My invitation to appear on Strictly Come Dancing’s Christmas Special came very late. Being a cynical soul, I assumed someone had dropped out, but I’m warmly assured this wasn’t the case. I am nobody’s idea of a dancer. It’s not that I can’t dance; I can dance with great exuberance, but only if I am alone. If anyone else is in the room, I become overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment and just kind of seize up. I know the advice is to dance like no one is watching, but I can’t dance if anyone is watching.
This wasn’t the actual Strictly Come Dancing, one of our biggest TV shows, in which contestants, paired up with pro dancers, are subjected to the judgment of four experts and, even more harrowingly, a public vote. The Christmas Special is a bit of fun, in which half a dozen, erm, celebrities – dread word – do one dance for the purposes of general seasonal entertainment. OK, it’s not as terrifying as the real thing, but it’s still all about dancing. And therefore, not for me. Anyway, for most of the scant two weeks’ preparation time available, I was away on holiday in an out-of-the-way village in south Wales. Can’t dance, won’t dance, away on holiday, no can do.
So why did I end up doing it? I’m honestly not quite sure. I don’t recall ever saying yes; perhaps I just stopped saying no. But all of a sudden, a champion dancer from Poland called Jowita was on a train to Swansea. Her mission: to teach me, from scratch, how to do a ballroom dance, you know, like what they do on Strictly. Sheepishly, under cover of darkness, I found the holder of the key to the village hall, who gave me permission to use it for three intensive days of dance tuition.
By now I was getting messages from people I hadn’t seen for years along the lines of, “This isn’t true, is it?”, “You can’t be serious!”, “God help you!”, “This has made my Christmas,” and so on. None of this affected my confidence one jot because, when it came to dancing, my confidence could get no lower anyway.
My poor partner, Jowita Przystał, was raised in Czeladź, just north of Katowice. Twenty-seven now, she started dancing aged seven and took up ballroom when she was 12. Before her teens were done she was Polish Open Latin champion. Off she went to the US to join a dance company, with whom she worked on cruise ships, aboard which she danced, performing and rehearsing, eight hours a day for four years.
Her next move was to try her luck in the UK. She got to compete in the BBC talent show The Greatest Dancer. This she won, earning her a performance slot on Strictly, which in turn led to her being taken on as one of the show’s professional dancers. This was her dream come true. I’m fairly sure that the same dream didn’t feature a windy morning in a village hall on the Welsh coast and 16st of non-dancing, flatfooted, grumpy Brummie.
As far as I could see, I had three – and only three – things going for me. First, she was less than half my weight, so at least I’d be able to get her off the ground if required. Second, having never done any ballroom dancing, I had no bad habits to unlearn. Third, and most importantly, she was lovely – a quite brilliant, patient, endlessly encouraging teacher.
First off, she made it clear she couldn’t do a lot with me until my appallingly hunched posture was straightened out a bit. “Shoulders back, Adrian, BACK!” she commanded, physically adjusting me. Half dancer, half chiropractor, she brooked no resistance. With my spine already aching in this unfamiliar straight position, the drumming in of the basic waltz step could commence. One two three, two two three, three two three, over and over and over again. Forwards, backwards, sideways and around in circles I’d go. Some bits I’d pick up quickly; others I’d struggle with but then suddenly grasp, at which point we’d return to the bit I’d picked up quickly, only to find that I’d completely forgotten it. On and on we battled as outside the wind whistled. Day turned into night. The odd local wandered by, puzzled at all the stomping and cursing emanating from the village hall.
After five hours of this, we called it a day. She assured me I’d done very well and left me to stagger home. I couldn’t have been any more knackered, mentally and physically, if I’d just had my first cage-fighting session. In the morning, to my surprise, I didn’t feel too bad. I bolted down some breakfast and headed back to the village hall, where Jowita was already limbering up.
“Right then,” she said. “Let’s try the lift.” Making full use of my weight and height advantage, it went quite well. Full of confidence, we tried it again, but I’m afraid that on this occasion, as I executed the lift, I accidentally broke wind. She was polite enough to pretend not to have noticed. I was polite enough to forego breakfast before all subsequent rehearsals.
Over three days we did 15 solid hours in that village hall. The concentration required was painful, but at the same time a great release. If, like me, you’ve got ADHD, you’ll know that anything demanding complete absorption is a blessed relief from all the other noise. I found I was rather good at picking things up quickly; unfortunately, I seemed to be even better at immediately forgetting them. “Don’t worry,” said my diminutive friend. “You’ve got this.”
Holiday (if you could call it that) over, it was back to London and my first visit to the Strictly studio, where I was to learn my part in the big opening number of the Christmas show. Bashfully, I lumbered in wondering what fresh hell this would be. It turned out to be the closest thing to heaven I’ve come across in showbusiness. One after another, the pro dancers, from the UK, Russia, Italy, Ukraine, Australia, Slovenia, South Africa, and other places besides, came up to introduce themselves. As a body of men and women they’re talented, fit and good-looking; if they weren’t extravagantly nice with it, they’d make you sick. With one of them, Aljaž Škorjanec from Slovenia, I immediately became bromantically involved. I put him on the phone to my Croatian mum, whose language he speaks. “Ja sam uvijek dobro,” I heard him tell her – I’m always happy. The following day I asked him about this. Was it really true? “When I’m dancing, I’m always happy,” he confirmed. “How can you not be?”
