Strictly Happiness Only: In praise of sparkle telly

From some angles, it can appear that the world is one massive dumpster fire right now. The news is filled with political doom and gloom, freak weather incidents are on the rise, the rich are getting richer whilst the poor suffer horribly, and tolerance of others seems to be in extremely short supply. Much like Leeloo in The Fifth Element, it’s easy to wonder what the point would be of saving humanity when it seems that all we’ve done is fuck things up, but it’s at times like this that we have to remember the words of Korben Dallas when he told the supreme being that, “love is worth saving.”

Now, you may be able to tell from my choice of movie reference, that many of the things I love are rather camp and goofy. I love bright colours, passionate people, beautiful clothes, a story with heart, and music that moves me. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when I say that one of the ways I’ve been cheering myself up lately is by watching the BBC sparklefest that is Strictly Come Dancing. A perfect antidote to news of Brexit and the escalating climate emergency, this bright and shiny prime time reality competition gives a few hours of escape from the gloom on a Saturday and Sunday evening. If you give yourself over to it completely Strictly has the potential to deliver pure joy.

The first thing I love about it, is that it’s a huge prime time television show presented by two women. And not women in their 20s either – Tess Daly is 50 and Claudia Winkleman is 47 – or women who have purely been chosen for their looks. Daly is a great live show presenter, providing a solid link between the celebrities, the judges and the audience after each dance. Winkleman’s dry wit grounds the frantic and often over-exuberant post-dance segments, and her quick responses have got a laugh out of many potentially awkward situations. Together they deliver all the cheesy scripted lines with a knowing wink, and they bring a warm sense of fun and friendship to what could just be a huge soulless live event. Because of the presenters, the audience at home feels part of the show rather than just a viewer.

Fun is an essential part of the Strictly experience. From the celebrities they get to read out the voting terms and conditions (Tony Hadley! Joe Lycett!), to Shirley Ballas pre-emptively ducking to avoid fellow judge Bruno Tonioli’s exuberant gesticulation when delivering his comments, there are so many laugh out loud moments that always come from a place of pure joy. Even the supposedly ‘mean’ judge, Craig Revel Horwood gives constructive feedback with kindness, and shows utter delight when commenting on any dance that was actually impressive. Then there’s the sense of fun in the costumes and staging of each dance, which are often themed to suit the music or something that the celebrity is known for. Week seven’s incredible quickstep from Karim & Amy, set in an eye-searingly bright tailor’s shop, is a perfect example of this and perhaps my favourite dance of the series so far.

Then there’s the way that Strictly must surely be getting many heterosexual men to embrace the fact that there are multiple masculinities. Professional racing driver and former Emmerdale actor Kelvin Fletcher joined the show very last minute, after another contestant had to pull out due to an injury, and seemed very much like your classic ‘default man’ right up to the point where he rolled his hips in week one and jaws dropped across the land. It turns out Fletcher is no stranger to combining a love of dance with a passion for a traditionally rather macho sport – he took ballet lessons as a kid, as well as playing rugby – but the way he has thrown himself into the world of dance on prime time television, with a sheer determination to learn all he can from the excellent Oti Mabuse, should be an inspiration to every bloke who has ever been teased for not conforming to his mates’ narrow expectations of what it means to be a man. Kelvin & Oti’s delicious rhumba in week four moved us all.

Then there’s how the show has viewed older female contestants. Often these women are ‘doesn’t she still look good for her age’ choices, who have a dance background and are someone well known to middle aged viewers of the show, but this year we have a wild card. In addition to the more expected choice of Anneka Rice – who was completely and delightfully out of her element in a floaty dress in week two – we have been treated to a woman over 50 who is only known to a younger audience who respect her for being fierce and true to herself. I have to admit that, as a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I started watching Strictly this year purely to see Michelle Visage and she has NOT disappointed. Dedicated to her training and committed to taking on board the judges comments every single week, she has shown a motherly fondness for other contestants alongside a passion for the often tricky choreography that her dance partner Giovanni Pernice comes up with.

In addition, I have to admit that I love her body. Michelle has been very open about having a thyroid condition called Hashimoto’s disease and her decision to have her breast implants removed, so what we see on Strictly is a type of older female body that we don’t often get to see in such bright spotlights. She has a thick waist, a rounded tummy and small boobs, but she is unafraid of this and her costumes don’t attempt to hide it from us either. OK, so she has the legs of someone who is doing dance training all week and the face of a woman who most certainly knows which beauty treatments are the most effective, but she’s just so relatable. In a world where women are still valued for fitting a certain type of feminine ideal, Michelle visage is is the icon we need to help us live our own truth in our 40s, 50s and beyond. For Halloween week on the show Michelle & Giovanni danced as Morticia and Gomez Addams, showcasing the glamour and strength of an older woman, and it was one of my favourite moments.

Strictly is a full weekend of entertainment because, after the Saturday night live show, we get a results show on Sunday evening and this could so easily be a complete waste of everyone’s time. But the yawningly slow reveal of who’s made it to next week and the ‘dance off’ between the two lowest scoring couples are preceded by an impressive routine from the show’s professional dancers, which is always my reason for tuning in. This season will have to go a long way to beat the red carpet routine in week five, where the pros all oozed personality and showcased a variety of dance and movement styles that would be recognisable to viewers of all ages and backgrounds. It’s not all ballroom and Latin inspired, however, and the supremely talented Johannes Radebe completely steals the show with his high-kicking heel-wearing role in this. As HuffPost UK’s Head of Entertainment Matt Bagwell points out on Good Vibes Only, “there were probably quite a lot of men of a certain age very confused by that routine”… which only serves to make it even better.

The professional dancers also perform during the musical guest’s number on the results show, which isn’t usually a news-worthy moment until last week when Johannes and fellow Strictly professional Graziano di Prima danced together giving the show its first same-sex pairing. The dance was beautiful and this brief deviation from the prime time BBC norm will hopefully not be the last.

I may have initially been drawn in by the costumes and enough knowledge of dance to know that learning this stuff is HARD, but Strictly keeps me watching for its warmth and its heart. From fun moments like Alex & Neil’s Charleston to ‘Pump Up the Jam’ and Chris & Karen dancing to ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble’, to moving ones like Saffron Barker running to hug her nan after dancing to ‘Because You Loved Me’ and the (sadly now injured) Paralympian Will Bayley’s beautiful contemporary dance with Janette Manrana, to me this show is the perfect distraction from everything that’s bad in the world. Some prefer the calming wholesome joy of The Great British Bake Off or the heartwarming makeovers on Queer Eye but, whatever your taste in reality telly, just make sure it’s kind. Then, when you do inevitably have to watch/listen to/read the news, like Leeloo you’ll be reminded of what’s worth saving.

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