Strictly Come Dancing 2021: Your cheat sheet as the dazzling dance competition returns

·7-min read
 (PA)
(PA)

It’s back! Strictly Come Dancing is about to sashay its way onto our screens once again, with a brand new cohort of famous faces ready to douse themselves in a vat of fake tan, don outlandish costumes and learn some fiendishly fancy footwork under the watchful eye of a professional dance partner.

Last year’s competition was slightly scaled down but ended up feeling anything but muted, instead giving the viewing public a much-needed dose of joy and sparkle amid the gloom of Covid restrictions — and with one of the show’s strongest line-ups yet, the 2021 series looks set to be even more dazzling.

Here’s everything you need to know before proceedings kick off on Saturday night...

Class of 2021

Presenter AJ Odudu is among the stars taking part (BBC/Ray Burmiston)
Presenter AJ Odudu is among the stars taking part (BBC/Ray Burmiston)

Who is vying for the glitterball trophy this time around? The class of 2021 includes newly minted gold medallist Adam Peaty, former Bake Off champion John Whaite and presenter AJ Odudu, with newsreader Dan Walker and CBBC’s Rhys Stephenson continuing the BBC presenter to Strictly star pipeline.

Former Corrie actress Katie McGlynn, EastEnders’ Rose Ayling-Ellis and Nina Wadia make up this year’s contingent of soap stars past and present, while Peep Show’s Robert Webb has plenty of experience dressing up in outlandish costumes and throwing shapes thanks to his 2009 stint on Let’s Dance for Comic Relief, when he recreated the iconic routine from Flashdance. Tilly Ramsay (daughter of Gordon) will be harnessing the TikTok vote, while actor Greg Wise has dedicated his stint on the show to his sister, “a disco diva queen goddess on the dance floor, who died almost five years to the day to when I’m going to start work on this.”

Actor Greg Wise joins Strictly’s class of 2021 (BBC)
Actor Greg Wise joins Strictly’s class of 2021 (BBC)

Rounding out the group are the hilarious Judi Love, who will doubtless have asked her fellow This Is My House panellist and last year’s Strictly champ Bill Bailey for some tips and tricks, Dragon’s Den’s resident craft queen Sara Davies, former rugby union player and new Question of Sport team captain Ugo Monye, and McFly’s Tom Fletcher, who’s already married to reality TV royalty (wife Giovanna Fletcher was crowned Queen of the Jungle in the 2020 series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!). We’ll find out precisely who has been paired up with who during Saturday’s opener, before the live shows kick off next week.

The bubbles are back

Last year, the phrase “our dancers are tested twice a week” became Strictly’s answer to Love Island’s “100 percent my type on paper” when it was reiterated at every moment possible by Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman to stress the extensive Covid protocols put in place to protect the dancers and crew. Each pair formed a “household bubble,” with some having to temporarily move out of their family homes for the duration of the show.

Even though lockdown measures have now been lifted, the dance duos will still form bubbles and will be tested for coronavirus weekly. Winkleman’s ‘Clauditorium’ — aka the top of the stairs going down to the dancefloor, where the host usually chats to a jostling crowd of celebrities and dancers — remains closed for business. Instead, just like last year, she will interview socially distanced contestants seated at tables.

Strictly’s female professional dancers (BBC/Guy Levy)
Strictly’s female professional dancers (BBC/Guy Levy)

This time, though, audiences will be allowed back in the studio - and if a dancer does test positive for Covid, it doesn’t automatically mean that they will have to bow out, like Nicola Adams and Katya Jones did last year. The isolation period has been reduced from 14 days to 10 since Strictly was last on air, so they might in theory only have to miss one episode. “If a celebrity does receive a positive test, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are out of the competition,” executive producer Sarah James explained. “It might mean they could miss a week and still get enough training in to return.” Indeed, one professional dancer (the show has not revealed which) tested positive for Covid earlier this week shortly after filming the pre-recorded opening episode, and is currently isolating.

Bye bye, Blackpool

Strictly giveth and it taketh away. Last year’s short run meant that the fan-favourite Halloween extravaganza (aka the one week where contestants swap their fake tans for a ghoulish pallor and frightful prosthetics) was ditched, as producers decided it would have fallen too early in the series to introduce a themed week. With the 2021 series sticking to the usual time frame, however, the spooky special episode is back on the agenda.

