Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fire up the Strictly machine

I used to be in marching band. It's important to get that out of the way, to acknowledge it right off the bat; I like silly things. The rhythms in this video are the same were being used in the 90s, when I was there. Just hearing it gets me sentimental. Those kids in their half uniforms geeking out? That was us; I wish I had been genius enough to wear a shark fin. The noise and movement and jumping and laughing and swirling around until we were exhausted –– it was my whole world. I loved it. It was one of the reasons I stayed in school.

It was an enormous, lumbering, ridiculous, beautiful thing.

Marching band practices always started a few weeks before school: day after day of stomping around, trying to learn footing and music in the mosquito-riddled heat. And the image I had in my head last week was that of the band getting lined up to practice its first run cadence. It's a hell of a thing, the run cadence. This is a video of the University of Minnesota marching band (who we copied in almost every way) doing it. You can see them flooding out onto the field. What you can't see is that they are kicking their feet out in front of them, to about knee height, as they do it. Go ahead and give that a try: run around the house for a bit kicking your feet out in front of you. Do it for about a minute, then stop and play an instrument as loud as you can. 

The JHS band ran to the 50-yard line –– more distance to cover and more time in which to get it wrong. The whole idea was for it to look uniform, for all the lines to be straight. We had to practice over and over and over and over to get it right. In my freshman year, I had so much trouble keeping my feet in sync, and we had to go back and do it again so many times, that everyone had learned my name before classes even started. They had learned to hate it. The whole band (and flag corps, and danceline) would groan when they heard the name Cope. 

Roughly 300 of my peers cursing my name: that was me in grade 9, baby. 

Eventually, I got the hang of it, to the extent that in consecutive years I was often called upon to show freshman how to get it right. And all of this just to get in place, just to set things up so we could begin that particular performance. 

So, imagine the very first day of summer practices. You are a junior or senior –– an old hand at this marching band game –– and Doc (the band director) has directed everyone to line up before running out. You're walking to the end zone and you can feel in your body a slight tiredness, a single moment of exhaustion from the knowledge of all that is ahead. Because it's not just this run cadence you'll practice over and over, but the months and months thereafter of pregames, halftimes, and indoor performances. Day after day after day of noise and movement and sweating between this afternoon in early August and that night in November when the final geek-frenzied drum circle will signal an end to the season. That's what's ahead of you, my friend, and in the moments before the rhythm starts, before it gets hold and takes over, some tiny voice thinks: "Ugh. Again?"

...I wrote the above before Saturday's Strictly Come Dancing premiere. I was thinking about the enormous, lumbering, ridiculous, beautiful BBC programme beginning its its 10th season, and thinking: "Deep breath. Here we go again."

Oh, sure, I was excited. After all, one of the reasons Jenn and I bought a big TV back in June was for the very purpose of being able to gaze more easily upon the cleavage of Natalie Lowe. But even still, usually the first few weeks of Strictly Come Dancing are a bit dull, as one waits for washed-up snooker players, incompetent TV chefs and various other nobodies and unlikeable sorts to be sifted out of the running.

This year, however... this year looks good. Unlike Len Goodman, I cannot claim this year as my first in which I actually knew who all the celebrities were beforehand. That still hasn't happened. But certainly there are far more recognisable names, and a hardy stock of competitors. By the end of Saturday's premiere show, Jenn and I were so excited for the upcoming season we were literally jumping on the couch. True, we had consumed a bottle and a half of wine by that point, but Strictly Come Dancing fever was very much in effect. I cannot wait for 5 October, when the show properly gets under way.

In the meantime, here are my first impressions of those who will be taking part:

Richard Arnold
Who??? Richard is the requisite annual GMTV contribution. Like Russia and China have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, GMTV and EastEnders are seemingly an automatic part of any series of Strictly Come Dancing. I suspect he'll be gone by the Halloween show. He looks like an out-of-shape Ted Allen, but he seems like an amusing enough fella –– quick with the repartee and reminding Jenn and I oh so slightly of John off The Great British Bake Off ("Ooh, she likes her lemons, doesn't she, Mary?"). The fact he's been teamed with Erin Boag is a tip-off that no one expects him to do well. Erin hasn't had a good partner since Austin Healey (in 2008).

