IT has been said that going on Strictly is risky for relationships, what with all the physical intimacy of the dancing and whatnot leading to one thing or another.
This, I suspect, is overstated. I for one was too terrified to feel any emotion other than, well, sheer terror.
Intimacy? I gripped my partner Jowita Przystal like a drowning man might cling to driftwood. The poor woman may be marked for life, with my fingerprints.
It all started two weeks before the Christmas Special, when I got the call inviting me to take part.
I’ve got nothing against dancing, I just can’t do it. If I attempt to dance, at a party or something, I quickly become overwhelmed with shame. I find it nothing less than traumatic.
Also, I was away on holiday in a quiet village on the Welsh coast, so couldn’t rehearse anything anyway, so told them I couldn’t do it.
The next thing I knew, a tiny Polish dance champion was despatched to knock me into shape. Not for nothing is Strictly the hit show it is: The production team don’t know how to take no for an answer.
We met up in the local village hall. Me, 16st of stiff, bashful, terrified Brummie. And her, half my age and half my weight and apparently delighted to be tasked with teaching me to ballroom dance.
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At least my Strictly “journey” was going to be a short one. Whatever humiliation awaited me, in a week and a half it would all be over.
She really didn’t have a lot to work with. I had literally zero experience of proper dancing, not a single step. Also, my posture, all hunched over and shambling, was no good at all.
She addressed this by commanding me to roll my shoulders back. When I couldn’t do so, she got hold of them from behind and pulled them back.This woman meant business. So, off we went, from the very beginning.
She looked on, at a safe distance, counting one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, over and over again as I galumphed my way through the most basic waltz step, forwards, backwards and in circles, until I didn’t know my right from left or which way was up.
With her smiling, endless encouragement, I finally got the hang of it, after a fashion.
So we had a go at doing it together, but not in the traditional “waltz clinch” — which isn’t the technical term, but you know what I mean.
No, we did it while holding each other’s arms in what looked like the start of a grappling contest, which wasn’t far off what it felt like at first.
This was less about protecting her dainty feet than enabling her to keep an eye on what crimes against dance my feet were perpetrating.
At this point my girlfriend popped in with our dog, who looked on with complete bafflement, neatly mirroring his master’s feelings.
On and on we laboured. In the short breaks we allowed ourselves, Jowita told me about how she’d grown up dancing in Poland and won her first major ballroom title aged 19.
After four gruelling years away, dancing eight hours a day on cruise ships, she came to the UK and managed to win The Greatest Dancer contest on BBC1.
Google her winning routine on there if you want to see dancing to absolutely blow you away.
Getting a job as a pro dancer on Strictly was a dream come true for her. As she wasn’t partnered with anyone on the main show, I was her first.
The first time I executed the lift I’m afraid I inadvertently broke wind very loudly
Soon my motivation was as much about being the best I could be for her as avoiding looking a complete clown myself. The following morning we began with the big lift she’d planned for us.
Given my significant weight advantage, this was the one bit I was confident about. Such was my enthusiasm, the first time I executed the lift I’m afraid I inadvertently broke wind very loudly.
I’d eaten breakfast too quickly. Being a pro, she pretended not to notice. Back in London, it was time for my first visit to the studios for a run-through of the group dances I’d be doing with my fellow contestants, who all looked as nervous as me.
We came together like shy kids starting at a new school. Jay Blades was the only one my kind of size, so we bonded instantly. Mel Giedroyc, a natural performer, made it very clear she felt way out of her comfort zone.
Fred Sirieix bounced about, terrified but excited. Moira Stuart was as laid back as ever and Anne-Marie, the baby among us, was sweet as you like. As for the pros, I instantly became infatuated with all of them — men and women alike.
Apart from being beautiful to look at and insanely talented, they couldn’t have been nicer with us, nursing us through our nerves.
FRED SIRIEIX BOUNCED ABOUT
I always said that, apart from the dancing itself, I could never do Strictly because of the outfits — sequins and fake tan aren’t my style. The good news was that the fake tans weren’t compulsory and my outfit didn’t feature sequins.
It did, however, feature a dancing shirt, which you kind of had to step into, like a babygrow. This stops it riding up. It also makes going to the toilet quite an operation, trust me.
The other thing I suspected I’d struggle with on Strictly was all the smiling. And I was right. I’m not a big smiler at the best of times and smiling while I’m concentrating is impossible.
Jowita showed me a video of us practising our dance, which was supposed to be a gentle, romantic number. “Look at your face!” she said in despair.
Jaw clenched, cheeks slightly a-tremor, my face resembled that of an Olympic weightlifter struggling to keep the bar above his head.
Jaw clenched, cheeks slightly a-tremor, my face resembled that of an Olympic weightlifter struggling to keep the bar above his head
Jowita also had to fight hard to get my shoulders and arms in the right position. Resorting to desperate measures, she bought a strange bent metal rod to hang around my neck and support my elbows.
This was effective, if somewhat humiliating. Gradually, something approximating a smile occasionally came to my lips and my upper body creaked into an acceptable shape.
I showed Jowita the famous Ascent of Man graphic — with the line of six figures, from the chimp at the back to the fully-formed homo sapien at the front.
With her help, I told her, I now looked like the fella at the front. “When I first saw you in that village hall,” she said, pointing at the ape-like human second from the back, “You looked like this.”
Yes, after ten days in Jowita’s care I was at least looking more human, which is no small thing.
As for whether I walk tall off the dance floor or slink off in shame like a wounded silverback, you’ll have to watch Strictly on Christmas Day, BBC1 at 5.10pm.
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