Friday, December 13, 2013

Strictly Not Dancing

Ola Jordan may not return to BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. Having been voted out with partner Ashley Taylor Dawson on Sunday night, she has been reported as saying that grief from “a fellow pro” (a row with Karen Hauer, who allegedly called Ola “a rubbish dancer”) has made her reluctant to return and that discussions are under way with the BBC.
My guess is that she won’t be back. The world of ballroom dancing is a nasty, back-biting, vicious world in which only the tough survive, and just because Strictly is a TV show rather than the real thing, don’t let the sequins fool you. As Shakespeare said: ‘All that glisters is not gold.’
The world of ballroom dancing wasn’t always that way. When I was seven, I came fourth in my first dancing competition, the Solo Waltz, at the Brittle School of Dancing in Newport. Having failed at ballet (I was cast as one of six plump fishermen in gingham and shorts, as opposed a tutu-clad snowflake), the world of ballroom dancing – in my case, Old Tyme - looked a lot fairer.
But fourth? The girl who came first had her arm in a sling, so clearly had won the sympathy vote. As for second and third – well, they weren’t in my league. For one who emerged from the womb with a competitive umbilical chord, it was a painful experience.
However, on just half an hour’s lesson a week, my partner Janette and I (because of a shortage of boys, girls could dance with girls until hey were 12) went on to win every trophy going, becoming national champions at the ages of ten and nine, respectively. Len Goodman judged me on several occasions and was one of my biggest fans. Dear Len. I still won’t hear a word said against him. He clearly knows his stuff.
In those days (and Len was barely out of short trousers), if you were the best, you won; it was as simple as that. There were couples who travelled the length and breadth of Britain, taking lessons with different teachers, in the hope of being recognised on the dance floor when their teachers were judging the competitions. It made not a jot of difference.
That all changed when I started to participate as an adult in Modern Ballroom and Latin American competitions. Score sheets were available at the end of the night and you could check who had marked whom, and it was clear why some couples, who had not delivered on the floor, walked away with the trophies.
The plan was simple: you checked in the dance magazines to see who was judging in forthcoming competitions and then booked a number of lessons with them in the weeks leading up to the competitions. Hey, presto! Judges marked “their” couples through just by looking at the programme with dancers’ names in it; then they could watch the others without having to put up the pretence of judging all couples equally. This is how bad it was: at one national competition, one couple made it through to the final and they hadn’t even turned up, having been involved in a car accident en route.
Strictly Come Dancing is an incredibly popular show, and judges Len and Bruno Tolioli in particular bring some intelligent, incisive criticism to the proceedings. Craig’s act is hilarious, if a little forced these days, but he delivers what he promises to do on the tin. As for ballerina Darcey Bussell, after a very shaky start when she joined the panel (“Yah? Yah? Yah?”), she has blended into it with sophisticated ease – and she remains one of the greatest dancers of her generation.
But, let’s be honest, Strictly is not a dance show. It is, at best, an acrobatics contest, and, at worst, a personality contest. Every time a contestant is lifted in the air, the audience erupts into rapturous applause. Why? It’s not a weight-lifting show. The male non-professionals can be made to look good because they are lifting human Twiglets in the air (which, quite frankly, I could probably do with two fingers); the female non-professionals can be made to look good because the men carry them psychologically, leading them forcefully when they make mistakes, like the ice-cleaners directing the route of the stone in a curling competition.
Everything changes, we know that; but this is dancing that is anything but “strict”. Far more than the X Factor (which really does produce stars, no matter what your opinion about the means by which it does so), Strictly is just a showcase for frocks and shocks. That’s fine, but let’s not pretend it is a dance show.
It is, like all reality shows, carefully cast with celebrities who will gather the most headlines, in mind. There’s the love interest, the overweight older woman, the comic character . . . It’s like a Shakespeare play – or Sesame Street, depending on your viewpoint.
There is a proliferation of so-called dance shows on both sides of the Atlantic these days, and Dancing with the Stars in the US undoubtedly adheres to the “strict” rules of dancing more than its British counterpart. Unsurprisingly, Bruno and Len are both judges on that, too, and are brilliant.
But let’s stop pretending that Strictly is about dancing, any more than the “real” world of ballroom dancing is anymore. It’s about making money for the BBC the world over, which it has done. By the bucketload. I hope that if and when Simon Cowell brings a dance show to our screens (as he is rumoured to be doing), he will make more dance stars than he has already done with outstanding acts on Britain’s Got Talent and its American equivalent.
But please let’s acknowledge this: “Strictly” Come Dancing is anything But.


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