Johnny Ball
Who??? It's Zoe Ball's dad. He taught kids math on television in the 80s and 90s. So, completely out of my scope of awareness. I doubt he was half as good as Square One, but he, too, seems like a nice enough fella. In the tiny celebrity dance on Saturday's show he appeared to have the agility of a Grade II listed building, but in his being paired with Aliona Vilani he's being given the best chance. I think people have a positive attitude toward Aliona following her successes with both Matt Baker and Harry Judd. She's very good at flinging herself about, so if Johnny can get the basic steps she may be able to compensate enough to drag him along to Week 3.

Fern Britton
I actually know who Fern Britton is! Fern's got a bit of previous Strictly experience, having performed in the 2010 Christmas special, and I predict that will bode her well. I think she'll make it into the Magnificent Seven (Yes, I've been watching Strictly so long that I am given to use the show's cheesy terms. When there are seven contestants left, they are the Magnificent Seven, followed by the Dirty Dozen, the Fantastic Five, and the Fab Four). That's assuming her partner, Artem Chigvinstev, doesn't injure himself on some spotlight move –– as he is wont to do –– and that he is intelligent enough to come up with choreography that suits his partner. This will be his first time performing with someone who can't do flips.
I also predict Fern will lose at least one stone over the course of her Strictly journey.

Nicky Byrne
Who? I had heard of Westlife but would not have been able to identify any of their members nor any of their songs other than "You Raise Me Up," which, I would have previously been just as likely to attribute to Boyzone, or Take That (in looking at a list of Westlife's singles I'm inclined to ask whether they sing any of their own songs). As such, I can only gauge Nicky by what I saw in the premiere show, where he appeared to have the personality of masking tape. Equally unknown is his partner, Karen Hauer. I follow the Venezuela-born dancer on Twitter and like her for the fact she was so gleeful about gaining U.S. citizenship recently, but it's anyone's guess how she'll perform in the Strictly sphere.

Jerry Hall
Because I hate fashion and 1980s pop culture I have a default dislike for Jerry Hall. This causes deep internal conflict because it goes against my default love of just about anyone from Texas. The Texas parti pris was likely to win out out anyway, but I knew I was going to like her when she quipped: "I hope to be an inspiration to drag queens everywhere."
Her sassy-sexy Texas wit is hard not to like and I agree with Craig Revel Horwood that she was shortchanged in being teamed with Anton Du Beke. Obviously, she should have been paired with James Jordan. Can you imagine? James, with his history of getting women to slink around like sexed-up cougars, and Jerry, with her history of being Jerry Hall? Just take a minute to think about that. Think about how amazing that would have been. Think of how the BBC probably would have had to move the show to after the watershed. Their rumba would have been them just having sex.
But instead, she is burdened with Anton, who always attempts to cover weaknesses with outdated comedy, and who is incapable of choreographing a good Latin dance. Meh.

Dani Harmer
Who??? The strangely proportioned munchkin girl is a British version of Raven, it seems. No, not that Raven, this Raven. In my mind, she and Richard Arnold are in the battle for who leaves the show first. She may be helped by the fact her partner is the equally wee Vincent Simone, whom people seem to like. If the self-proclaimed Team Smurf survive very long, look for Vincent to self-sabotage with unnecessarily tricky choreography somewhere around Week 7.

Sid Owen
Who? Oh, yeah. That guy. Requisite EastEnder. More likely to be on the Ricky Groves side of the EastEnders dancing talent scale than the Kara Tointon side. Sid's a weird-looking dude, isn't he? Like a Bizarro World version of Drew Carey. And the fact he is so intricately linked with a hapless and dim-witted character makes it difficult to see him as anything but. He has been very lucky, however, in being teamed with Ola "Ola Chops" Jordan, whom everyone loves. Ladies love her for being cheeky and bossy, fellas love her for rarely wearing more than a hand towel.
Each dancer has his or her tricks to detract attention from their celebrity's failings. As I've mentioned, Aliona uses acrobatics, Anton uses dumb humour. Ola uses sex. The worse her partner is, the more likely she is to remove clothing and writhe around. So, hopefully Sid will be awful.

