Friday, November 1, 2013

Strictly Come Dancing Week 5: Maracas are hard

Those maracas are blowing Dave's mind.
I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so: Deborah and Patrick found themselves in The Dreaded Dance Off last weekend, as I had predicted.  I'd argue that last week's dance was her strongest so far, but I think it was too little too late. There wasn't a great deal about her performances that made you think: "Ooh, I want to watch this." Patrick, meanwhile, found himself in the bottom two because many Strictly viewers are latent racists.

Overall, it was a good week, but I felt there was a bit too much not-dancing taking place in a lot of the routines. Anyhoo, here's a look back at the scores, starting with the exiting couple and working up the leader board.

Deborah and Robin -- 27
Their Viennese waltz included a brilliant advert for the functionality of Ikea tables, but I didn't quite understand why a piece of furniture was so heavily featured. Additionally, all that fussing about with a table ate up a solid 40 seconds of their minute-and-a-half routine. When more than a third of your performance is obvious filler, there are problems, yo. After last week's befuddled jive in nurse shoes, this performance showed that Deborah and Robin were running out of ideas.

Dave and Karen -- 17
He can't even shake maracas, for the love of Pete. Dave is so rhythm-deficient that one almost feels the need to set up a fundraiser to help him seek medical attention. The first part of the dance featured Dave awkwardly attempting to shake maracas via movement in his elbows rather than his wrist. This action seemed to consume so much of his brainpower that he effectively stood still as Karen zipped all around him. My new rule for Dave's dances is that if he doesn't steal too much of my attention away while I'm perving on Karen then it's OK. This was not OK. Dave's debilitating maraca crisis was utterly distracting to the point of worrying about his safety. I found myself thinking: "Just put the maracas down, man! You're going to give yourself a brain hemorrhage thinking that hard."
Oh, and the conga. He couldn't even get the conga bit of his dance right. Jenn was livid.

Rachel and Pasha
Rachel and Pasha -- 22
Oh, poor Rachel. This paso doble just didn't work out. She was trying to look fierce but instead came off looking like a drunken chav girl who is having an intentionally vocal and public row with her boyfriend in the middle of the street. Still I voted for he because she looked so sad when she saw the judges' (somewhat harsh) scores. I really want her to be better. I hope she can come back from this. I suspect, though, she won't.

Ben and Kristina -- 27
Hey! Let's start this dance by running to a couch and sitting down! Danger, danger, danger, my friends. Nothing more clearly communicates to the audience your inability to do something than your blatantly not doing it. Fortunately, Ben and Kristina only ate up 20 seconds with their sitting and throwing popcorn at each other (had they been consuming popcorn and port I would have sued for copyright infringement). Thereafter they got into hold quickly and it became somewhat apparent why they had chosen to spend some of the performance sitting: Ben was a pretty heavy in his footwork.

Mark and Iveta -- 28
Jenn and I spent most of the dance just admiring how pretty Iveta looked in her dress. Whate else I remember of the dance is that Mark looked utterly despondent. I'm not sure what the exact story of the dance was supposed to be, but the misery on Mark's face before Iveta shows up and after she walks away made me think he was playing the role of the bloke in Johnny Cash's "Long Black Veil," getting do dance with the ghost of his murdered wife. But then, I tend to have very dark interpretations of things.

Patrick and Anya -- 28
I've long held the unhappy belief that a good number of Strictly viewers are just a little bit racist. Not overtly so, else they wouldn't have supported Alesha Dixon's win back in 2007. But I can't help but notice that, overall, blacks don't do terribly well on the show, often finding themselves in the Dreaded Dance Off multiple times (e.g., Heather Small was in the bottom two some four times when she was a participant in 2008; Michelle Williams repeated that feat in 2010). My feeling is that unless a black person is awesome he/she will find themselves dropped sooner than a white person of equal ability. And Patrick's dance this week was particularly un-awesome. Fair enough, that was the result of their having to change the dance at the last minute to accommodate for his sprained wrist, but it was still so... meh.
Sophie and Brendan
Sophie and Brendan -- 30
What the hell was going on with Brendan's outfit? There was just so much nope. It's like he stumbled into the costume department in the dark and got dressed in a panic. So he found himself on live television wearing a pair of two-tone wingtips, a pair of not-long-enough tracksuit bottoms, a black tank top and a sleeves-rolled-up sport coat straight out of the Don Johnson collection. It's no wonder Sophie looked a little unsteady in this cha cha cha; she was put off by the great fashion atrocity taking place in front of her.

