Time to staaaaart dancing again. Yes, after a joyous but slimmed-down lockdown edition last year, BBC ballroom blockbuster Strictly Come Dancing was back for a near-normal series: a full cast, fancy-dressed themed weeks, studio audience, the sequin-spangled works.
As the 19th contest shimmied onto our screens on Saturday night (18 September) for its annual launch show, we saw this year’s 15 celebrities paired up with their professional partners at an array of random locations. Wembley! The Angel of The North! On a boat! On horseback! In a rusty bubble car in Boston, Lincolnshire!
They proceeded to hit the dancefloor for the first time in a giddy group number with the chaotic feel of a well-lubricated wedding disco. What, no awkward vicar or pageboys doing knee-slides? Here are the top 10 talking points from the choreographic curtain-raiser…
All-male couple was a welcome move
Glitterball history was made when surprisingly buff baker John Whaite (who clearly doesn’t indulge in his own cakes) was paired with cult hero pro Johannes Radebe in Strictly’s first ever all-male couple. An overdue development, considering that Strictly’s equivalents in Israel, Italy, Denmark, Australia and Ireland have featured same-sex pairings for five years. Even ITV’s Dancing On Ice had a male duo two series ago.
Still, it was a definite step forward for inclusivity and representation on primetime TV. Both men were palpably proud to be making Strictly history and sending out a powerful message in the process. They should form a sparkly cake of a partnership. Who will lead? Who will lift whom? Will Middle England explode in a ball of spittle-flecked outrage? It should be fascinating (and not a little fun) to find out over the coming weeks.
Group dance gave us first choreographic clues
The climactic group routine provided our first hints as to how things will play out. Theatre-trained CBBC presenter Rhys Stephenson looked like a ringer – good, but maybe too good. He is firecracker pro Nancy Xu’s first celeb partner; they form a highly promising duo.
McFly’s Tom Fletcher and comedian Robert Webb appeared decent. Dad-dancer Dan Walker and the decidedly unrhythmic Tilly Ramsay less so. Overall, they are an eclectic bunch with bags of potential. At this early stage, it’s a tough contest to call.
Judge Anton needs to drop the nice guy act
With judge Bruno Tonioli stuck in Hollywood again this series, longest-serving pro Anton du Beke swapped his dancing shoes for scoring paddles to fill in on the panel. He’d embraced the grey: good thing. He promised to give positive feedback: not such a good thing.
Dear old Tony Beak was scrupulously complimentary to everyone when he covered for Motsi Mabuse last year, but he needs to toughen up his critiques this time around. Or, if all else fails, fall off his chair in time-honoured Bruno style.
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First ever deaf contestant could go far
EastEnders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis became Strictly’s first deaf contestant. The British series is way behind its US sister show, Dancing With The Stars – where Children of a Lesser God actress Marlee Matlin competed in 2008 and deaf male model Nyle DiMarco won in 2016 – but better late than never. Ayling-Ellis already looked poised to become an inspirational signing – breaking down barriers, doing the deaf community proud and going on a J-word™ (that oft-mentioned Strictly “journey”).
She couldn’t have asked for a better partner than three-time finalist Giovanni Pernice. The Italian stallion is one of the best teachers in the Strictly troupe and a total gent, who’d already learned some sign language. When she took him for Cockney pie ‘n’ mash, Gio’s face was a picture.
Ayling-Ellis will rely on feeling the beat and counting steps but she’s in safe hands. Can she emulate DiMarco and go all the way? Just as importantly, will her on-screen dad Danny Dyer come to support her? Put your smart trotters on and jog on down, you mug.
Matchmaking process produced some gems
The pro-celebrity pairings were a mixed bag. Some were predictable – tallest female pro Nadiya Bychkova being matched with 6ft 5in Dan Walker – while others threw a curveball. Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty – an impressive signing, considering he’s in the prime of his sporting career – will form, in Claudia Winkleman’s words, “possibly our most competitive pairing ever” with Katya Jones. He happily agreed to 12-hour training days. The couple could go far.
Silver fox actor Greg Wise landed Venezuelan pro Karen Hauer in another promising pairing. Mr Emma Thompson’s VT vest and tight Latin trousers were immediate highlights. His ”dirty reggae” dance? Not so much. Mancunian actress Katie McGlynn and Spanish pro Gorka Márquez made a sweet duo. Their soundclash of broad accents should be good value, too. Qué?
Bill Bailey came back for one last boogie
Fleet-footed funnyman Bill Bailey’s glitterball win was one of the most cheering TV moments of last year. As is traditional for Strictly champions, he appeared on this launch show for a lap of honour around the Elstree Studios floor.
Reprising his “Rapper’s Delight” streetdance with pro partner Oti Mabuse – who has won for the past two years, but hinted this could be her swansong series – Bailey clearly relished rocking once more to the hip-hop, to the bang-bang boogie, the beat. He bows out as one of Strictly’s best-loved winners. Go well, beardy ballroom wizard
New pros provided a blast of fresh air
All eyes were on the four fresh faces among the pro ranks. Home-grown hoofer Kai Widdrington was paired with TV presenter AJ Odudu. They looked well-matched, but might suffer from a lack of public support for the relatively little-known Odudu.
Ukrainian pro Nikita Kuzmin, a chiselled boy band type aged just 23, will partner this year’s youngest celebrity, teen chef Tilly “daughter of Gordon” Ramsay. Expect the “ballroom babies” to perform high-energy routines and be thoroughly patronised. Aww, look at their little faces.
The other newbies, Cameron Lombard and Jowita Przystal, didn’t get celeb partners but are on the sparkly subs’ bench just in case. The way things are going, they might be needed.
Covid controversy cast a shadow
There was a positive Covid test among the pro line-up this week. This launch show had already been pre-recorded, so it wasn’t impacted and their celebrity partner is believed to have tested negative.
The pro’s identity hasn’t yet been revealed but they’ll now self-isolate for 10 days, meaning they could feasibly return for next weekend’s live episode, but won’t be able to train with their partner in the build-up. It’s likely a fellow pro will deputise for the first dance.
Unfortunately this news was swiftly followed by reports that two pros have refused to be vaccinated, causing further complications. Let’s hope it’s not all a sign of things to come and that dance disruptions are minimal. Less jab talk, more jive talk, please.
Anne-Marie’s agent needs to say no
She’s a coach on The Voice and a couch potato on Celebrity Gogglebox. Next week, she’s a panellist on rebooted quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Yes, pink-haired Essex singer Anne-Marie is in danger of becoming as primetime-ubiquitous as Rita Ora once was. And look how that ended up.
Her performance of latest single “Kiss My Uh-Oh” was underwhelming and her agent probably needs to be more picky. Then again, Anne-Marie is also a black belt in karate, so I’ll shut up.
We go live next weekend
With a 105-minute runtime for a dozen minutes of dance, this launch show was more padded than Craig Revel Horwood’s tuxedo shoulders. However, it was still a feelgood gust of autumnal normality to have Strictly back on our screens.
The 15 newly formed couples now disappear to the training rooms to prepare for their full dancefloor debuts. This year’s first live show airs at 7pm next Saturday. See you back here to burst out of a sparkly cake and give a dance debrief.
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