By Susannah Constantine For The Mail On Sunday
So, it’s official. I’m doing Strictly – and I’m already bottom of the leader board. Not only was I the last to be named as a contestant in this year’s show, the bookies are tipping me to be the first to leave.
And after the early rehearsals, I have to admit they have a point.
What. On. Earth. Possessed me to sign up? Most people have at least a smidge of rhythm, but as deep as I have dug to find mine, that well is completely dry.
It’s not just that I’m the oldest and by some distance least glamorous of the competitors, I’m also the most uncoordinated person I know – or anyone who knows me knows.
Susannah Constantine was the last contestant to be announced on Strictly Come Dancing
I’m the sort of person who stumbles off the end of airport travelators. I run competently when my feet land straight. The one time they didn’t, I broke an ankle, which doesn’t bode well for the fancy footwork required on Strictly. I am what Craig on the judging panel would call a Dance Disaster. And he probably will.
It all began back in May when I received a call asking if I would be interested in taking part.
Interested? Of course, I’d be interested! Just one problem: how would I actually cope on the UK’s most beloved TV show when I can’t in fact do any of the steps? Surely, I concluded, that’s one humiliation too far for this love child of Godzilla and a hippo. As Carol Vorderman once put it, I walk ‘like a carthorse’.
But my whole family urged me to do it, and with further dulcet prompting from Strictly’s producers, eventually I said yes.
Oh, I know there’s gossip about the so-called Curse of Strictly, the claim that it’s a home-wrecker and so on. Am I worried? Is Sten, my husband, worried? Well, no, not really.
So far it’s brought the family together, certainly in the case of my daughters. At least they’re paying attention to what I’m doing for once, instead of rolling their eyes.
My elder daughter, Esme, is smitten with Strictly’s youngest male professional dancer, 23-year-old AJ Pritchard, and has texted me to say so. Her sister Cece is keen to get the inside track on the show. Joe, my oldest, is keeping his head down.
Strange as it might seem, that I can’t dance is a big reason for signing up. The fact I’m not much of a mover has rather blighted my life. I love music and I’ve always wanted to be able to free myself of inhibitions on the dance floor.
I’ve had to rein myself in at any party where dancing was involved or I’d be lucky not to injure myself and half-a-dozen innocent bystanders. When a friend recently tried to teach me a simple dance routine to a Pet Shop Boys song for a 60th birthday party, she gave up after a day saying I was ‘unteachable’.
In my defence, it’s not all my fault. I come from a generation of boarding school kids who somehow never learned to shed our buttoned-up Englishness.
Strictly Come Dancing announced Sussanah’s participation on the show via Twitter
Not for us the glitzy nightclubs, raves and festivals that today’s youngsters see as their natural habitat. Instead, our school dances were regimented affairs, even if they were a highlight of the year.
We girls would stand along one wall of the school hall like something from a Jane Austen novel while the boys, bussed in from another school, would be on the opposite side.
It was excruciatingly embarrassing. You could not move until you were asked to dance by one of the boys. I never was – and so never learned how to glide effortlessly across the floor.
Luckily, my initial introduction to my new Strictly life was far closer to my comfort zone: a costume fitting for all those fabulous dresses. I’ve worked with the best of the best in the fashion industry and I can tell you that the Strictly seamstresses are right up there. The first thing I had to do was stand in my underwear – all hairy legs and no spray tan in sight – while they measured every conceivable part of my body; elbow to shoulder, bum to knee, boob to collarbone, the width of my back and many more. I tried on a few outfits and moved around while they cast an expert eye over me.
It’s clear that there’s an awful lot more to designing a ballroom outfit than meets the eye.
Just think that the Queen has tiny weights sewn into the hems of her skirts so they don’t blow up in the wind and wears white gloves so she can be seen waving, and magnify that attention to detail by ten. They have to allow for every conceivable stretch in every dance move and their eye for precision is incredible – each sequin is meticulously placed to flatter your body and make you feel comfortable wearing what is, in effect, a 15-denier dress.