Fiona and Anton -- 30
Twenty seconds of sitting down. Again. And again I say no. It's called "Strictly Come Dancing" not "Strictly Come Sit Down And Mime." On the positive, once Fiona and Anton got up they launched straight into a solid quickstep that had the added intrigue of a blue hanky that kept being produced and returned to Fiona's cleavage.
Fiona's a Bond girl, by the way. Did you know that? They don't mention it much on the show. But it explains the strange orange mummy/martian who wished Fiona good luck. His name is Roger Moore. He played Bond at one point then magically aged to be 900 years old.

Ashley and Ola -- 31
I didn't feel Ashley was really dancing here, so much as doing a lot of steps. But, to his credit, there were a whole lot of steps. And that made their jive impressive -- especially when he threw himself to the floor and slid between Ola's legs. That looked like the sort of thing that could result in injury. The same could be said for his leaping over her shoulders. But overall, it was an energetic routine that lacked a feeling of energy. It was like the difference between running for fitness and running from a bear; both are physical acts but one has more meaning. Here, Ashley was running for fitness.

Susanna and Kevin from Grimsby
Susanna and Kevin from Grimsby -- 32
This was quite a lot of good in my opinion. Susanna was the physical representation of sunshine from the very beginning. Their American smooth seemed an homage to the saccharine playfulness of Doris Day musicals and I enjoyed it. That sort of happy, cheerful performance is why I watch Strictly. Well, that and all the cleavage. Also, how cute was Susanna in the little video piece before their dance, when she and Kevin went to his parents' dance studio and she gave all the little kids a hug?She got a vote from me just for that.

Abbey and Aljaz -- 35
Ugh. They're so beautiful. I can't stand them. And I don't mean sexy, I mean beautiful. Annoyingly beautiful. Watching their foxtrot was like watching an ad for cologne, the major highlight being the fact that the Dave Arch version of "Dear Diary" is better than the original Olly Murs version.
In honour of Aljaz's continued presence in the show, here's Slovenian Fact #6: Last Thursday (31 October) marked Reformation Day, when Slovenians commemorate the first books published in the Slovenian language -- during the 16th century Reformation. 

Natalie and Artem -- 35
She's so good. I especially loved the fact she was giving such good samba face: the way she was looking at the audience and appeared to be mouthing, "Ooh!," "Hah!", and lowering her eyes as if to say: "Look at this. Look at all this sexy going on up here. You see this? You see what I got? Ohh! Hah! Bam, I am am so hot." 
I see it. And you are Natalie, you are. Despite the fact that your dress made it look as if you were wearing a harried flamingo.

--- When do you suppose we'll see the first 10 from a judge? And who will receive it? The obvious guess, I suppose, is Natalie.
--- Kristina's boobs are so strange. They're like separate entities; just two large balloons that have been pasted onto her chest.
--- Respect to Craig for being on the show a week after a hip operation. And respect, too, to the Strictly props team for giving him and enormous glittering chair to sit in. I love it when he plays the role of pantomime drag queen villain.
--- That dude from Earth Wind & Fire can hit a motherhuggin' falsetto, can't he? Wow.

Unless she really pulls something out of the bag, I think Rachel may again find herself in the Dreaded Dance Off next week. There with her, I think it may finally be Fiona. I suspect it will be the classic scenario of Fiona performing OK and people not really voting for her as a result.

I'm expecting to see Natalie there, along with Ashley and Sophie. I am struggling on who I think will make up the group of four. I don't really think Abbey has it in her to carry on that far. But, I'll put her in the list just to make up the numbers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Strictly Come Dancing Week 4: Calm down, Kevin

Sophie serves up a little bit of awesome.
Britons hate maths. That's my suggestion as to the reason Rachel found herself in the bottom two this week. Or, perhaps they just really hated the strange Frisbee hat the "Countdown" presenter was wearing. Either way, it was a shock to see her in The Dreaded Dance Off and not at all surprising to see Julien there with her. Meanwhile, Keane performed in the results show. Which makes me think that Strictly's booker is simply selecting acts by showing up for open mic night at some pub in Chorley.

Anyhoo, here's a look at the Week 4 action, starting with the exiting couple.

