I ignored Strictly for 19 seasons – then fell for its hypnotic effervescence in minutes

In the creeping misery of post-summer, when dark, rainy days conspire with the grind of normal life to throw you into despair, Strictly Come Dancing dazzles like a glitter ball in the gloom. For nearly 18 years, avoiding Strictly’s omnipresence in the run-up to Christmas was a personal dogma. When asked for an opinion on who may be voted off or who would win, I’d respond with smug refusal to engage. I did not and could not watch the show.

My strong reaction was in part founded on my inability to understand how watching people who already had money and got paid more to dance badly could ever be called entertainment. Adding insult to injury, the contestants would invariably huff into cameras, gushing about being grateful for the “journey”. No, thank you.

Strictly’s brand of kitschy sentimentality grated. The likes of Ann Widdecombe could be catapulted to national treasure status while taking vocal stances against abortion and same-sex marriage. D-list celebs being offered another opportunity to cling on to their fading fame – I couldn’t understand how viewers lapped it up. Its sweet wholesomeness smelled off.

And then I had children. Now aged seven and nine, their insistent requests to watch Strictly couldn’t, unfortunately, be warded off with a simple “no”. No elicited a string of whys instead of the silence a parent might desire. Nor would they listen to arguments on how “the counterpart of sentimentality is … brutality” (Carl Jung), or that “a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it” (Oscar Wilde). The best I could do was to fob them off with a “maybe, let’s see”, and keep my fingers crossed that at school trading Pokémon cards would trump swapping opinions on who may face elimination the following week. But, as most parents know, the power of playground discussions among seven-year-olds is strong indeed. I lost. We were watching Strictly.

We began our Strictly journey in week two of season 19 and I wondered what great error had materialised in my parenting. How could my children (mine), in the era of streaming and on-demand TV, choose this out of the countless options stretching before them. To comfort myself, I rationalised that they’d eventually grow bored. How could they not? Other than the judges, who really has the stamina to watch the various missteps of 15 stars? If all else failed, I would resist by stealth. The moment the show came on, I would busy myself with dinner prep or ticking off an item on the to-do list.

It was all going to plan until the first duo came on. The TV chef John Whaite and his partner, Johannes Radebe, the show’s first same-sex male couple, danced the cha-cha-cha, and I watched as my children sat mesmerised by the sheer joy in their performance. A one-off, I reasoned. Next, the presenter AJ Odudu and her partner, Kai Widdrington, danced the foxtrot to Amy Winehouse’s Tears Dry on My Own and I was … humming? By the time the Dragons’ Den judge Sara Davies glided across the floor with her partner, Aljaž Skorjanec, I had shed all sense of cool detachment. Now I was harmonising with the band’s rendition of Cass Elliot’s Dream a Little Dream. There was a lump in my throat when Rose Ayling-Ellis, Strictly’s first deaf contestant, who has been tipped to win this year, teared up as she watched her best friends wish her good luck from their honeymoon. What was happening to me?

By week three, I tried to pull myself together. With my phone at the ready, I’d use Strictly’s running time to get through the long list of interesting articles I stumbled across while browsing for something. Why, then, was I devouring a précis of the “Strictly curse” and wondering who would become a victim of its power this year? At this point I gave up the ruse. Who was I kidding? I was hooked.

It took mere minutes to fall prey to Strictly’s hypnotic effervescence but, at the risk of sounding sentimental, there is depth beyond those sparkles. With each instalment, with all that glitter and pizzazz, Strictly teaches a lesson I hope remains long after the winner is announced. It is this: learning should be lifelong. It requires the good grace to listen and practise, which entails the vulnerability of failing. It is about having a go in spite of yourself, and most importantly finding enjoyment.

Bring on season 20.

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