Strictly speaking

Three reasons why the high-kicking sparkly show wins

Who would have thought that, two decades into the twenty-first century, the competitive execution of slow and quick dance steps could secure the coveted Saturday evening audience crown for the BBC? Perhaps it’s because we’ve been tuning in for hundreds of thousands of years.

The first ever episode of Strictly Come Dancing in 2004 drew five million viewers, but that figure had more than doubled just eight weeks later. More elaborate production of subsequent series brushed up the brand, and the ratings eventually overtook those of the phenomenally successful X Factor. It is still pulling over ten million an episode in 2020 despite the ever-increasing competition from an ever-widening range of viewing choices. 

How does the progeny of a stuffy, antiquated ballroom programme first aired in 1949 do that?

1: It’s genuinely difficult

The lure of creosoted limbs executing unnaturally elasticated kicks was insufficient to tempt me to that first Strictly season, but after accidentally catching the latter half of an episode in series two, I was hooked. 

My day job included managerial responsibility for dance courses, and I had slowly but surely become enchanted by the aesthetic power and artistic complexity of contemporary dance. Strictly had something in common with that, but it was made much more complex by the multiple disciplines that had to be learned – often by complete novices – in just five days.  That’s really hard, and in front of a vociferous live audience, and ten million TV viewers there is nowhere to hide. 

Individuals may have a natural proclivity for one style, but to rise to the highly contrasting demands of another just a week later requires discipline, dedication, and determination.  Fall short on any of those and it will be flaws, not flair, that will be on show.

It’s really demanding, even for super-fit sports players used to harsh training and relentless fitness regimes. For competitors who are also honouring daily filming or presenting commitments, it borders on the impossible. Yet somehow, they manage it.  Some of them.

2: The judges know what they are talking about

The performers entertain, but the judges educate and hence we are both amused and informed.  We learn the rules but also are aided in our understanding of the interpretations.  The scores are most informative when they are seven or less. 

The scoring appears to have suffered from grade inflation in recent series, but this could be because standards have risen.  The professionals have got better at training the celebrities, and the latter have become more aware of what is expected of them.  That’s education in action.  We await the 10* paddle.

The public are also judges, and it is they who decide the winner. The longer each series goes on, the more astute their judgement becomes.  That’s because we know what we are not talking about.

3: We can all read the moving hieroglyphs

Sometimes the dances are praised because they contain so much drama.  There is no border between drama and dance, they form one continuous spectrum. The French actor, director and lunatic, Antonin Artaud made the creation of drama infinitely easier by just two words.  The actor, he said, is a moving hieroglyph. 

It’s that simple. In fact, it is not just the actor, but every human who is a moving hieroglyph. We all exhibit an instinctive physicality that can be read by others. As with any form of communication, the physical signage is not always clear, but some components are universal: expressions of joy, surprise, fear or anger, for example. 

Dance is a distillation of physical symbolism. It can range from the universally comprehendible to the intimately intangible. It might also include exclusive coding (as with the precise meanings of ballet moves) but it is also always sufficiently abstract to allow us to formulate our own response.  We can interpret the components even if we cannot make sense of the whole.  We might even be processing it at a level of which we are unaware, because we’ve been reading form and space long before we knew what form and space were. It is the one truly unifying language, rarely taught, always learned.

Television has been with us for less than a hundred years, writing for less than six thousand, and human speech perhaps for one hundred thousand, but long before that we and our ancestors watched and interpreted movement, posture and gesticulation.

If you tune in to Strictly Come Dancing you might think you are looking at something rigidly formulated and spectacularly embellished, but you are reading symbols older than writing and assembled from moves and gestures more ancient than speech. 

Strictly speaking, dance wins when words are eliminated.


Strictly Done Dancing paperback

Strictly Done Dancing eBook

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