Julien and Janette - 23
In fairness to Julien -- and believe me, it pains me to admit this -- he was improving week by week. And, really, that's the whole point of Strictly. Or, well, that's the point of the dancing side of things. But success in Strictly also involves luck and personality, and Julien was lacking especially in the latter. He never struck me as an actual human being. Instead he seemed like a bacon-skinned space alien caricature of a a gay character on a 1960s sitcom.

Fiona and Anton - 22
I think Fiona was a little undermarked here, especially by Craig. It wasn't a bad dance, but perhaps I think this because my standard for Anton's partners is so low. Having said all that, it was an odd performance. Usually a slow dance, this rumba moved along at pretty good clip and Fiona had the smile of a person demonstrating unique kitchen appliances at a county fair: "And with the Spankdangler Juicitron Grill you get a perfect burger and kale smoothie from just one machine!"

Karen makes the broom look good.
Dave and Karen - 23
Karen, yes. Dave, no. But by Dave's standards this was a good dance. Primarily because he managed to remain relatively unobtrusive, leaving me free to focus entirely on Karen. Golly, she's a graceful lady, isn't she? She really is the Dolph Ziggler (a) of the TV ballroom world. Perhaps for future dances Karen could just lithely twirl about a cardboard cutout of Dave; I'm pretty sure his scores would go up.
Deborah and Robin - 23
Robin's wig was disturbing -- creepy guy you'd call the police on disturbing. He looked like hell's own Keith Partridge. I realise that is a pretty dated reference, but that makes it no less true. Meanwhile, Deborah's shoes were like those worn by the sort of nurses who have been in hospitals so long it's entirely possible for person to be taken care of by them both when entering and exiting the mortal coil. In other words, not the shoes of a sexy lady doing a sexy jive. But since this jive wasn't sexy, I suppose they were appropriate.

Rachel and Pasha - 26
Though I don't think Rachel deserved to be in The Dreaded Dance Off, it is fair to note, at least, that this was not her best dance. Things started out OK, but then she and Pasha shuffled upstage and suddenly it seemed like she was a step off and unable to catch up. And again she seemed to have that issue of running through the various steps -- I go here, then move over there, then jiggle my rear -- without really hearing the music. I blame the hat. You can't succeed wearing a hat like that. History proves this. Name one person, in the whole of human experience, who ever accomplished something great whilst wearing a hot pink Frisbee.
Mark and Iveta - 26
It says something about the nature of Strictly that Mark and Iveta's dancing to a 23-year-old hip-hop song felt edgy. And I am in love with tiny Iveta's twisted little mind that she was sitting around one day and thought it would be brilliant to dance to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." The leggy Lithuanian was right. OK, sure, there was so little actual ballroom dancing that I don't actually know what dance they were performing, but, well, meh. If Mark were to make it to the final, would it really be on the strength of his alemana turns? No. He an Iveta are entertaining and at the moment I can think of at least two other couples who should go out before we need to start worrying about these two.

Susanna in full MILF mode.
Susanna and Kevin - 29
Susanna looked like a Welsh Valleys lass going to a baptism. Actually, no, true Welsh gals never dress so conservatively. I mean, you couldn't see Susanna's ass is that fringed dress of hers, and there wasn't nearly enough cleavage. Kevin, meanwhile looked like some sort of hipster Indiana Jones; I didn't get that.
More confusing, however, was when, right in the middle of the dance, Kevin went nuts. Did you spot that? They're supposed to be doing a nice little bit of the ol' samba shakety-shake and Kevin loses his shit. If you live in the UK, here's the video of their dance. Kevin starts out with his usual too-many-lattes enthusiasm, but at the 44 second mark it's as if he suddenly thinks: "Oh, who cares? I'm going for it! I'M LIVING THE DREAM!! WOOOOOOO!"
It was a wildness that resulted in my saying aloud: "Calm down, Kevin." Which is now what Jenn and I say every time we see him on screen.

Ben and Kristina - 31
Homey's getting better every week, yo. Jenn had her own little hysterical Kevin moment when Ben stripped down to his sleeveless undershirt, but the thing I marked out for was the way he was rockin' dem lifts. I mean, that part of their salsa when he just flung Kristina into the air -- he did that with no effort. I watched it back and the strain on his face is roughly equivalent to the strain that would be on my face if you asked me to drop a tea cup. None. None at all. I have a man crush on Ben, so it delights me to see him improving.