My answer to that question at that moment would have been: “When you’ve no idea what you’re doing and you’re worried sick about looking a chump in front of millions of television viewers.” Still, I absolutely took his point. These people had something special going on; it looked like it was great to be them. Slack-jawed in wonder, I watched them all do their brilliant thing. Up close, what really blew me away was the sheer, uninhibited joy they exuded as they danced.
I’d always assumed the smiles were just painted on, but it turns out they’re smiling with their whole beings. “This is why I do it,” Jowita said to me. “With every dance, I can be whoever I want to be. Wherever I am, it’s like there’s nobody’s watching. I am free to be myself.”
I’ve known footballers fed up with football, politicians sick of politics and many journalists sick to death of everything. But I’ve yet to meet a dancer who didn’t love dancing. Admittedly, my sample size is small, but I think I’m on to something.
I was now motivated by a great desire to earn the respect of my new dancing friends and, more importantly, do Jowita justice. I was her first Strictly partner; she deserved a trier. In rehearsal rooms all over London we laboured. The more progress I made, the further away I seemed to be from getting it right. Our dance, to a deceptively quick version of White Christmas, lasted two minutes. This, by my reckoning, involved nailing around 200 precise steps, for each of which my arms, fingers, head, backside, neck and various other bits of me all had to be doing something equally specific. I calculated this added up to about 10 million opportunities to cock things up. “You overthink! Stop overthinking!” demanded Jowita, her patience showing the first signs of wear.
The bad bits of ADHD were really kicking in now. As we went through the whole routine, instead of focusing on what I should have been doing at any given moment, I was busy regretting the move I’d just messed up and worrying constantly about a tricky one towards the end.
Also, critically, I just couldn’t get my arms – my “frame” – right until I’d sorted my feet out. Once my feet were sorted, my frame started coming together, only for my feet to then go to pot again. As we waltzed together, try as I might, I couldn’t keep my shoulders back and my elbows up in the right position. This wasn’t about posture, as Jowita thought; my shoulders were sagging in sheer disappointment at all the mistakes my feet were making.
In desperation she brought in an odd-looking metal bar to hang around my neck to keep my arms up. It was humiliating, but I didn’t care. If Jowita was happy, I was happy.
The legendary football manager Brian Clough would occasionally, just occasionally, give a player a thumbs up from the dugout. That player would do whatever it took to elicit another thumbs up from the great man. Jowita had something similar for me. Whenever I nailed a sequence, she’d exclaim “Nice!” with a big, contented smile. Never did I think one word from a small Polish woman, barely older than my daughter and only slightly heavier than my dog, could mean so much.
The time came to take our routine into the studio, in front of some actual people. I was sick with nerves, quite sure I’d lose my way completely. But it went rather well; I even got a nice “Nice!” out of Jowita at the end. At this point, my stupid mind went from being sure I’d mess it up, to visualising how badly I’d now feel if I did mess up the real thing when I knew I could actually do it. “Overthinking!” hollered my exasperated partner. “Stop it! You’ve got this. Please, stop thinking, stop worrying, enjoy the moment, be in the moment.”
Resolving to obey my dance teacher/chiropractor/life coach and cease all my stinking thinking, I got togged up for the dress rehearsal. I was offered a fake tan not once, but twice, but managed to swerve it. The shirt – who knew! – was actually a bodice, a kind of babygrow that I had to step into. The idea of this, as with the decidedly snug tailcoat, is to stop everything riding up when you raise your arms. After much pinning and fiddling by the wardrobe department, I was ready. Unfortunately, the nerves had kicked in and I was desperate for the toilet, which meant everything had to be unpinned, the bodice stepped out of, and the whole palaver repeated. A rookie error.
It was time for our one dress rehearsal. After this, it would be the real thing. All was going swimmingly until we got to the lift and spin, the one bit I’d always got right. I’d crouch to lift her on to my shoulder, grab her knee and start twirling. On this occasion, though, unused to the tightness of my outfit, I didn’t get low enough to pick her up properly. Something twanged in my back and, even worse, I couldn’t find her knee among the complications of her voluminous dress. Frantically, I rummaged around for it in the folds of this frilly frock as we span, but to no avail. I’d still be spinning now if she hadn’t yelled at me to put her down and finish the dance.
Facedown on the physio’s table, I tried to put the dress rehearsal behind me. Soon it would be time for the actual televised performance. If you really want to know how well or otherwise I do, you’ll have to watch on Christmas night. After that I may or may not end up living in another country under an assumed name.
So can I now call myself a dancer? I’m afraid I can’t, as one moment illustrates. We were all wearily milling around chatting in the studio between run-throughs of a group routine. Suddenly the sound system started blasting out We Found Love by Rihanna. As one, the pro dancers all went berserk, only for the sheer joy of doing so. It was like being in an episode of Glee. I tried to join in but, inhibitions still rock solid, my feet had turned back to clay. No matter, it was a privilege to see what life can be like if you live for the moment and dance, yes, like no one is watching.