Victoria Pendleton
Olympics plus Strictly, bitches. Welcome to my fantasy world. I am hereby naming Crazy V as my favourite. She is there to win, yo. Don't be fooled by her awkward, uncomfortable smile. This isn't a woman who is there half-lamenting the fact she listened to her agent's advice (I'm looking at you, Holly Valance). Crazy V had long said she wanted to do the show and she is the cleary the sort of woman who, when she says she wants to do something She. Does. It. And. She. Does. It. Well.
Dear Lord, look at her body. Those legs. Those abs. She owns you. Jenn and I have long admired the Greek goddess physique of Natalie Lowe, but in terms of physical fitness Crazy V destroys her. You don't get to look like that, and you don't win Olympic gold medals in cycling without being INTENSE. Once, when Crazy V got angry at her trainer she started stabbing herself with a Swiss Army knife just to prove a point. So, I would hardly expect her to go at Strictly half-heartedly. No one can train as hard as she can, and I think she'll use that fact to her advantage.
To that end, you almost feel badly for Brendan Cole. The notoriously competitive dancer was visibly elated when paired with Crazy V because he realises that in her he has probably the best chance of winning since Kelly Brook (in 2007). But she may work him into the ground.
For her part, Crazy V didn't look overjoyed to hear Brendan's name called out, but her ability to excel despite her unhappiness within British Cycling means she knows how to make the best of whatever situation she's in.

Lisa Riley
Who??? No clue. Genuinely no clue. She was a regular on a long-running programme I have never once seen. I'm keen for her to do well, however, based wholly on the excitement expressed by big gay Robin Windsor in the premiere. He came at her full speed and lifted the plus-size actress into the air with ease. One felt he had been hoping for the pairing, that, since first learning of Lisa's being on the show, the wheels of campness had been working overtime in his mind. One can only hope that's the case. I'm eager to see what Team Ri-Ro produce.

Colin Salmon
Who??? Strictly viewers have a very bad track record when it comes to supporting black people, especially black people no one's heard of. I'll be surprised if the bit-part Bond actor makes it three weeks. Especially because I'm not entirely sure his partner, Kristina Rihanoff, is all that good at getting the best out of a partner. I used to be a big fan of Kristina, and still would happily share a two-man tent with her, but it seems she's not able to transfer her talent to other people as well as some other dancers are. That's part of the great Strictly challenge: you have to be good, you have to be likeable, and you have to be able to draw out in your partner the ability to be good and likeable. Kristina has the first two skills (the first more than the second, admittedly), but falters on the third. I fear the whole thing will be awkward, especially as Colin appears to be ignorant of many of the Strictly traditions, such as the creation of team names.

Louis Smith
"He's got a bit of the Prince to him," Jenn said. Indeed, there is something reminiscent of the original Sexy Muthahugga in Louis; he's certainly keen to preen. With his gymnastics skillz, one would expect to see him flying all over the dance floor –– literally. Indeed, I'll be disappointed if we don't see that. And to that end, I'm just a little disappointed in his partner. I would like to have seen him paired with Aliona rather than Flavia Cacace, who I think suffers from the same inability to transfer skills as Kristina (and is less likeable).
But, in fairness, when has Flavia ever been paired with someone good? She got to the final with Matt DiAngelo (in 2007), but in truth, he was a bonehead. He sat down in the middle of a dance, for the love of Pete. And remember the great vacuous lack of self-awareness that was Craig Kelly?! So maybe this is Flavia's time to shine.
One would expect (and hope) for Louis to approach Strictly with the same sort of Olympian intensity as Crazy V. Indeed, gymnasts are known for pushing themselves, and Louis has already said that he sees himself as competing with Crazy V. In that case, I am really hoping to see awesome things. And ladies, expect to see Louis topless at every opportunity.
Denise van Outen
Right. Sure the West End musical performer can't dance. Wink, wink. In having done Any Dream Will Do, she has strong experience with a format similar to that of Strictly. And if things start to get a lirttle rough she has the secret weapon of husband Lee Mead and their cute baby daughter. The phrase "odds-on favourite" applies incredibly well to Denise. In addition, she has the partner of James Jordan, who has grown into being a fan favourite (when he's not too mouthy with Craig) and to whom male viewers will be writing thank you letters when Denise does the rumba. This really could be James' year. That said, I'm not sure how long I'll be willing to put up with Denise if she keeps mentioning that she's from Essex. Yes, Denise, you're a slag. We get it. Save it for the dancefloor.