Ashley and Ola - 31
I am getting really distracted by the fact that Ola looks so tired these days. Is she OK? Can someone check on her, please? I suppose it means Ola can claim to be able to, quite literally, dance in her sleep. It was a good routine as far as Viennese waltzes go. I think I've only seen a handful that have really impressed me. Afterward, Brucie got lost down the rabbit hole of his 85-year-old mind complaining about Ashley's costume in such a way that no one understood. I imagine that chatting with Brucie must, at times, be like visiting Latvia: All you can do is nod and smile.

Patrick and Anya - 33
I always feel I'm missing something when it comes to Patrick. I don't dislike him. But his dancing doesn't really do it for me. I find myself struggling to identify all the stuff that everyone seems to be liking. That was especially true in the case of this cha cha cha. Patrick reminded me of a fitness instructor, rather than someone who was feeling and reacting to music.

Abbey's "Little Teapot" dance needs work.
Sexy Abbey ® and Aljaz - 35
I cannot figure out what it is, but Sexy Abbey ® is to me like having a tiny wood splinter in my hand: annoying in part because it can't be totally ignored, and difficult to get rid of. Since I have nothing to say about Abbey, here's a quote from another Strictly blog that I read: "Isn’t it disheartening that Abbey achieves heights of glamour with mud all over her, fresh off an army assault course? On the positive side, most of people's boyfriends have never paid for a prostitute with a credit card, so Lady Luck gives a little, she takes a little."
Meanwhile, in honour of Aljaz, here's Slovenian Fact #5:  The Slovenian language has 32 different dialects (compare this to English in the United States where there are just three main dialects [b])

Natalie and Artem - 35
Awesomesauce. There's a grumbling amongst some Strictly fans that Natalie is too good, which is no doubt why Natalie suddenly had a load of back pain. It makes a good story, you see. For more on how to win fan support through injury, see John Cena battling back from a terrible triceps injury against that nasty ol' Alberto del Rio. That is the second pro wrestling reference I've made in this post. Get used to it. Anyhoo, I don't think Natalie is too good. I like seeing people perform well, and I like her. I loved her quiet aside after the dance, referencing that she was on painkillers for her back: "I'm as high as a kite."

Sophie and Brendan - 35
I'm loving your work, Sophie. Anyone who can temporarily make me put aside my Brendan hate has got to be good. And I especially love how graceful and effortless she manages to make things look. Why aren't we complaining that she's too good? You can see in her a full musicality, a faith and security in the beat that is hard to develop. Jenn and I take Lindy hop dance classes, and after more than a year I still have a tendency to rush moves because my mind is panicked about doing it in time with the music. But a beat is a beat; it's not going to play tricks on you. It's going to be there, in the exact place it's supposed to be, every single time. Sophie seems to get this. So if she has two counts to move her arm from here to there, she takes the full two counts. And it looks great.

--- Jenn and I have come up with a new game: Guess the Brucie Punchline. The rules are simple. as soon as Brucie starts the set-up of a joke, shout out the punchline. The earlier you do this, the higher your score. Jenn is unbeatable.
--- Keane. What?
--- Bruno falling out of his chair was a highlight of the week. He'd be awesome at a dinner party, even though he'd break all your plates.
--- I miss watching "It Takes Two," the daily programme that talks about all things Strictly. I've been too busy this year to watch a single episode.

Deborah Meaden, I feel your time is near. Deborah has had some weak performances of late and unless she suddenly pulls something amazeballs out of the bag I'd expect to see her in the bottom two this week. As far as who will be there with her, Fiona seems the logical guess, but my my gut is telling me Patrick may find himself there.

At the moment, I'd put my money on Sophie, Natalie, Ashley and Ben.


(a) Dolph Ziggler is a professional wrestler renown for his ability to make his opponents look considerably better than they actually are.

(b) Which break into 26 sub dialects. Remember, too, that accent and dialect are not the same thing. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Strictly Come Dancing week 3: Like being waxed

Vanessa looked like she didn't want to be there.
She got her wish.
Ah, poor Vanessa Feltz. That was a shock exit, yo. Sure, she wasn't likely to have made it to the Blackpool show, but I was still surprised. She wasn't terribly awful and I would have thought her to posses more fanbase to keep her away from The Dreaded Dance Off. But, such is the nature of the Strictly machine; you've got to earn that glitterball trophy, yo.

