Did you know that you could do the cha cha cha while lying in bed? It plays havoc with the bedding, but it is possible. I know because, for the past several nights, I’ve been waking up at about 3.30am with the voice of my Strictly partner, Kai Widdrington, bouncing around inside my head going: “One, two, cha-cha-cha. Straight leg, no heels, cha-cha-cha.” With my feet flapping around in response to his remote commands.
It’s just one of a dozen ways in which Strictly Come Dancing has taken over my life, my every waking hour, and now my sleep patterns as well. Friends who have danced in the show before, such as Helen Skelton and Gloria Hunniford, have given me subtle warnings about the toll that it takes on your life and body. But nothing quite prepares you for what being “Strictlyfied” means until you are up to your neck in sequins, tanning, the frocks and the sheer physical, emotional and mental demands of being a “celebrity” competitor in the BBC’s most popular prime-time programme.
So where do I begin? I suppose with the phone call back in July inviting me to take part in the show. And although my immediate reaction, now that I am 78, was to say “why didn’t you ask me 10 years ago when I was younger and fitter?”, the temptation after being a fan of the show for 20 years was just too great to say “no”. Furthermore, having presented Come Dancing in the 1980s, it’s sort of brought my connection to and with dancers full circle. And what a ride it’s been so far.
Before I even got near a pair of dance shoes, like the other contestants, I was sent off to a physiotherapist who put me through a series of exercises to make sure that I was strong enough to dance. Then a doctor to check that I was physically fit. Fortunately, all of them passed me. Most surprising of all was a session with a psychologist, who will be available to us all 24/7 to help if anxiety or stress levels get out of control. Crikey! This is the BBC taking care of our physical and mental well-being in a way I found totally unexpected, but welcome.
The fun really started when all of us, professional dancers and competitors, met for the first time, at a dance studio in north London. It turned out to be speed dating to music. We went round in a circle, doing a basic waltz step, and dancing for about 15 seconds with each of the professionals, over and over again.
It was a chance for the producers to see how couples looked together, matching us up in height and judging that all-important chemistry between two people who are potentially going to spend weeks together in each other’s company and in close physical contact. That’s how they decided to pair me with Kai, my dream partner, though I didn’t know that until he was “revealed” to me nearly three weeks later appropriately in the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, from where I used to introduce Come Dancing.
He emerged sitting on the famous Wurlitzer organ, rising up through the floor like a Daemon King in pantomime. I couldn’t stop laughing, and we have been laughing together ever since. What a fab guy he is. I wanted someone who is strong (because I’m going to be hanging onto him for balance), with patience and a sense of humour. He ticks all those boxes and more. What a great teacher he is and a terrific dancer. His whole body moves with the grace and precision of a finely tuned Swiss watch. I wish I could manage just 10 per cent of his supple fluidity. But I’m working at it – in spite of our age difference!
I got the measure of his demand for perfection when we trained for the group dance that brought the launch programme to a close last Saturday. That was something of a baptism of fire for us all. But we finished on a high, and what an amazing introduction to the series it was, complete with a loving tribute to darling Len Goodman, who died last April. I’d filmed with Len during the summer five years ago and he remained a friend. The clips of his famous one-liners brought back such happy memories of previous series, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
The group routine was, of course, the first chance to see each of us dancing. Our phones were red hot with reactions from friends and family. Mine all loved my frocks, were thrilled to meet my partner (though some reckoned they’d already guessed) and collectively promised to tune in and vote. Our WhatsApp group was on fire. Krishnan Guru-Murthy set it up and it’s turned out to be a terrific gossip shop and a safe space for everyone to vent their fears, anxieties, highs and lows, and find unquestioned, generous and loving support.
After the dizzying high of Saturday night, I planned a quiet Sunday and my first cryotherapy treatment. So many sportspeople and dancers have raved about the way in which ice baths can soothe and ease aching muscles. Mine didn’t just ache, they hurt after five days of intensive exercise. For three minutes I stood in a tube where the temperature was dropped to minus 120 Celsius (minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit). I loved it! I can’t believe how relaxing it was and how much better my body felt. I emerged on Monday morning ready to start a whole week devoted to the serious business of training for my first solo dance with Kai.
Our training sessions together so far have been intense, over anything up to six hours at a stretch. I ache everywhere. Have bruises in impossible places. Sweat buckets. And have lost four pounds. And for three days last week I was in Manchester, juggling the Strictly training with recording for the next series of my “day job”, the BBC consumer programme Rip-Off Britain, which starts on October 2.
At 8am each morning I was defending the rights of consumers and holding major companies to account for their poor treatment of customers. Six hours later, I was in a dance studio tackling Cuban breaks and the New Yorker, apparently essential cha-cha-cha steps, with considerably less success.
Now I’m back in London, we meet every day at 10am and finish at 4pm. Friday is the all-day dress rehearsal at Elstree Studios and Saturday is the live show. I reckon for as long as I’m in the competition that Sundays will be sleep, cryotherapy, massage and more sleep.
Fortunately, unlike some of my colleagues, I have avoided the agonising pain of bleeding feet and raw blisters, thanks to a really comfy pair of dance shoes I found online. So frankly I’m dreading having to wear the strappy, glamorous versions that the Strictly wardrobe have lined up for me. But a darling dancer friend suggested that I put vapour rub on my feet to toughen them up. So far it seems to be working. So the bed sheets may be crumpled, but at least they smell nice.
Saturday looms. I have all the steps in my head. Not always necessarily in the right order. (Thanks, Eric M.) But I’m loving the whole experience. And hoping that I can hold it all together on the live show. With straight legs and no heels. See you then.
Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC One tomorrow at 6.15pm