Fireworks might have been banging outside our windows but who’d produce “oohs” and “aahs” on our TVs? As Strictly Come Dancing’s 19th series reached its midway mark, the competition was heating up like a ballroom bonfire.
Who’d be a Saturday sparkler? And who will fall at the halfway hurdle? Here are the top 10 talking points from Strictly’s seventh live show…
1. AJ Odudu gave a West End-worthy performance
Motormouthed TV presenter AJ Odudu was second on the scoreboard last week with her Medusa-themed Viennese Waltz notching her highest score of 37 points. Now she went two points and one place better with a Charleston that beggared belief for its brilliance at this stage of the contest.
Sporting a beaded mini-dress, her kicks were leggy, with lifts and lots of steps. Set to Dixieland jazz standard “Don’t Bring Lulu”, the Roaring Twenties number was like a party in coregraphic form, complete with the requisite amount of bounce and swivel. The style suited Odudu’s upbeat energy and enabled her to showcase her silly side with goofy faces and bags of kooky character.
It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Broadway musical. Despite her partner Kai Widdrington doing a fine job, AJ looked like the professional at times. Craig Revel Horwood duly declared it “a-may-zing”, while head judge Shirley Ballas said she wanted a higher scoring paddle than 10. A near-perfect score of 39 out of 40 saw Odudu deservedly top the standings.
Having been injury-plagued in training this week, AJ was weepy with relief. She always watches the show back with her mum Florence, late each Saturday night, with champagne and pizza. Tonight might just be bigger on the former than the latter. She’ll remember, remember the 6th of November for a long time to come.
2. John Whaite’s rumba broke new ballroom ground
Gym-buffed baker John Whaite had a Halloween off-week by his own high standards, his werewolf quickstep lacking precision and detail. He and pro partner Johannes Radebe now slowed things down to tackle the romantic rumba – a notoriously exposing dance for celebrity males. John was up to the challenge, with hips which had more rotation than a Catherine wheel.
Set to “Shape of My Heart” by Sting – who sent the pair a sweet good luck message via video – the sensuous, stripped-back routine was so intense and intimate, it created a magical moment. Craig Revel Horwood said he might steal it for his wedding dance. Shirley Ballas, a former rumba world champion, was moved to tears and gave it a perfect score.
John had admitted some trepidation ahead of this routine, saying: “I’m a bit nervous about how it’s going to be received because it’s a very intimate dance. Some people have already expressed their distaste for Johannes and me as a partnership, so I’m expecting to get flak over it. But you know what? We’re over that kind of hateful, hurtful nonsense. We’re here to make the point that same-sex couples should be allowed to dance together.”
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Too true. This might have caused some pearl-clutching in Middle England but let them clutch. With 35 points, it was the highest scoring rumba of the series so far and left them in third place. In Craig’s words, “gaw-jus”.
3. Over-scoring has become a habit for judges
Yes, this series is blessed with a remarkably high standard of dance. But it’s not just breaking all Strictly records for high scoring, it’s smashing them. We’ve already seen the highest average overall scores at this stage in the contest and had the earliest perfect 40 in Strictly history.
If all those scores were fully deserved, it wouldn’t be an issue. But time and again, we’ve seen the panel pick up on technical details or footwork faults in their critiques, then surprise everyone by still whipping out their eight and nine paddles. There’s being upbeat and encouraging, then there’s being disingenuous.
Tonight we had six maximum 10s and eight near-perfect nines. Yet we’re only halfway through the series. How will the judges reward hard work and improvement over the next six weeks? Sometimes they need to take a breath and vote with their heads, not their hearts. Craig Revel Horwood has only issued one maximum this series. Sure, he plays the panto villain but he’s also probably right.
4. Bullfighting Tom Fletcher notched pair of perfect 10s
If ever you need an example of Strictly’s over-scoring, this was it. McFly frontman Tom Fletcher and Welsh pro Amy Dowden delivered a very decent paso doble to “Amparito Roca” by Jamie Texidor, a traditional piece composed in 1925. But did it deserve one perfect 10, let alone two of them? Nope.
In a red, white and blue matador costume, Fletcher was classical and balletic, with cape-swishing, pirouettes, banana body shape and Spanish line. His partnering was strong, his posture proud and it was by far his best dance yet. But was it perfect? It lacked power and passion to truly hit the heights, let alone some postural details.
Fletcher’s bandmate Harry Judd, who was Strictly champion a decade ago, visited him in the training room this week. Perhaps the judges got confused and were voting for the wrong McFly member. Olé!
5. Rose Ayling-Ellis nailed Latin for first time
She scored the earliest perfect 40 in Strictly history last Saturday with her shiver-inducingly dramatic, technically faultless ice queen tango. EastEnders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis has now become bookies’ favourite to lift the glitterball trophy. However, she’s far stronger in ballroom than Latin.
She’s never scored lower than a nine in ballroom but tends to notch sixes and sevens for Latin styles. She needs to improve to become a true all-rounder but finds it trickier when she can’t feel the music through pro Giovanni Pernice’s body out of hold.
Her 60s-style samba to “Cinema Italiano” was by far Rose’s best Latin effort yet, with lovely leg shape, rotating hips and white-booted bounce action. It scored a clean sweep of eights for 32 points, her best Latin score, but on another high-scoring night, left her halfway down the leaderboard. How she nailed the timing in this tricky routine was a wonder to behold and testament to her teamwork with excellent teacher Giovanni. She’s certainly a finalist in waiting but needs a Latin breakthrough to get one hand on the trophy.