The theme this week was "love," which I thought for sure was going to produce some especially cringeworthy moments. But thankfully, things remained at their usual cringe level, something to which I've grown almost immune over the years. Here's a look at all this week's action, starting with the exiting couple:

Vanessa and James -- 20
As I say, I was surprised. Perhaps many people failed to warm to Vanessa as Jenn and I did. Or perhaps she was just terribly unlucky. Though, it has to be said that tango was less than amazing. Her rigid goose-step kicks were straight out of "Springtime for Hitler," lacking a fair bit of finesse, and the whole thing felt laboured.

Karen is valiant in the face of awfulness.
Dave and Karen - 16 
This was marked too highly by most of the judges. I had to look away when Dave was waving the cape about, like a 3-year-old pretending to fight a ghost. One does admire Dave's enthusiasm but he's awful on a level that surpasses even John Sergeant. Len's comment afterward was: "It was like being waxed: painful when it's happening but lovely when it's over" (a). Another way in which this paso doble was like being waxed was that both are things Dave has clearly never done. Kudos, though, to Karen for maintaining an air of awesomeness throughout that nonsense.

Julien and Janette -- 22
I love the Blues Brothers; it remains one of my all-time favourite films. So I can't fully express to you my sadness that references to it on Strictly are always done so poorly. Remember when Gavin Henson and Katya Virshilas did a Blue Brothers routine a few years ago? Substandard. Julien and Janette's homage to the film was even worse.
I'll admit flat out that I don't like Julien. Someone seems to have taught him to stop shouting AT THE END OF EVERY SENTENCE. But his weird enthusiasm for everything still suggests a high intake of drugs. His overly white teeth could redirect ships in the fog, and the rest of him looks like a beef jerky tribute to Judy Garland. So, imagine my pleasure upon seeing him again in the dance off this week. And imagine again my woe as I watched the dance off, where he suddenly pulled his head out and managed to get most of the steps right. It hurts me to admit he was better than Vanessa and therefore deserved to stay.

Mark and Iveta -- 26
Mark sells so well. Dance-wise, there wasn't a tremendous amount of content here, but as all the judges pointed out, Mark was brilliant at selling the moves he had. He told the little story of the dance and wee Iveta looked very pretty swirling all around him. It was the sort of thing to make you sit back and say: "Ah, that was so nice." But I feel Mark has yet to peak and that somewhere in his back pocket is a performance that will serve as one of the signature moments of the series.

Rachel and Pasha -- 27
Jenn summed up Rachel's performance with the observation that her movement suggests a thought process that is something like this: "I go here, two, three, four. And wave my hands and three and four and turn this way, two, three, four..."
The "Countdown" hostess doesn't seem to be responding to the music as much as she is a series of commands. Her cha cha cha was similar to James and Ola's tribute to bad wedding dancing at the start of the show (the two of them doing the robot, Gangnam Style and the funky chicken in the show's opening sequence). However, I've softened to her quite a bit on the knowledge that she loves Strictly enough to have had a Strictly-themed birthday party. I'm beginning to question my earlier prediction of her hitting her stride in Week 6, but I'm hopeful it will still happen.

Patrick and Anya.
Patrick and Anya -- 27
Everyone knows that the best version of "Let There Be Love" is by Sammy Davis Jr. I just want that to be known. Though the part of this performance I enjoyed the most was when Patrick squished up his face like Bill Cosby. Personally, I think dancing like The Cos should be a dance in and of itself. Scrap the rumba -- no one's particularly good at that one, anyway -- and introduce the Cosby Shuffle.
I'm going off on a tangent here because I don't actually have anything to say about Patrick and Anya's foxtrot. It was OK.

Deborah and Robin -- 28
I'm a fan of the quickstep, though I wasn't a great fan of this particular interpretation of it. Credit to Robin for being full of energy and cleverly placing the trickiest bits of the dance far away from the judges (they went off into a far corner to do a bit where they switched from foot to foot). It was good enough, though I still feel like there's something missing from the overall Deborah and Robin package.

