Business end of the ballroom boom
The figures don’t lie. Strictly Come Dancing is the world’s most successful reality-television show and has been sold by BBC Worldwide to more than 35 international broadcasters. The live show, which was in Dublin’s O2 on Wednesday and Thursday, has been seen by more than 1.3 million over four years. It’s just part of a whole industry built around the Strictly television show, alongside Strictly holidays, Strictly -style competitions and Strictly star appearances. And although it might be an easy target for snarky comments, the television show continues to attract viewers in the millions.
“When I interviewed [ Strictly judge] Len Goodman he compared it with old-fashioned variety shows and I think there’s something in that,” says Nicola Rayner, editor of the UK-based ballroom dancing magazine Dance Today . “There’s live music, Brucie [Forsyth] telling a few jokes and, of course, the dancing, which is sometimes astonishingly good, like Jill Halfpenny’s jive, Mark Ramprakash’s Argentine tango, or Kara Tointon’s rumba, and sometimes just astonishing, like Ann Widdecombe on a zip wire or Nancy Dell’Olio in a coffin.”
Strictlyalso harnesses the popularity of reality television, with the tribulations of celebrities learning from scratch, normally including ones whose incompetence is matched only by their likeability. Add in some mouthy judges and the power of the viewer to over-rule them through phone-in voting, and the formula is complete. It’s also very camp, following a tradition for British Saturday-night television that has thrived with acts such as Larry Grayson, John Inman, Cilla Black and Graham Norton
But it’s not just a British phenomenon. The US equivalent, Dancing With The Stars , has topped ratings for seven years, attracting more than 25 million viewers on season finales. This popularity reflects a growing interest in ballroom dancing since 2001, says Angela Prince, national director of public relations at USA Dance, the national governing body for Dancesport – or competitive ballroom dancing – in the US. “The industry in the US has seen a 30 to 35 per cent increase overall in interest, and USA Dance now has 174 local chapters and a direct outreach of 225,000 people,” she says.
Prince attributes that growth to social factors rather than changes of fashion. “Historical trends for dancing in America have often followed times of need and unity. In more recent decades, jitterbug and swing followed World War II, rock and roll followed the global unrest in the 1950s, disco followed the Vietnam war, and ballroom and other dances grew again following the 9/11 tragedy.”
Ballroom dancing has traditionally been a way of courtship rather than a social balm and even as late as the 1950s and 1960s, when ballroom had been more democratised, partner dance was still what many people did on Saturday nights in huge dance halls.
“Ballroom dancing used to be all about courtship, but these days it’s about intimacy,” says Julia Ericksen, professor of sociology at Temple University, Pennsylvania, and author of Dance with Me: Ballroom Dancing and the Appeal of Instant Intimacy . With nearly 25 per cent of Americans living alone and starved of time to develop relationships or make long-term commitments, ballroom dancing offers intimacy and warmth without the commitment.
“The dance studio is a touchy-feely place with lots of hugging and kissing, and types of physical contact that wouldn’t take place elsewhere,” says Ericksen. In addition, she says that dance teachers make themselves emotionally accessible within an environment that has undertones of glamour and sexuality. “In the modern world, that’s what we want. Intimacy that’s not too demanding.” This need for intimacy is also what keeps TV audiences watching Strictly and Dancing With The Stars . “Viewers want a love story and are constantly speculating about what is happening behind the scenes and imagining real affairs between the couples,” Ericksen says. “Part of ballroom dance is portraying that intimacy in a believable fashion.”
In Ireland, interest in shows such as Strictly hasn’t always translated into an upsurge in ballroom dancing, according to Colm Wynne, president of Dancesport Ireland. When the show launched in 2004 there was a noticeable influx into dance classes, but this has now worn off.
“They probably didn’t realise the amount of work that’s involved in reaching the standard attained by the celebrities in such a short time,” he says. “Although the training sessions are televised, it does not come across that these are full-time, eight to 10 hours a day for several months with a highly skilled coach utterly devoted to a single pupil.”
Nevertheless, ballroom dancing is relatively popular in Ireland and as a social outlet it compares favourably with other countries. Not so with competitive ballroom dancing. Although some Irish dancers have had success internationally, their rivals from continental and Eastern European countries will have studied ballroom dancing as part of the school curriculum from an early age.
Television programmes or films might provide a short-term boost for the public’s interest in ballroom, but as a social outlet, ballroom is likely to remain ever-popular as long as the most ramshackle dance studio offers the possibility of imagined glamour, romance and intimacy.
AS A footballer, if Robbie Savage got whacked in the face by the ball, it was usually greeted with laughter and derisory cheers. As a dancer, Savage broke his nose by crashing into a camera during the filming of Strictly Come Dancing: he got a sympathetic standing ovation.
The once pantomime villain of British football grounds is just one of the many celebrities of varying hues whose careers have been resurrected or transformed by an appearance on the reality-television show. “I’ve re-invented myself in the past six months,” he says. “As a player, my public persona wouldn’t have been all that nice, but through Strictly people have got to know the real me.”
The television show and tour have been the perfect transition into retirement from his playing career and an opportunity to help Alzheimer charities by donating his Strictly fee: Savage’s father has the disease. Most surprisingly, it has also helped Savage gain self-confidence.
“I’m actually quite shy, insecure and not confident at all. On the pitch I might have seemed cocky, but off the pitch I was the complete opposite. By constantly facing new challenges Strictly has given me more self-belief. It’s been a really worthwhile thing to do.”