tango; the feet suggested Pony Club dressage. Karen, could you maybe pair his enthusiasm with technique? Maybe? Please?

Song: “Weird Science”, Oingo Boingo

Judges’ comments: Len liked the sharpness, but not the stomping and loose hold. Bruno called him “a rooster with a booster” (sometimes I think he just likes the sound of words), but again too much stomping. Craig despaired over the posture, but liked the routine. Darcey praised his characterisation, but he marched rather than stalked.

Judges’ scores: 6, 6, 7, 7 – 26

Overall: A dogged attempt.

Fern and Artem – Killing me softly

fern-artemstruggles_sparkleBless Fern. She had a good go at being a bad queen, but she came off more gently disappointed Mary Berry (really, those scones just weren’t the right consistency!) than tyrannical monarch. OK, so leather-clad Artem, the medieval Chippendale, was a pleasant diversion, but this felt like a couple short-changed by Theme Week – under normal circumstances, American smooth could be a strong dance for Fern. And poor Deadpan Artem wouldn’t have to endure another VT skit. You can practically taste his existential crisis.

Song: “Killer Queen”, Queen

Judges’ comments: Bruno called her too beige for a killer queen – “just think about Craig in panto!” Darcey liked her characterisation and wants more of that, but warned her not to lift her shoulders in lifts. Len: “You’ve got the how, not the wow.” (Says Sam-I-am.) He wants Artem to push her more.

Judges’ scores: 4, 5, 6, 6 – 21

Overall: Nice. Just nice.

Denise and James – Le freak, c’est chic

denise-jamessimply_so_soHey, you know how Denise didn’t dance in Chicago so much as sat around? Let’s stealthily remind the public of that with some chairography! And add a cage/jail! Oh and since this loose theme of, err, circus freaks what do cha cha will mainly be conveyed through styling, let’s give James zebra leggings and Old Father Time hair and Denise a (family-friendly) skimpy latex/fishnets combo! Did all of this bewildering production distract from training, or have we finally found a chink in Denise’s armour? Either way, this was an oddly awkward performance.

Song: “Superfreak”, Rick James

Judges’ comments: Craig noted her leg and hip action need work, but timing and spins were great. Len agreed the short skirt exposed flaws in her leg action. Bruno liked the “kinky and slinky” performance, but her basics were lacking.

Judges’ scores: 7, 7, 7, 7 – 28

Overall: Not up to her usual standard.

Michael and Natalie – Magic moment

michael-nataliestrictly_sensationalDid this couple luck out, or did Natalie fight tooth and nail for their relatively normal styling (bar Michael’s Joker make-up) and appropriate song choice? If it’s the latter, it was totally worth it. Their quickstep reminded us why we bothered to tune in: an uplifting, joyful, astonishingly accomplished number – this, from the scarily uncoordinated Farm Jive celeb! – that swiftly dispensed with the obligatory theme stuff (magician, quick change, bla bla bla) before launching into a packed, entertaining, athletic routine. Yes, he’s probably scuppered when they get Latin again, but this was the performance of the night.

Song: “That Old Black Magic”, Sammy Davis Jr

Judges’ comments: Darcey praised his topline, light footwork and transitions, plus his Cheshire cat grin sold it. Len was thrilled he didn’t go out last week so we got a chance to see this. Bruno: “It’s more than magical – it’s a miracle!” He invoked the name of Darren Gough and marvelled at the transformation. Craig said nothing; he just applauded.

Judges’ scores: 8, 8, 8, 7 – 31

Overall: Fab-u-lous!

Victoria and Brendan – I do

victoria-brendanstrictly_sensationalAnother celeb much happier in hold, Victoria continued the good news with a surprisingly decent tango. Yes, her punk Miss Havisham attire was distracting, and Brendan’s gelled hair spikes and chalked face made him look like a Twilight extra, but this was their most precise and assured performance, even featuring some OK spins. Hallelujah! If Victoria can work on her frame (lots of gapping still) and grow in confidence, she could still be a contender.

Song: “White Wedding”, Billy Idol

Judges’ comments: Len liked that it was a proper dance with “no messing about”. Welcome to Halloween Week, Len. Bruno adored her “haunting beauty, with a hint of madness”, praising the choreography and improved spins. Craig wanted more consistent posture, but called the routine brilliant. Darcey liked the fighting spirit and labelled her a tango “woman of the night”, which we shall presume was meant as a compliment, not an oblique “Roxanne” reference.

Judges’ scores: 7, 8, 8, 8 – 31

Overall: Huge improvement.

Colin and Kristina – What’s new, pussycat?

colin-kristinastruggles_sparkleSo. Colin was (apparently) some kind of magician. Kristina was a slutty cat. With feathers. I lost track of why. Nothing gelled in this number – not salsa and the music, not Kristina’s dancing and Colin’s. She powered manically through another tricks-heavy piece while he grooved gently on the spot, as though hemmed in by an invisible crowd. Is he not putting in enough training time or did she forget to choreograph for him?

Song: “Superstition”, Stevie Wonder

Judges’ comments: Craig criticised the messy, haphazard footwork, but liked the “disco groove”. (Does that make it a parody of a salsa?) Darcey was totally sold on the finger snaps, calling it “saucy”. Wait till she sees West Side Story! Len praised his rhythm, but was flabbergasted by a MAJOR INCIDENT that apparently no one else saw. Len has special powers. He sees dead people!