Ben and Kristina -- 28
Kristina in that dress, y'all. Oh, my. Well, it wasn't actually a dress but rather an M&S bra and panty set that had been attacked by a BeDazzler and some bits of chiffon. But still. Oh, my. Jenn's observation was: "Can you imagine making love to her? It would be a terrifying experience. She'd be all over the place."
The very start of their dance was definitely post-watershed, with Kristina in heat as she stares into the mirror. Then Ben pulls off her robe. Oh, my. And she is quite the flexible young lass, isn't she? No doubt Jenn is right...
Beyond all that, Ben managed to perform the notoriously challenging-for-men rumba relatively well. As shown after the dance, he's starting to relax and be more playful, which is the sort of thing that will help him in terms of both dancing and winning audience vote. Also, did you notice how easily he picked up Kristina at the end of the dance? I can't wait for the two of them to get a dance that allows lifts.

Fiona and Anton -- 28
This was really Fiona's week in my opinion. First we got to see her dancing around with her daughter in an unflattering bathrobe and sans makeup, which is the sort of thing that can endear you to a person who is famous for being pretty. Then her waltz was not only solid but showed she is improving each week. Later, she showed more of her personality by standing behind an open-shirted Ashley Taylor Dawson and growling as he was talking to Tess. All of this is the sort of stuff that makes me like her more. Already one can see the field splitting into two types of celebrities: Those Who Might Win and Those Who Are Still There. With the latter group you hope very much that they will at least be entertaining/interesting/likable during their remaining time on the show. Whereas previously I had predicted I would hate Fiona, I find myself now happy to see her back each week.

Abbey and Aljaz -- 28
I am less and less interested in seeing Sexy Abbey®. I'm really starting to doubt that she will last too terribly long in the show. She was only passable last week and this week there were some real weak spots. Any time you spend several seconds of a dance sitting down it's a bad sign. I think Abbey's talking about her love of Liverpool was a blatant ploy to shore up a large and faithful voting bloc. Voting for Liverpudlians on reality shows is the No. 1 family activity in Liverpool.
Meanwhile, I forgot to put a Slovenian Fact in last week's recap, so here are two of them:
- Slovenian Fact #3: Slovenia has only one island; it is more than 500 metres above sea level, in an alpine lake.
- Slovenian Fact #4: Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991; it was attacked by the Yugoslav Army two days later.

Ola arrives on the love swing...
Ashley and Ola -- 31
After a fair amount of hooting and growling at Ashley's exposed chest, Jenn's observation of his samba was this: "He does look like a pervy salsa instructor at La Tasca on a Tuesday night."

Sophie and Brendan -- 31
Did you hear that pop for Sophie and Brendan? "Pop" is a wrestling term, it refers to the sudden "pop" of applause and cheering when a wrestler comes out to the ring or in some other way draws a big response. Sophie and Brendan got a big pop just before their dance, which was surprising to me. She may be more popular than I had thought. Or that's residual love from her Charleston the week previous. The dance this week was good-ish but Sophie seemed to fade in and out of the character of the dance. Brendan, meanwhile, is just too creepy. He makes me want to punch things -- namely, his face.

Susanna and Kevin -- 34
Did anyone else ever own Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album? Remember that bit where they play the sound of John Denver being strangled? That is all I could think about while Susanna and Kevin were dancing to "Annie's Song." The nature of the Vienna waltz is such that their dance wasn't really enough to pull me from those thoughts. But apparently they did well because the judges scored them as such.
On a side note: If Susanna and Kevin fail to dance to "Mrs. Robinson," replete with The Graduate undertones, they are missing a trick.

Natalie and Artem -- 36
You thought a 10 was coming, didn't you? None of the judges had even the slightest bit of criticism, they kept their comments short and sweet, and you thought: "This is it. Somebody's 'bout to drop a 10 all up in this hizzouse." But no.
That rumba was the bomb-diggity, yo. Especially for a Week 3 performance. The only other good rumba I can think of, ever, was the one performed by Artem and Kara Tointon a few years ago. Apparently the scandal is that Natalie took dance classes when she was a little girl. I don't care; I played rugby for a number of years but that doesn't mean I could start for Saracens. I liked this dance. And I think if it had been performed a little later in the season it would have scored a 10 from at least one of the judges.

--- Does Andrea Bocelli come on Strictly every year?
--- James Blunt has a new album out; expect him to be on Strictly at some point singing that "Bonfire Heart" song. Expect it to be stuck in your head for a week afterward.
--- Jenn and I loved how happy Karen was for her fiancé, Kevin, when he and Susanna scored well. Just over his shoulder you could see Karen smiling and clapping.

