Strictly Come Dancing 2021, semi-final recap: Rose reinforced champion credentials while Rhys looks in trouble

It was an emotional night, writes Michael Hogan, especially for John and Johannes – but who will make it through to the final?

<p>Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice in the sem-final</p>

Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice in the sem-final

Four pro-celebrity couples. Three final spots up for grabs. Two routines apiece. Stand by your Christmas trees, hoofing fans, because it was the semi-final stage of the BBC ballroom blockbuster’s 19th series.

The coveted glitterball trophy was beginning to glint in the eyes of our surviving quartet. The pressure was on, with none of them wanting to fall at the last hurdle.

So who would dance through to next week’s grand final? And who could be consigned to this year’s last dance-off? Here are the eight top talking points from this year’s penultimate live show…

Rose Ayling-Ellis looks like a champion-in-waiting

EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis was high-flying last week after that daredevil diving lift saw her top the table. Now priced by bookmakers at 1/6 to win the glitterball trophy, she’s the shortest-odds tip since Alesha Dixon in 2007. However, the firm favourite wasn’t resting on her laurels.

Rose has established herself as a ballroom girl and showed why with a beautifully romantic waltz to “How Long Will I Love You” by Ellie Goulding and set in a clock tower. She maintained a beautiful frame and head position as she flowed elegantly around the floor. Full of smooth spins, rise and fall, it was simple but downright stunning. Hawk-eyed Craig Revel Horwood spotted “a sticky right foot” which is what made it a 39-pointer rather than a perfect 40.

Her Argentine tango to “A Evaristo Carriego” by Eduardo Rovira was even better. It had a traditional feel and saw Rose deploying her acting skills to play a fierce temptress. Up close and intimate with pro partner Giovanni Pernice – Rose teased the Italian stallion about his “smelly breath” – she had controlled power and fiery passion. Her intricate leg movements were dazzlingly impressive and spectacular lifts added wow factor.

Rose hadn’t scored a perfect 40 since her Halloween tango. It was high time for another. “That dance belongs in the final”, said Craig, quite rightly. Motsi Mabuse called it “the dance of the series”, although surely that was her Couple’s Choice stunner with that unforgettable silent interlude. Rose isn’t just a shoo-in for the final but has surely got one hand on that glitterball trophy.

AJ Odudu roared and rumba-ed back into contention

Kai Widdrington and AJ Odudu in the semi-final

Last week’s salsa was a “complete dance dis-ah-ster™”and she was consigned to the dreaded dance-off for the first time. Lancastrian TV presenter AJ Odudu needed to bounce back strongly and boy, did she succeed.

Her quickstep to traditional jazzy number “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman was an old Hollywood-style treat. Frothy, fast and furious with a classic vintage feel, it found AJ flying around the floor in a white feathered gown with tail-coated partner Kai Widdrington.

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It was packed with steps but AJ stayed perfectly in sync. “OMG, darling, that was incredible,” said Craig Revel Horwood. Textbook Strictly. Sheer dance magic. As Anton Du Beke added, it would’ve suited the Blackpool Tower Ballroom floor perfectly if the pesky pandemic hadn’t got in the way. A clean sweep of 10s added up to AJ’s first ever perfect 40-point score. What a time to achieve it.

AJ then exorcised her Latin demons with a sensual and sophisticated rumba to “Show Me Heaven” by Maria McKee – a song that meant a lot to Kai’s grandmother, who’s presumably a big fan of Tom Cruise NASCAR drama Days Of Thunder. Well , someone’s got to be, I suppose. All straight legs and lovely lines, AJ improved her footwork details and nailed the difficult choreography. Even head judge Shirley Ballas, aka “the queen of rumba”, bowed down in homage.

It scored 39 points. Dropping only one point across two dances, AJ was tied at the top with Rose Ayling-Ellis. As the second highest scorer in the contest, she definitely deserves a place in the final. Let’s hope voting viewers agree.

John Whaite should ride wave of emotion into final

Buff baker John Whaite took a salsa dip last week after falling victim to the curse of the quarter-final lifts. This time, he regained the consistency that has made him the highest scored in the contest, with two near-perfect 39-point numbers.

His jive to “Higher Power” by Coldplay had bright and bouncy footwork. John was sharp in the kicks and flicks. He and pro partner Johannes Radebe wore matchy-matchy sparkly tops which, John said, looked like he’d been “dipped in UHU and rolled through Claire’s Accessories”.

However, they were sabotaged by a strange song choice. Who’s ever listened to Chris Martin’s beige stadium anthems and thought “This would really suit a jive”? The routine itself seemed to struggle with the music, hence taking too long to launch into jive kicks and flicks. Luckily, the judges liked it more than me. Even grumpy old Craig Revel Horwood declared it “a-may-zing”.

However, the main event was when John and his partner became this year’s last pairing to perform their Couple’s Choice. Set to “Hometown Glory” by Adele, it was a heartfelt, barefoot contemporary routine full of symbolism, stirringly portraying the pair’s parallel journeys as gay men. An emotional ending made it explicit that they might have grown up on opposite sides of the world – John on a Lancashire farm, Jojo in South Africa – but with the same story. Cue waterworks and wobbly lips.