Judges’ scores: 5, 7, 6, 6 – 24

Overall: Treading water.

Louis and Flavia – The tango-between

louis-flaviastrictly_sensationalThey’ve finally found their dance! Sadly, Louis and Flavia still have zero chemistry, but the coolly sinister feel of their strong tango acted as a decent approximation of emotional connection, and his natural stiffness and dead-eyed “in the zone” expression actually worked in this context. I’m not sure the random gymnastics trick was entirely necessary, but hey – he didn’t smear all that chalk on his clothes for nothing!

Song: “Disturbia”, Rihanna

Judges’ comments: Craig: “Ineffable. I loved it.” However, Louis’s thumb bothered him. Darcey called it “spookily good” – she liked the beginning, and the end, and, err, the middle – but he shouldn’t kick higher than his partner. Len wished the clocks could go back immediately so he could watch it again. (According to my eccentric oven clock, that’s a distinct possibility.) Bruno loved the “seamless transitions from character to dance” and amazing execution – “first killer tango of the season!” Err, series…

Judges’ scores: 8, 9, 9, 9 – 35

Overall: Powerful performance.

Kimberley and Pasha – What strange clothes you have

kimberley-pashastrictly_sensationalErm. Did we read the same version of Little Red Riding Hood? I’m a tad rusty, but I don’t remember the wolf being a tie-dyed, faintly camp art student and his victim dressing as…well, Little Red Riding Ho. No wonder she covered up with a cape in public. Weird wardrobe aside, this paso had some nice lines, precise footwork and committed performances, but, like Fern, Kimberley was really too nice to sell the full drama and aggression of the dance.

Song: “Hungry Like The Wolf”, Duran Duran

Judges’ comments: Darcey loved the intensity and elegant rond de jambe. Len called it very competent, praising the shaping and chasse capes, but thought the opening looked like she was just popping off to Sainsbury’s. Bruno adored the “love and hate, beauty and the beast”, Twilight-esque dynamic and strong lines. Craig said it was “fiery and punchy” with fantastic shaping.

Judges’ scores: 8, 8, 7, 8 – 31

Overall: Another strong routine.


Louis and Flavia – 35

Kimberley and Pasha – 31

Victoria and Brendan – 31

Michael and Natalie – 31

Denise and James – 28

Dani and Vincent – 27

Lisa and Robin – 26

Nicky and Karen – 26

Colin and Kristina – 24

Richard and Erin – 22

Fern and Artem – 21

Sid and Ola – 17

The sporting stars triumphed, with Michael and Victoria making a big leap and Louis topping the leaderboard, but the honeymoon’s over for Denise, Dani and Lisa, who all suffered tough love from the judges. Sid stayed rooted to the bottom.


results-showWhat happens if you drop Britney into a Gothic masked ball? Well, not a huge amount of trad content, as is becoming the norm in these pro group dances, but certainly an entertaining conceptual opening.


Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?

Who or what, exactly, does Tess think will attack her? Why line a skintight black cocktail dress with giant plates of boob armour? We may never know. Claudia, in a grudging nod to this time of madness, added a long lacy overlay to her usual LBD.

Yet more hijinks and the interminable recap. Dear God, it wasn’t a dream.

Safe couples: Louis and Flavia, Victoria and Brendan, Kimberley and Pasha, Lisa and Robin, and Michael and Natalie. In the dance-off: Sid and Ola.

Paloma Faith performed her haunting cover of “Never Tear Us Apart”, as featured in that totally inexplicable wibbly-wobbly time-wimey John Lewis ad and Robin and Lisa’s Viennese. Did we get some Viennese? No, we did not (for this is Halloween Week), but we were invited to marvel at Paloma’s Tim Burton hula girl ensemble: giant ginger afro, half the Chelsea Flower Show and a dress expansive enough to contain A GRAND PIANO. Meanwhile, her back-up dancers slinked their way through a leisurely yoga class, while dressed as glow-in-the-dark skeletons. As you do.

Claudia, the judges and Len’s lens

  • Len waged war on the Charleston, which apparently has no technique. You’ll be getting some letters, Len!
  • Darcey gave Louis a weirdly aggressive “Grr, what guns!” sign language come-on. Yes, it’s as disturbing as it sounds
  • Bruno let out a wonderful pantomime gasp at the transformed Michael. We were all there with you, Bruno 

More safe couples: Richard and Erin, Dani and Vincent, Denise and James, Nicky and Karen, and Fern and Artem. In the dance-off: Colin and Kristina.

After a lacklustre dance-off…

Craig saved “dynamic, better dancers” Colin and Kristina. (Ouch, Ola.)

Darcey praised the improved performances and saved Colin.

Bruno saved “the strongest couple”: Colin and Kristina.

Farewell Sid, Ola and Ola’s watershed-defying outfits. Ooh though Len would have saved Sid, because Colin made another glaring error (that only he on the judging panel could spot – Len SEES DEAD PEOPLE!). I’m sure that will be a great comfort to Sid. 


What do you think? Did the right couple go home? And did you enjoy the themed shenanigans, or were you similarly frustrated? Personally, I’m hoping next week’s theme will be Ballroom Dancing, but hey, I’m controversial that way. See you then, and in the meantime…keep dancing!

In the current issue of Dance Today, Marianka Swain writes on floorcraft and dance etiquette, while Lee Knights speaks to Strictly’s Anton Du Beke. In November, look out for interviews with Denise Van Outen and Aliona Vilani.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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