It’s official. Strictly has gone Blackpool crazy. It’s the word hot on the kiss-me-quick lips of the couples’ training rooms, Elstree studio and It Takes Two. All the celebs have been desperate to earn their place on that famous dance floor. In last week’s results show, watched by a peak audience of 12 million, it was Ruth Langsford and King of the Ballroom, Anton du Beke, who lost their seats on the Blackpool-bound party bus, as her mistake-ridden foxtrot saw her lose out to Jonnie and Oti, whose own foxtrot had a slight dancing-by-numbers feel but nevertheless pleased the judges more.
The final eight really do have a treat in store this Saturday night. It’s not all hype. I know. I’ve danced there. And it didn’t disappoint.
Dancing at Blackpool Tower Ballroom is bucket-list stuff for any ballroom dance lover and something I ticked off, back in March 2015, when my husband and dance partner, Gav, booked us in to a group lesson and social dancing evening there.
It’s fair to say it didn’t start well. The night of our event, the British weather did its thing; blowing a gale, with rain pelting in sideways. Blackpool sea front in weather like that ain’t pretty. Neither was I when we arrived. When your husband looks at you, pauses for slightly longer than necessary, then says ‘You look like Worzel Gummidge!’ you know some drastic work needs doing. Cue a desperate few minutes in the Ladies with my head strategically placed under the hand-dryer!
Glam-factor restored to passable, we finally walked into the ballroom. First impressions didn’t disappoint. Wow-factor off the scale.
It took my breath away. It’s sheer size and height (it’s 518ft!) was the first thing that hit me, but there was little time to stand and gawp as our lesson was about to begin. We learnt a short foxtrot routine, the most graceful of the ballroom dances and, usually, the one Gav and I find most tricky (we feel your pain, Ruth!).
In the short time we had to learn the routine, we at least grasped the basics. But what struck me was that , in the grandeur of that famous ballroom, I wanted to nail my posture and master the gracefulness of my steps just that little bit more than normal. The history and atmosphere of the building brought out a desire to dance to the best of my ability and to feel elegant doing so (something I sometimes struggle to achieve in our weekly lesson in a school hall after a long day at work and straight from an hour and a half commute home!)
There was another first at Blackpool, too. As I attempted to learn new steps, for once I didn’t look down at my feet (I know, I know, the cardinal dance sin!). Like a magpie, I’m drawn to all things sparkly and, that night, looking up meant I could admire the splendid chandeliers and glitterballs just that little bit longer!
Next, it was a Latin number – a cha cha cha. One of our favourites. Dancing some steps we were relatively confident with, on that dance floor, felt incredible.
Space was an issue during the lesson, the floor was so packed (a wonderful sight to witness), but as the evening wore on and some people left, we began to really appreciate the size of the dance floor – it’s 37m by 37m – and yes, we did notice the bounce of its sprung floor. The few jives we danced were in a different league to normal on the bounce scale!
The evening was also an awards night for Best Dance Teacher, hosted by the editor of Dance Today (sadly no longer in sole existence but now part of Dancing Times). If I’d known in advance, I would have nominated our dance teacher from Apton Dance Studio. Without doubt, Maxine plays a huge part in why Gav and I have kept dancing all these years – she’s the Karen Clifton/Katya Jones of teaching: a little bit kooky, more energy than seems fair to the rest of us (just catch a glimpse of Karen or Katya on It Takes Two and you’ll soon see what I mean) and inspired with her teaching techniques.
It’s fair to say Gav and I were some of the youngest there that night, along with the editor and her partner. By default we gravitated towards each other (before I knew who she was, honest!) partly because we’d spotted them doing several Lindy Hops and wanted to say how good they looked dancing together. It was mesmerising to watch a couple in action performing a dance I’d never tried (and still haven’t).
By the end of the night, though, I came away with a commission for Dance Today – focusing on dancing with cystic fibrosis (my bread and butter subject!). When the issue came out with my feature in it, I was beyond thrilled. My story had made a cover line – just inches away from the word ‘Blackpool’! Stupid I know, but I somehow felt I was making it in the dance world I so love surrounding myself in (even though, I confess, half the time I can’t even remember which foot to start on for a foxtrot!)
Never one to leave a party early, Gav and I stayed to dance the last waltz, feeling more relaxed and more able to soak up the venue’s splendour as the night wore on.
The Strictly celebs have all voiced their thoughts about getting to Blackpool on their VTs (yes, I know it’s in their contracts) but, by now, they can’t fail to be feeling the excitement and nervous anticipation of stepping foot – and dancing – in the home of ballroom.
Susan referred to it as the ‘Emerald City, an unknown world of joy’, while Jonnie coined it the ‘pinnacle of Strictly’. Walking away as we left that night, my former football-journalist husband remarked, ‘It’s the Wembley of dance’ isn’t it? Coming from him, that’s some accolade. I’m with Susan Calman – for her still an ‘unknown world of joy’; for me, joy personified. I’ll be back – next time for afternoon tea and dancing. Now, that really would be Jo in Wonderland.
My tips for winning dances this week…
My ones to watch will be Alexandra and Gorka – she’s drawn the long straw being allocated a quickstep there; as well as Gemma and Aljaz, with an American Smooth and Jonnie and Oti with a tango. Dances that can really use the space that Blackpool offers work brilliantly. And, it goes without saying that for pure unadulterated Strictly drama, it will have to be Susan and Kevin’s paso. In my humble opinion.
This week’s dances and song choices
If you don’t want to know, look away now…. but here’s what each couple will be dancing this week:
Alexandra and Gorka – Quickstep to The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money) from 42nd Street
Gemma and Aljaz – American Smooth to Downton by Petula Clark
Jonnie and Oti – Tango to Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics
Debbie and Giovanni – Samba to Spice Girls medley (Wannabe & Who Do You Think You Are)
Mollie and AJ – Charleston to Little Wings by Little Mix
Susan and Kevin – Scott & Fran’s Paso Doble from Strictly Ballroom
Davood and Nadiya – Paso Doble to Live and Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings
Joe & Katya – Salsa to Ride on Time by Blackbox