Strictly week 11 recap: Rhys Stephenson impresses as John Whaite and AJ Odudu are rocked by errors

Rhys defeated the odds to impress while former high scorers John and AJ stumbled in breezy quarter final episode, writes Michael Hogan

Saturday 04 December 2021 20:59
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<p>Rhys Stephenson topped the leaderboard alongside Rose Ayling-Ellis in ‘Strictly’ quarter finals</p>

Rhys Stephenson topped the leaderboard alongside Rose Ayling-Ellis in ‘Strictly’ quarter finals

Tonight (4 December) was the quarter-final stage of Strictly Come Dancing’s 19th series. With that fabled glitterball trophy beginning to beckon, our fleet-footed famous five were pulling out all the stops to reach the penultimate stafe.

Who tripped the light fantastic through to the semi-final? And who is in line to face dance-off danger? Here’s our nine top talking points from the 11th live show…

Rhys roared back with near-perfect Argentine tango

CBBC presenter Rhys Stephenson proved he could slow it down and become a proper ballroom gent last week with his waltz, getting rather weepy in the process. Now he had to display some passion for an Argentine tango – his first serious dance since his Halloween paso doble.

Set to “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins (anyone else reminded of a drumming gorilla and suddenly have a Cadbury’s craving?), it was black-clad, red-lit and ferociously intense. Tess Daly had “goosebumps on her goosebumps”. Anton Du Beke said he’d “absolutely nailed it”. Meanwhile, Shirley Ballas was “speechless”, despite saying plenty.

The Argentine tango isn’t just a firm fan favourite, but one of pro partner Nancy Xu’s favourite dances, too. Rhys did it full justice. His partnering, power and passion were all on-point. His transitions, lifts and intricate footwork were near-flawless. A score of 39 points (just a Craig Revel Horwood quibble short of perfection) put him joint top and saw Rhys register his 10th maximum of the series.

Rhys is a triple dance-off survivor, so clearly hasn’t been getting public support. Going into the episode, he was a dead cert to be in the bottom two again, but he came out fighting. He dedicated the dance to Denzel Washington, who he’d watched in butt-kicking, head-cracking thriller The Equalizer before the show. Has Rhys done enough to save himself? Voting viewers will decide, but on dance quality alone, this was easily worthy of a semi-final spot. Equalize that.

Rose Ayling-Ellis surely flew through to semi-final

EastEnders star Rose Ayling-Ellis had another Latin wobble last week; her paso doble divided the judges and saw her finish in the bottom half of the leaderboard. Happily, she was now back where she’s happiest: in hold for a ballroom number.

Giovanni and Rose impressed in ‘Strictly’ week 11

Her American smooth to “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” by Natalie Cole was the polar opposite of that paso, both in mood and quality. Rose’s Titanic foxtrot was a triumph back in Movie Week and she wisely opted to reprise some of those steps with pro partner Giovanni Pernice. It was light, jazzy, well-connected, full of wonderful storytelling and lovely lines.

One dangerous flying lift took bravery and serious trust between them, but the couple have formed such chemistry, they pulled it off in style. A sweet video message from her oft-mentioned grandma Val was the icing on the choreographic cake. A near-perfect 39 points put Rose joint top with Rhys and will surely see her safely through. She’s bookies’ favourite for the glitterball. Nothing changed that tonight.

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Motsi was back, Anton was annoying

They’ve been playing musical chairs on the paddle-raising panel in recent weeks. First, Craig Revel Horwood missed his only show in 17 years after a positive Covid test. Craig’s neighbour, Motsi Mabuse, was then unable to travel back from Germany after being pinged by NHS Test & Trace.

Guest judge Cynthia Erivo filled in for two weeks and did an admirable job, but it was still good to see the foursome back together this week – all in matchy-matchy monochrome. Motsi’s return seemed to unite the panel, with fewer disagreements and scoring discrepancies. The only lowlight was Anton Du Beke’s increasingly eccentric, rambling critiques. “Tony Beak” needs to know when to wind it up.

Can we now reach the end of the series with no more Covid calamities? Producers will have everything crossed. But Cynthia should probably keep her phone close to hand for another fortnight, just in case.

John Whaite’s salsa dip could spell trouble

After hitting a plateau during November, ballroom baker John Whaite was back with a bang last week. His Argentine tango scored a near-perfect 39 and he topped the leaderboard for the first time in five weeks. With his confidence restored, John said he was “reborn, darling”.

John and Johannes suffered unfortunate error in ‘Strictly’ week 11

Tonight, he unleashed his hips for a fun-packed party salsa to disco classic “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. Fittingly for December, it was as camp as Christmas. Opening the show, John emerged from a giant glitterball hologram. He and pro partner, Johannes “Jojo” Radebe, were resplendent in shiny satin and sparkly sequins as they shook their moneymakers

It was slick, clean, uninhibited, high-energy and in-sync. John had fluid hips and shimmying shoulders. He handled the tricky steps and risky lifts with aplomb – until Jojo gave him the wrong hand at the end and got dropped on the floor as punishment. It was hugely entertaining and another step forward for inclusivity to see a pair of strapping 6ft 2in blokes throwing each other around the floor. Indeed, after 11 weeks, it barely seems worthy of remark now – that’s how much same-sex couples have already become part of Strictly’s fabric.

However, they got marked down for that heavy thud of a lift, scoring 32 points, which is below par for them. John came into this show as the contest’s highest scorer and has topped the leaderboard three times – the most out of anyone. Surely one fluffed lift won’t prove his downfall?