Sadly, the usual mid-competition jaunt to Blackpool remains off the cards for now. “Blackpool Tower is amazing but behind the scenes it’s really small,” James said. “All the dressing rooms are tiny so keeping everybody distanced there is impossible and everyone stays in a hotel together up there, so that’s the reason we made that decision.”

Anton swaps the dance floor for the judging panel

Bruno Tonioli was absent from last year’s glitter-strewn proceedings thanks to pandemic-imposed travel restrictions: he usually flies back and forth between London and Los Angeles, where he sits on the judging panel for Dancing With The Stars during Strictly season. This was, of course, logistically impossible during lockdown last year (though he still managed to Zoom in to share his thoughts during the Sunday night results shows). With transatlantic travel still difficult, Tonioli will be sitting this series out too, so producers have drafted in Strictly stalwart Anton du Beke to take his place.

Du Beke, who joined the show as a dancer in its first series and had a two-week stint on the judging panel in 2020, will join returning favourites Motsi Mabuse, Craig Revel Horwood and head judge Shirley Ballas.

New faces

Four new pros have joined the Strictly gang (BBC/Guy Levy)
Four new pros have joined the Strictly gang (BBC/Guy Levy)

A handful of Strictly pros including Kevin Clifton, AJ Pritchard and, most recently, Janette Manrara have hung up their dancing shoes over the past couple of years, and now that the show is back with 15 contestants (in contrast to last year’s 12) the show needed some new blood (Manrara remains in the Strictly ‘family,’ replacing Zoe Ball as the presenter of spin-off show It Takes Two).

Stepping onto the dance floor at Elstree for the first time will be Kai Widdrington, who has previously appeared on Dancing With The Stars Ireland, Nikita Kuzmin, formerly of Let’s Dance Germany (aka the show which Motsi used to judge), Cameron Lombard, South Africa’s reigning Latin champion, and Jowita Przystal, who won The Greatest Dancer in 2020.

They’ll be appearing alongside familiar faces (deep breath) Aljaž Škorjanec, Amy Dowden, Dianne Buswell, Giovanni Pernice, Gorka Marquez, Graziano Di Prima, Johannes Radebe, Karen Hauer, Katya Jones, Luba Mushtuk, Nadiya Bychkova, Nancy Xu, Neil Jones and Oti Mabuse. As Revel Horwood would put it: fab-u-lous.

Making Strictly history

John Whaite will be paired up with a male dancer (BBC/Ray Burmiston)
John Whaite will be paired up with a male dancer (BBC/Ray Burmiston)

This year’s line-up includes the show’s first male same-sex couple, following in the footsteps of boxer Nicola Adams and Strictly pro Katya Jones in the 2020 competition. Bake Off’s Whaite will be paired up with one of the show’s male dancers (we’ll learn exactly who during the launch episode on Saturday night) and has described his partnership as “a great step forward in representation and inclusion.”

The new series will also feature Strictly’s first ever deaf contestant, EastEnders star Ayling-Ellis, who plays Danny Dyer’s on-screen daughter on the BBC soap. “I feel like it’s so important for somebody like me to be on the show,” she said earlier this week. “I want to break down the stereotype that deaf people can’t dance and can’t enjoy music.”

Rose Ayling-Ellis is Strictly’s first ever deaf contestant (BBC/Ray Burmiston)
Rose Ayling-Ellis is Strictly’s first ever deaf contestant (BBC/Ray Burmiston)

The actress has a hearing aid so can “pick up some of the music” and “hear the beat,” she recently told BBC News, and is also able to “feel the vibrations.” She will be “focusing on reading my partner’s body language plus counting in my head,” and will be joined by an interpreter in training and potentially during the live shows, according to executive producer James (the show’s crew will also be learning sign language).

Who are the favourites?

The odds are already on Fletcher to waltz away with the trophy, with Webb in hot pursuit, but Strictly wouldn’t be Strictly without a wild card success story or a massive mid-season glow-up. After all, almost no one singled out Bailey as a potential winner before last year’s opening episode aired. On that note, don’t sleep on whichever star is paired up with Oti Mabuse. In 2020 she became the first professional to win two consecutive series (with soap star Kelvin Fletcher then with Bailey). She is clearly a brilliant teacher — could she make it a hat trick this time around?

Strictly Come Dancing begins on September 18 at 7.45 on BBC One.

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