It was technically difficult and packed with gymnastic lifts. John led well, let himself go and gave himself to dance, duly notching another 39 points – but as Johannes said, this was about something bigger than scores. Expressive and lyrical, cathartic and cleansing, it could be their defining moment and carry them into the final on a wave of emotion. If so, they’d make Strictly history as the first same-sex couple to reach the final.

Rhys fought hard but it likely won’t be enough

CBBC presenter Rhys Stephenson was full of confidence after last week’s 39-point Argentine tango took him to joint top of the leaderboard. He’d displayed new intensity and his chemistry with pro partner Nancy Xu truly sizzled for the first time all series. With nothing to lose and all to dance for, Rhys now came out full of determination.

He kicked off the show with a dramatic tango to “One Vision” by Queen (one of Rhys’ favourite songs), which enabled him to carry the intensely passionate character forward from last week’s Argentine triumph. It was rocky, contemporary in styling, imperiously powerful and sharply danced. His transitions in and out of hold were lacking but his frame and hold had hugely improved. It scored all the nines for 36 points, his highest ballroom score.

He later utilised his trademark Tigger-ish bounce in a samba to “It Had Better Be Tonight (Meglio Stasera)” by that renowned Brazilian crooner *checks notes*, erm, Michael Bublé. The samba is traditionally traditionally tricky for male celebrities but it suited Rhys’s energy levels. The rhythmical Rio carnival dance also demands suppleness, synchronisation, precise foot position and fluid hip rotation, all of which he had in spades.

Nancy did well to go for traditional trimmings – feathered frock, palm trees, lots of sparkle – because it captured the spicy samba flavour. He bounced his way to 38 points but on a high-scoring night, a total of 74 points left him bottom of the leaderboard by a four-point margin.

Coming into this show, the triple dance-off survivor was the bookies’ tip to miss out on a place in the final. Rhys and Nancy have been a yo-yo couple but are capable of knocking out a more fancied pair in the dance-off, having survived three of them. I fear he’ll face a fourth on Sunday evening.

Double trouble on the dancefloor

The couples worked harder than ever in training this week, trying to balance learning two brand new routines for the first time. They had some tough decisions to make. Did they work equally hard on both numbers? Or prioritise one proper show-stopper and trust that it’s enough?

Whichever approach they went for, it clearly worked. This semi-final saw a remarkably high standard of dance. Sure, some of the scoring was overly generous, but still only 10 points were dropped across eight routines. The number of maximums registered in this series duly shot up from 40 to 62.

With the glitterball trophy within touching distance, there was no room for error and very few were made. No lumpen lifts like last week, just judge-wowing dances. All four couples stood up to the pressure of the occasion superbly. Fab-ew-lous work from the awesome foursome.

Who’d swapped Anton for Austin Powers?

Austin Powers

Yeah, baby! Behind the judgely table, Anton du Beke seemed to be channeling a cross between his spiritual father Len Goodman and Mike Myers’ spoof 60s spy Austin Powers. All geek chic specs, prominent teeth and embarrassing noises, Anton was totally shagadelic. Ballroom was his bag, baby.

Elsewhere on the panel, Shirley Ballas and Motsi Mabuse got over-excited with the 10 paddle once again, both giving maximums to everything except Rhys Stephenson’s tango.

Meanwhile, Motsi and Craig Revel Horwood had some nicely adversarial, affectionately teasing banter. After some Covid-induced musical chairs on the panel, it’s good to have the proper line-up back together for the contest’s home stretch.

What a year for Nadiya

Ukrainian professional Nadiya Bychkova has enjoyed a golden year beneath the glitterball. She might have departed the contest last week, eliminated alongside her partner Dan Walker, but the pair formed a close friendship, had a whale (or perhaps a lobster) of a time and reaching the quarter-final equalled Nadiya’s Strictly best.

Not only did their exit speeches pay fond tribute to one another but Nadiya then told Dan The Man during Monday’s edition of spin-off show It Takes Two: ”You gave me confidence in front of the camera and created an environment where I felt safe and free to be myself for the first time. Your friendship gave me wings to fly again.” Aww. That’s the magic of dance for you.

Well, she also just became a Guinness World Record-holder for the second year running. Last night, Nadiya was unveiled as the winner of this year’s Pro Challenge after managing to perform 38 pat-a-cake steps within 30 seconds. Having notched the most fleckerls last year, it maintained Nadiya’s fine form. Richly deserved reward for one of the most likeable but unsung Strictly pros.

Both boys in dance-off danger

We now face the tensest wait of the season, with all our semi-finalists desperate to dance through to next week’s showpiece showdown. So who could trip and tumble at the last hurdle? With just four couples remaining, we might be in for one last shock.

They’re a closely matched quartet but as joint leaderboard-topper and fan favourite, Rose Ayling-Ellis will surely sail through. AJ Odudu matched her score-wise but doesn’t have as large a fanbase, like last week’s dance-off appearance demonstrated, so she won’t feel safe.

It’s the male celebrities, John Whaite and Rhys Stephenson, who were the bottom two on the scoreboard. As we know, though, that’s only half the Strictly story.

The results show airs at 7.20pm on Sunday, when one couple will suffer ballroom heartbreak. The other lucky three will waltz through to the grand glitterball final at 7pm next Saturday. Join me back here afterwards for (sob) the last sequin-spangled debrief of the series. Until then, it’s the usual drill: keeeeeeep dancing.

The 2021 ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ finale airs on Saturday 18 December on BBC One

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