I've got to think Julien and Janette will find themselves in The Dreaded Dance Off again next week, though based on the audience's apparent love for Dave Myers I don't think he and Karen will be there with them -- even though they should be. I think Patrick and Anya are still struggling to show any sort of personality, so if they have a bad week, expect them to do battle against J and J.

As things stand, I'm predicting a final four consisting of Natalie and Artem, Ashley and Ola, Sophie and Brendan (ugh, like he needs the ego boost), and Ben and Kristina. That last choice is, admittedly, unlikely but I'd like him to be there. More likely is Abbey and Aljaz.


(a) It turns out Len is reusing his best lines. He said the same thing to Bill Nye on the US version of Strictly, about a month ago.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Strictly Come Dancing Week 2: A duff dance

Probably the best thing I've ever seen from Brendan Cole.
The second week of "Strictly Come Dancing" has come and gone, claiming its first casualty of the season: that guy you had never heard of who doesn't even live in Britain anymore. The highlight of the week for me was the surprise awesomeness of Sophie Ellis-Bextor. More on that in a second, but here's a recap of Week 2, starting with the exiting couple and working up the scoreboard:

Tony and Aliona -- 13
Poor Aliona.
The first part of the dance involved Tony standing still, then turning away from the audience and hitting an imaginary golf ball. For some reason the audience chose to applaud this action, perhaps in recognition that Tony Jacklin is such a poor dancer it is more enjoyable to see him pretend to do something he's good at. I'm sad to see Aliona go, but the departure is hardly surprising.

Dave and Karen -- 16
Isn't Karen a lovely dancer? I mean, she moves with such a beautiful flow and style. In professional wrestling there is a guy, Dolph Ziggler, who is so good at what he does that he has on occasion wrestled a broomstick -- he doesn't need an opponent. That's Karen, basically -- she doesn't need a partner. But perhaps she's even more impressive, because I reckon a broom has more sense of rhythm that Dave Myers. Did you catch that little sketch on the results show where he was supposed to be lip synching but got the words wrong? The man's sense of rhythm is so appalling he can't even lip synch!
Julien and Janette -- 18
No likey. Respect for the considerable amount of additional sparkle to their costumes, which almost certainly must have been a touch from Julien himself, and kudos to the Merthyr Tydfil lad for managing to finish one or two of his sentences without yelling. But that doesn't change the fact that when he dances it looks like a 3-year-old who needs to poop. He and Janette were lucky to be up against Tony and Aliona in the dance off.

Rachel and Pasha -- 20
Jenn's observation was that Rachel was doing all the moves and quite pleased with herself but without realising that the moves are supposed to mean something, that they are meant as an expression of music. To use Bruno's analogy that each move in dance is like a word written in a novel, Rachel was tapping out a set of instructions on how to operate your new dehumidifier. But, oh my goodness, she did look good doing it.

Mark and Iveta -- 22
The big man is probably the best performer of this year's group. I think that's the benefit of doing Hair Spray, a musical that very much involves getting reaction from the audience; the man knows how to work a crowd. There is also something amusing about the sight of him -- roughly three times the size of Iveta -- getting his boogie on with such a stick-thin dance partner. My only complaint is that the Strictly hairdressers seem to be keen to have him come out each week in the most unflattering hairstyle imaginable. I expect next week he'll have cornrows.

Fiona and Anton -- 22
Jenn likes to point out that Fiona is what Rachel Riley will look like in 30 years. I think she does this so I will stop perving on the latter. The dance was OK-ish but there's only so many times she can start out a routine well and fluff it halfway through before viewers give up on her.

There's no crying in ballroom!
Vanessa and James -- 23
I've never been a terrible fan of waltzes, but clearly Vanessa is because it made her weep. This, in turn, made Jenn get teary eyed. Admittedly, that's not saying much; Jenn and I are emotionally unstable people. We cry at anything. The other day I was telling Jenn about a Harley-Davidson advert and had to take a moment to compose myself. In other words, if a woman wants to cry on television after performing a waltz to a Whitney Houston cover, we are 100-percent behind her.

