Right now I would normally be starting a stand-up tour of Australia and New Zealand, but that’s had to be put on hold for a while yet. So this hiatus in my normal schedule has allowed me to join the razzle-dazzle of Strictly Come Dancing. Since signing up I’ve been surprised by the wide demographic of the show’s fans, and also by the number of friends and family who all watch it avidly.
I’ve done some filming during the COVID restrictions, so I’ve had a bit of that experience, but this is a big TV show with a lot of production staff, crew, musicians, choreographers, not to mention all the dancers plus the hair and make-up team, wardrobe and sequin-wranglers.
Everyone at the studio is wearing face masks and visors, which has meant that I’m starting to recognise people now just by their eyes. Every time we film a segment the radio mics have to be thoroughly sanitised, which we then attach ourselves, after which they are sanitised as we take them off. This is all just part of how we’ve had to adapt to this new way of working, and it does give us all some reassurance that every step to avoid infection is being taken.
I am delighted to be paired with Oti Mabuse. She’s great fun and along with being the reigning champion, a wonderful dancer and a brilliant choreographer. Training is tough, but it needs to be to get the steps locked into your memory so that you can do them without thinking.
During our lunch break, I have taken to making notes about steps, rather like how I used to make notes on a music manuscript about expression, accent, speed etc. I have a sheaf of these papers covered in scrawl which says things like: left, back, weight down, GO! HIP! look, ARMS! neck, FASTER etc. Oti noticed my scribbling and has kindly bought me a notebook for this purpose. As a diary, it’s gibberish, but for me, extremely useful.
For me the most challenging aspect is not getting too exhilarated by the dancing. When we’re whirling around the studio, I try to focus on the steps, and the routine. But occasionally I catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirrors, and I can’t help but laugh out loud with the sheer joy of it, and the implausible nature of what I’m seeing.
I’m wearing a sweatband round my head, and jogging trousers, so there’s a touch of the Flashdance about it, that’s to say if the character was welder by day, and in the evening, instead of dancing, played darts. I want to shout out “Hahaha check you out, you’re dancing, look at that!" but then, if I do, my concentration lapses for a second, and then I’m half a beat behind the rhythm, and the steps go awry. When that happens, Oti says “Stay calm, until the performance.” Actually she says “STOP!” first. Sound advice.
This dance training has revealed a couple of truths to me. The first is that I’m very grateful to have been keeping reasonably fit over the years. I go to the gym for a general level of fitness and I like to go out on my bike most days. In fact, I really racked up some miles during lockdown. I like to ride around Richmond Park. During the lockdown, traffic was barred from the park which meant the place was not only full of cyclists, the wildlife became emboldened. I saw butterflies, birds, a couple of badgers, and deer would often saunter in front of you, which led to me attaching a bell to the handlebars for both our safety.
I also try to fit in some stand-up paddleboarding, which, along with being a very relaxing way to spend a few hours, is a great workout. You need balance and good core strength, which are both good transferable skills to dance.
Secondly, as if I needed reminding, dancers are like elite athletes. Their work ethic and dedication is phenomenal, and I certainly will take this renewed admiration for them away from the show, if nothing else. And as for dance training, well it’s about as good a workout as you can imagine. You’re there to learn a dance, to acquire a skill, but along the way you get some intense cardio, some powerful stretching, and develop muscles you never knew you had.
The dance we’re rehearsing for Saturday's first live show is the Cha Cha Cha. I love that the name refers to the sound that dancer’s feet made as they slid across the floor, when it was created in the late 1940s in Cuba. The name also serves as a reminder to keep your feet on the floor, and to practice the classic Cha Cha steps, which require speed and precision.
The music we’re dancing to is a version of Pata Pata by the South African singer Miriam Makeba, which she first recorded in the 1950s. It was the song which launched her internationally, and means “touch, touch” in the Xhosa language in which it was first written and performed. I have known this song for so long, and loved it. In fact, Makeba was one of the first African artists I encountered when I was still at school, so just hearing this song again brings back many fond memories.
When we filmed the launch show, the studio at Elstree was very quiet by normal Strictly standards, due to the small socially distanced audience who were all required to wear face masks, which meant the reactions sound a bit muted. It’s hard to whoop and cheer with a mask on, so It felt a little odd at times, but nonetheless it’s something that has to happen to allow an audience in at all.
The rehearsal for the group dance was the first time that all the contestants had met, and of course we all had to keep our distance. I think everyone did really well, there was a great atmosphere, no one fell over. Everyone was well-drilled and comfortable with the routines. In fact, I think we were all more worried about tripping down the stairs during our introductory walk.
As for the judges, I think they’re all looking for different things in our performances. I’m guessing that Craig Revel Horwood will want commitment to the moves, Shirley Ballas will be looking out for correct technique and Motsi Mabuse will be looking for a great performance. So if I’m to have any chance I think I need to impress all three equally.
Whatever happens with this year's Strictly, I’ve already taken away from it a love of dancing, and of its rich and varied history. Dance is an ancient human activity which has bound us together, and forged stronger bonds amongst our ancestors through its ritual and ceremony. And in more recent times, I love how the movement of people around the world has forged new dances from all manner of cultural crossovers.
I’m glad to be part of this year's cast because I miss entertaining people. I love making people laugh in my live stand-up shows, it’s one of the great pleasures of my life. So if I can do that a little on this show I’ll be happy. And who knows, maybe I'll even dance up a storm. As for the Cha Cha, well, it’s all in the hips.
Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC One tomorrow at 7.25pm
- Who will win Strictly Come Dancing 2020? Predict the winner here.