6. Sara Davies bounced back and meant business
Crafting entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den star Sara Davies is having a rollercoaster contest, yo-yo-ing up and down the scoreboard. Last Saturday was a definite downswing, as her flop Couple’s Choice routine left her bottom of the standings and partner Aljaž Škorjanec apologising for his choreography.
Sara’s a ballroom babe, having already topped the leaderboard with her foxtrot and tango. Now she was back in hold where she’s most comfortable for a show-closing quickstep to Dolly Parton’s empowerment anthem “9 to 5” - and she’d dressed as Dolly for the occasion.
She wasn’t helped by her skirt (which left us unable to see her Charleston footwork) or the camerawork (which overfocused on Aljaž and lost sight of her at times) but her routine was fast, frothy and demonstrated impressive stamina. She flew around the floor like a skyrocket and finished mid-table. The down-to-earth Durham mum is clearly popular with viewers, whose votes have twice lifted her clear of the dance-off. Now she needs to add consistency, rather than relying on being rescued by the public.
7. Frame could prove Rhys Stephenson’s downfall
CBBC presenter Rhys Stephenson called it his “nemesis” and once again, his ballroom hold was his Achilles heel. A shock appearance in the dance-off a fortnight ago knocked his confidence. Now he channeled his irrepressible bouncy energy into a quickstep to “What A Man Gotta Do” by Jonas Brothers.
His timing and rhythm were impressive as always but sadly, his shoulders fell forward, his frame dropped and Rhys lost the natural elegance of the dance. Judge Anton Du Beke described his posture as improving from “awful to not too bad”, which was harsh – especially considering Anton proceeded to then whip out his nine paddle.
Still, the issue remains Rhys’s weakness. If his top half could match his nifty footwork, he’d be a potential finalist. His pro partner to Nancy Xu could do her bit by throttling back on the content, not over-cramming routines and leaving Rhys time to focus on maintaining quality, rather than pace.
8. Tilly Ramsay’s chess tango was a backwards move
She spent much of this week removing face paint from her ears after Halloween Week’s Frankenstein cha-cha. Perhaps this led to a lack of training time for teen chef Tilly Ramsay. A score of 31 points was Tilly’s lowest for four weeks and left her third from bottom of the leaderboard.
She went from bright green to black-and-white for a chess-themed tango to “Kings & Queens” by Ava Max. Tilly has become adept at playing a different character each week and showed it again here, with a dramatic, passionate and intense routine. The concept and creativity from pro partner Nikita Kuzmin were excellent but the execution wasn’t quite there.
It has speed, switches of direction and snapping staccato movements but dipped towards the end, lacking flow. Her head position wasn’t right and footwork became heavy. Claudia Winkleman called it “The Queen’s Gambit: The Musical” but this wasn’t checkmate. More bishop level than queenly.
9. Adam Peaty’s jive was a bum deal
Champion swimmer Adam Peaty’s “derrière” had become a talking point in recent weeks, verging on an obsession. He wiggled it around during his samba which made the judges “go a bit twitchy”, then was told he needed to tuck it in for ballroom dances. Happily, it wasn’t mentioned this week. Even an Olympian’s steely buttocks need a week off sometimes.
Set in a pool hall, Peaty’s foot-tapping jive to “Little Bitty Pretty One”, familiar from the Nineties movie version of Matilda, was a solid effort but sullied by mistakes which put Peaty off his flicking, kicking stride. He became halting and hesitant which was a shame. Until those errors, he’d displayed bags of personality and energy.
He and pro partner Katya Jones were consigned to the dread dance-off last week but survived comfortably against the unfortunate Judi Love, who twerked her way home to Hackney. Now Peaty was left, perhaps aptly, bottom. Will it be sink or swim on Sunday night? If he could stop visibly counting and mouthing song lyrics, he might just get a few extra votes.
10. Dan Walker in dance-off danger again
BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker has been all about slow, steady improvement – making progress as a dancer and bringing out his personality more with each passing week. Now he got to showcase what he’d learned with a Hollywood-themed Couple’s Choice routine to “Classic” by American funk-pop duo MKTO, his favourite song.
Ukrainian pro Nadiya Bychkova cutely choreographed a “sweetdance”, incorporating bits of jazz, musical theatre and ballroom. It was jaunty, jolly and joyous, with Dan’s enthusiasm proving both endearing and infectious. Occasionally resembling a load of TikTok dances tacked together, Dan did well to keep it compact but lacked the groove and musicality to quite pull it off.
His lobster jive was played for pincer-clad laughs last week and an entertaining routine saw Walker jubilant when he scored his first eight. He scored another here but was still second bottom of the leaderboard. He’s so far evaded the dance-off, despite being the lowest-scoring celebrity left in the competition. Walker might not be so lucky now. If he ends up in the dance-off against Adam Peaty, it will be a tight call – they’re only one point apart – but both seem to have reached their Strictly ceiling.
The results show airs at 7.15pm on Sunday, when somebody will bow out of the ballroom at the contest’s midway mark. The remaining eight pro-celebrity couples will take to the floor again at 6.40pm next Saturday. Join me here afterwards for a full sequin-spangled debrief. In the meantime, you know what to do: keeeeeeep dancing.
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