But if I loved my time in the costume department, the first rehearsal last Tuesday was something else entirely. When I say it transported me back 40 years, it wasn’t in a good way. I was straight back to being that gauche, clumsy teenager.
Our first task was to learn a few moves, three waltz steps and three cha-cha steps for a group dance routine that will feature on the opening show.
I planted myself at the back and, being unable to see the choreographer, used Steps singer Faye Tozer’s pert backside as my guide.
And that’s where it all started to go wrong. By the time I’d learned the second bit, I forgot the first. And when the time came to put the whole routine together, the only way I could avoid causing complete chaos was to run to the places I was supposed to be at various times without doing any of the steps.
When we broke the moves down into tiny component parts without the music, I realised that I actually have no sense of rhythm. Try turning the music down, keeping the beat in your head, then turning it up again: it’s tricky.
The studio was vast, peppered with multiple cameras, monitors and people – enough to shred the nerves of even the most confident TV veteran. Too many names to remember and a great deal of instantly bonding. Fear does that.
Susannah Constantine on ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!’ in 2015
The other contestants were delightful, but also terrifying – in their youth, beauty and their ability to dance.
Unlike me, they all seem to be natural movers. I’m dismayed to say that some of them are trained dancers and managed to get our first routine down pat while barely breaking sweat.
If I were a betting woman, I’d have a flutter on the documentary maker Stacey Dooley and Casualty actor Charles Venn, who has both the charm and looks of Idris Elba. Neither of them has danced before, but they are both instinctively graceful and will surely be popular with the viewers.
Failing that, Graeme Swann looks a good outside bet. I’m biased because he’s a former England cricketer and I’m obsessed with the game. He has natural body co-ordination. He’s also bloody funny.
The schedule is gruelling. We will dance and rehearse up to eight hours a day, five days a week for as long as we stay in the show. My partner – whoever he turns out to be, and I don’t yet know – will come to the nearest studio to my home in Sussex, where he will attempt to turn this thundering hippo into an elegant gazelle.
Sussanah on ‘Loose Women’ in London in November last year
I was heartened that after the first day’s dancing I felt fine to continue the next day while all the others said they were stiff and sore. The day after that, though, was when reality kicked in – hard. It was sheer agony just getting out of bed. My body was broken, I ached everywhere and looked at the professionals with renewed respect. I knew they were good at dancing, they’re also athletes with amazing strength, agility, suppleness and stamina.
As for me, I’m going to rely on nothing more than a genuine, heartfelt, lifelong desire to learn how to dance. For as long as I can remember, I have had a recurring dream, in which I move like a cross between Margot Fonteyn and Michael Jackson.
I had thought of doing some sneaky preparations – some yoga or special strength training before starting the show, but I’ve always been quite strong and had stamina and since losing weight a year or so ago, I’m pretty fit.
I thought about hiring professional help – a big Strictly No-No. My husband even found me a local professional dance tutor, the son of his bike mechanic, but I didn’t want to get done for cheating.
In hindsight, I regret it.
I know there’s very little chance I’ll be lifting the glitterball trophy, but I hope I won’t disgrace myself.
Strictly fans have a long and proud tradition of voting for outsiders who aren’t exactly setting the judges on fire – think John Sergeant or Ann Widdecombe – and I’m on it to do the best I can.
If I can stay in for as long as either of them managed to, that will be a real result, the more so if I get something out of it for me.
I want to learn to dance so well that I will be able to embarrass my kids in a whole different way. Instead of being a cringe-making mum-dancer, I want them to have to admit that I’m pretty darn good. Even if they must say it through gritted teeth.
I’m old and wise enough to know I’m never going to get an honour like a CBE or a damehood, but to me, a place on Strictly is the next best thing.
Whatever the outcome, it’s going to be a ball.
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
Part of the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday & Metro Media Group