AJ Odudu also let down by lumpen lifts

After last week’s wow of a Couple’s Choice routine, TV presenter AJ Odudu now served up some Cuban spice. She closed the show with a salsa to “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You/Get On Your Feet” by the queen of Latin, No, we don’t mean head judge Shirley Ballas. We’re referring to Cuban pop diva Gloria Estefan.

The rhythm was indeed gonna get her. The crowd got on their feet. It was fast, fun, full of sharp leg action and sassy attitude. Sporting a gold glittery minidress, which rather resembled a gladiator’s armour, AJ even turned a double cartwheel on the dancefloor.

AJ and Kai were rocked by a mistake in ‘Strictly’ week 11

She was in a battle of the salsas with John Whaite but, like him, tried one risky lift too many. At the end of their routine, pro partner Kai Widdrington’s hand slipped off hers. He nearly dropped her, and a clumsy, uncomfortable dismount had viewers wincing. Reaching for one of his catchphrases, Craig Revel Horwood called it a “complete dance dis-ah-ster, darling”. A score of 30 points left AJ rock bottom of the leaderboard. She might just get a chance to correct those errors in the dance-off.

Two salsas out of five dances was poor planning

There are 15 dances in the Strictly repertoire. There are only five couples left. So, why did tonight’s five routines include two salsas and two tangos? Sure, the salsa overlap also enabled us to directly compare John Whaite and AJ Odudu. Yes, Dan Walker did a ballroom tango, while Rhys Stephenson’s was Argentine.

But surely producers could have planned it so we had more variation in this quarter-final? They scheduled them at either end of the bill, knowing it was repetitive. A Charleston or jive, for example, would have provided a welcome change of gear. So would a Couple’s Choice routine, even though the category is much-maligned by many purists.

There are other anomalies on the remaining couples’ dance-cards. Whaite has now performed all the Latin dancesm but still hasn’t done a Couple’s Choice. Presumably, he’ll do one in the semi-final – potentially a week before a showdance in the final. Three of the quarter-finalists still haven’t performed a waltz. Neither remaining women, AJ Odudu or Rose Ayling-Ellis, have yet attempted the rumba. Dan Walker could reach the semi-final without doing either a samba or salsa. It shouldn’t be too difficult to put together a sparkly spreadsheet and map out the hoofing schedule.

Tango of two halves could spell doom for Dan

BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker has improved steadily, been strongly supported by the public and against all odds, danced his way into December. Now he had to get serious for a sizzling tango - no mean task, given how much he laughs with professional partner Nadiya Bychkova in training. Perhaps Dan thought about his judgely nemesis Craig Revel Horwood to stop himself smiling.

Set to “Santa Maria” by Gotan Project, they opted for a classical tango, aiming for textbook character and technique. Initially they pulled it off, with intense focus, sharp staccato and a slow, sensual build-up. Once they got into hold, though, things went wrong. Dan’s shoulders went forward and his frame faltered, resulting in balance issues. Dan duly scored 31 points for the third week running. Consistent and impressive for a novice, sure, but not quite enough for this stage of the contest. He was left second from bottom but he’s got used to that, having been down there for the past five weeks.

Nadiya has never reached the semi-final – the furthest she’s got was this stage with Davood Ghadami in her debut series four years ago – so Dan was desperate to take her there. If voting viewers mobilise again, he just might manage it. Could Dan Dan The Tango Man become one of the most surprising semi-finalists in Strictly history? Stranger things have happened.

Have Dan and Nadiya done enough to make the ‘Strictly 2021’ semi-finals?

Shortest show of the series flew by

The quarter-final is traditionally the shortest episode of each Strictly series. Just five contestants performing one dance apiece meant the running time came in at a shade under an hour. This was a punchy, pacy show with minimal padding. The credits rolled before viewers had got their breath back.

Next week’s semi-final is 80 minutes long, due to the couples performing two routines apiece. The grand glitterball final is two hours long – so savour tonight’s short-and-snappiness while you can.

Christmas came early to the ballroom

Popular pro Oti Mabuse has won the glitterball trophy for the past two years with partners Kelvin Fletcher and Bill Bailey. Her record-breaking run came to an end this year, when she was eliminated with Ugo Monye back in week five. However, the South African firecracker still oozes star quality and provided a reminder in this week’s professional group dance, set to Celine Dion’s power-ballad “All Coming Back To Me Now”.

Telling a love story set at a Christmas party – trees and twinkly lights ahoy – the number saw Oti run into her ex, played by Italian stallion Graziano di Prima. They reunited for a passionate dance, blending ballroom with Argentine tango, rumba and spectacular lifts. Best of all was Oti’s flying leap off a chaise longue into Graziano’s arms. It was irresistibly soppy and really rather moving. Merry Mabuse and an Oti New Year.

Everyone except Rose is in dance-off danger

The famous five now face another tense wait for the results, with everyone desperate to dance onto next week’s semi-final. So who could fall at the penultimate hurdle? Well, Dan Walker was odds-on with bookies to go home yet again. Sandwiching Dan down the bottom are John Whaite and AJ Odudu, after both their salsas were spoiled by lift blunders. And despite being joint top, Rhys Stephenson won’t consider himself safe from his fourth dance-off.

The bookies’ hot tip for the glitterball, Rose Ayling-Ellis, is surely the only one who’s safe. With just five couples remaining, though, we could be due for a shock. The results show airs at 7.20pm on Sunday, when one couple will whip board the glittery bus home.

The other fab-ew-lous four tackle two dances apiece at 7.05pm next Saturday (11 December). Join me back here afterwards for the ballroom breakdown. Until then, the best way to keep warm in winter is to keeeeeeep dancing.

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