Michael Vaughan
Who??? Apparently Michael plays/played cricket, a sport I still have never watched a game of, despite having lived in the UK for more than six years. Michael was on the team that won the Ashes a few years ago, which is probably the only cricket reference I get: at some point in The Past, England and Australia played a series of matches against each other and one of the teams (England? I could look it up, but I'm too lazy) did so poorly they burned the wicket. Or their bats? Or both. The ashes from the scorched sporting equipment was placed into a tiny urn and now the two countries make a big deal of competing for it. Michael Vaughan was on the team that year England won the Ashes and there was a victory parade in which Freddie Flintoff got so drunk he almost fell from the top of an open-top bus.
So, Michael, who looks less like an athlete than myself, is famous for being part of the team that beat Australia. Hilariously then, he has been paired with lady-machine Natalie Lowe, who is... wait for it... Australian. Tedious cricket banter ensues.

Kimberley Walsh
Who? Oh, yeah, I've heard of that band. They do the one that goes "I'm just a love machine, nuh-nuh-nuh nah na-na." Or was that Sugababes? Or Pussycat Dolls? Or Westlife? Nonetheless, Kimberley's one of those girls. But she's the member of the group who seems to possess the strange quality of being instantly forgettable. Each time I see her I think: "Who's she? Oh, yeah –– the forgettable one." In an attempt to garner some attention, Kimberley has put too many Es in her name.
Based on the successes of previous Strictly pop stars, one would expect Kimberley to do well. And in having Pasha Kovalev as a partner she's being given the best possible chance. Remember how he managed to make Chelsee Healey tolerable? By the end of the series I was even cheering those two on. Perhaps by the end of this series I'll be able to remember who Kimberley is.

- Darcey Bussel. She's got a name that sounds like a Victorian euphemism ("Oh, I say! I'd like to have glimpse of her Darcey Bussel!"), and I'm looking forward to her contribution to the show. Darcey was brought in on a one-off not too long ago and apparently went over well with show bosses. When Alesha first announced she wouldn't be returning for this series I had hoped they'd bring in Karen Hardy, if not simply because she will happily call Brendan on his BS. I doubt Darcey will develop a lot of sass but she'll definitely know what she's talking about.

- Can you imagine the stories that Jerry Hall and Bruno Tonioli could tell? I'm inclined to blush just thinking about it. Just imagine being in a room in which the two of them were exchanging tales of their exploits. The paint would peel from the walls, my friends. You'd come out of there, quivering and needing to be baptised for several hours: "Nope, dunk me again. No, believe me, preacher; I am nowhere near pure. Dunk me again."

- What was up with Erin Boag's stomach?

- I expect to see Victoria Pendleton, Louis Smith, Denise van Outen and (probably) Kimberly Walsh in the Fab Four. It's always possible, though, that Nicky Byrne could be in there somewhere.

- Jenn thinks Crazy V will under-perform.

- I imagine Louis will perform incredibly well, but he may get hurt in one of two ways: 1) When the pressure gets to her, Flavia has a habit of committing self-sabotage by putting in choreography her partner can't learn; 2) Louis' personality is an unknown; I can picture him possibly rubbing people the wrong way.

- I'm picking Denise as my winner. If she performs well in her first dance I am going to take the money I won on Harry Judd last year and place it on her to win.



jg_38 said...

I'm sure you know of DCI and drum corps then?

I love me some BNL!

Anonymous said...

Johnny Ball is fatboy Slim's Father in Law!!

Kris Pierson said...

Fantastic homage to FMB, Cope! Ahh, the memories indeed. I know Doc misses you as much as you miss him ;-)

If there is one solid truth I have realized in the new millennium it is this: Flash mobs owe all of their wonderfully awkward feel good splendor to band geeks of the 1990s.

Huw said...

The commencement of Strictly fills you with the joys of spring (in September) without fail every year. It is a sight to behold.

I think Crazy V will crack.