John Sergeant has earned his stripes
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Sunday Telegraph, Sunday 16th November 2008
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I was halfway up a mountain in Bhutan last Sunday so I missed the moment when Bruce Forsyth announced that John Sergeant and his dancing partner Kristina Rihanoff were through to the next round of Strictly Come Dancing. It was an event, I have since discovered, that has gripped the public's attention even more than the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. What's more, the national fever is likely to increase tonight when John will discover if he will be dancing another week. Half the country is rooting for John. If the Prime Minister had John's approval ratings, he'd be a happy man.
How do we explain the John Sergeant phenomenon? When I was a Euro MP, I used to come across John as the BBC's political correspondent. Solid, competent, likeable ? John has all those qualities. But charisma? Crowd appeal? I wouldn't have thought so.
It must be the dancing, then, so like Harrison Ford searching for some hidden treasure, I take myself off to the Big Studio in north London. This is where the Billy Elliot cast practises. It is also where Josie Darling, a charming and attractive grandmother, teaches ballroom dancing.
Darling danced as a child, entering national competitions at the age of eight. She went on competing till she was 17. Apart from taking time out to have her own children, dancing has been her life.
As she sees it, Strictly has brought about a social revolution. Ballroom dancing is back in a big way.
"Young couples come here so they can take their first wedding dance together," she says. "People in their late seventies find they can do it. And there are five primary schools in Hackney where they teach ballroom dancing."
"Dancing as an alternative to knife crime?" I venture.
I haven't really watched Strictly since Darren Gough won it and that was largely because, as a cricketer, his was a name I recognised. I mention him to Josie.
"Darren was wholly committed and, as a sportsman, had the physical fitness," she comments.
In contrast, I am not much of a dancer. The last time I put on my pumps was at a Pony Club dance on Exmoor when I tangoed with a raven-haired beauty who in later life married a general and became High Sheriff of Somerset. Now, trying an exuberant manoeuvre at the Big Studio, I fell over with such a loud crash that the band stopped playing.
Josie lays out the options. "There are 10 basic dances in ballroom: waltz, tango, foxtrot, quickstep and the Viennese waltz, as well as the five Latins: rumba, samba, paso doble, cha-cha-cha and jive. Strictly has added American Smooth [a Fred and Ginger style that John is doing this week, complete with lifts] and salsa."
"Let's try the jive," I say. I remember Chubby Checker and Bill Haley and the Comets. If Sergeant can learn ? or re-learn ? to dance, perhaps I can, too.
After 20 minutes in search of lost youth, my admiration for Sergeant's achievements had increased immeasurably. First, there is the sheer physical stamina the man obviously has. Trekking in Bhutan is nothing compared to the effort required to keep up with my partner. The Strictly contestants train for five hours a day, four days a week. No wonder Sergeant looks like he has lost weight.
The second point is the intellectual effort required. For example, Darling keeps telling me to put my right hand on her left shoulder blade, facing down at an angle of 45 degrees. This is easier said than done. Where is a lady's shoulder blade? The answer isn't obvious. But the music doesn't wait for me to catch up.
I might have learnt just one dance halfway competently, but the Strictly contestants have to perform a different routine every week. Indeed, those contestants who stay the course face two new dances each week.
I know some sniggering jokers have posted Sergeant's foxtrot on YouTube, as well as a clip of his paso doble, where at one point it does indeed look as though he is lugging baggage across the floor of an airport terminal. But that is not the point. We are talking here about the need to recognise physical courage and intellectual grasp of a high order. Attaboy, I say!
The results of this week's competition will be announced tonight. Already there are rumbles of dissatisfaction among the professionals about Sergeant's apparently remorseless progress ? "this fell sergeant", as Shakespeare so memorably put it. Those rumbles will become louder if his progress continues.
There are some subtleties here, which need to be understood. Under the Strictly rules, the public vote counts for 50 per cent, with the four judges having the other 50 per cent. It's only in the dance-off between the bottom two couples that the judges' say-so is final.
"What we are seeing," Darling tells me, "is the public voting to make sure that John and Kristina stay out of the bottom two, where the judges' word is final."
This is intriguing. Watching tapes of last week's show when Heather and Brian had to depart after the dance-off, the judges' discontent was palpable. Craig Revel Horwood spoke of a "travesty"; Arlene Phillips observed that the public's vote had led to the current state of affairs; and Bruno Toniolli looked as though he might explode. (Head judge, Len Goodman, didn't vote because the outcome was clear but his body language said it all.) In other words, the judges are miffed. Matters are slipping out of their control.
I can understand that, if you are a professional dancer, any apparent miscarriage of justice must be painful. Josie Darling is reassuring: "Normally, you would expect the four best couples to end up in the semi?finals."
I am not so sure. Will Sergeant and Rihanoff make it to the semi-final? Might they make it to the final? Might they, incredibly, win?
I know virtually nothing about ballroom dancing but I think Strictly is brilliant television. It is visually compelling and often rather moving. When Tom and Camilla (or was it Lisa and Brendon?) danced to A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, I found myself longing for a vanished world. I'm not surprised that half the nation is glued to their sets.
Bookies, apparently, are offering 66-1 against Sergeant winning. But I suspect that Sergeant and Rihanoff will get through the next few rounds, with the public doing its damnedest to ensure the sparkling duo stays clear of the relegation zone.
Stanley's dance class was with the First Dance Company (www.firstdancecompany.com; 07876 687 659)
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