Deborah and Robin -- 24
I wasn't impressed. Is that mean of me? I feel somehow like there is supposed to be something quirky/likable about her but I don't really see what it is. There's nothing I particularly dislike but, well, meh. Maybe if she would cry. Or develop a sassy catchphrase. Or speak with a lovable Northern accent. Or something other than talk about visiting South America several times. Know your audience, Debbie -- very few of us have had multiple holidays in Peru. Go camp or go home.
On a side note: the crowd hissed at Craig's statement: "Dragon versus drag queen, darling. Look out." I think they interpreted him as saying Deborah looked like a drag queen, but I'm certain he was referring to himself there and the fact that going head to head in an attitude battle with a man who wears dresses is one of the classic blunders, along with starting a land war in Asia and going against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

Ben and Kristina -- 25
Stand up, boy. What's wrong with you? Ben was hunched over Kristina as if they were doing a waltz in a war zone and he was trying to protect her from bullets. He needn't worry. Kristina's got those adamantium boobs and those vice-like thighs. Indeed, she is Weapon X: bred in a Soviet laboratory as part of a project to create the perfect dancing and killing machine -- the idea being that once Soviet dominance was established all the killing agents could retire to serve as cruise ship performers. The project went horribly wrong during an incident known as the Kamchatka Cha-Cha. Kristina killed four dozen soldiers with a variated fleckerl and escaped.
Patrick and Anya -- 27
See, now, I didn't like this dance all that much. I didn't get the whole wind-up toy thing nor what connection it had to Michael Jackson's "Beat It." And I wasn't a fan of Patrick's overly stern face. Whereas everyone else seemed to enjoy it. Jenn insisted it was good and the judges gave him decent marks. What'd I miss?

Abbey and Aljaz -- 30
Did you happen to notice that Aljaz's nipples were always hard? I realise his shirt was open but I used to work in TV -- studios are hot. What strange sort of nipple Viagra is he taking that he's able to pull that off? And that open shirt of his was equally distracting. From the back it looked like a be-spangled high-vis vest. I found myself imagining that the theme for the dance was: "World's Sexiest Building Site."
Meanwhile, it's Jenn's feeling that Abbey's failing to give herself completely to the Tao of Strictly because she is afraid of being unattractive. So, everything she does maintains an element of Sexy Abbey®, which doesn't really fit with, oh, say, any sort of dance that requires you do more than stand there and pout.

Oh, Susanna.
Susanna and Kevin -- 31
MILF. That is all.
Ashley and Ola -- 32
I told you he'd improve. Though, as Jenn pointed out, it probably didn't matter. He just needs to be seen holding his newborn baby and he'll coast through the next few weeks. Which might be of help to Ola: she looked rough on the results show. I say that and there will almost certainly be some sort of heart-breaking news story in the next couple of days to make me feel bad about commenting on how tired she looked. Something along the lines of her having to fly to and from Poland every day because she is, in fact, Bronisław Komorowski's most trusted advisor. And, yes, I did have to Google the president of Poland's name.

Natalie and Artem -- 34
Holy smokes, on one level, this was the dance of the night for me. Natalie nailed it. Her posture was brilliant -- especially the way she held her neck and head. Amazeballs, yo. Absolute amazeballs. I feel like there wasn't enough acknowledgement of that in the show. Darcey mentioned it (and I suppose, from a dancer perspective, hers is the only opinion that matters), but I really feel there should have been a stop-the-show-and-draw-attention-to-how-awesome-that-was moment. Also, I loved the song. "If I Ain't Got You" has long been on the list of songs I would claim as my own if I could go back in time and build a music career by stealing the hits of future artists.

Sophie and Brendan -- 36
Natalie had Week 2 won in my opinion, until Sophie and Brendan pulled this off. My feeling is that they were hurt by the fact the dance was performed in Week 2, well before that magic point at which judges are willing to throw down a 10. Honestly, if they were to have done the exact same dance in, oh, say, Week 6, it would have been scored higher. I love how Sophie makes it look like the most effortless thing in the history of effortless things. And as much as it pains me to compliment Brendan Cole I have to give him credit for choreographing a dance that wasn't slapstick zany. 
The Charleston comes from one of the most artistically and intellectually explosive times in the past few centuries and I've always been just a little annoyed that the Strictly representation of the dance is so often cartoonish and goofy. Sophie and Brendan did the whole thing with style

---- Who is this Matt Goss? Where did he come from? I have Google searched him and he appears to always be wearing the same hat. It's a crutch for him, like Miley Cyrus and her tongue. At the end of his performance in the results show he wore a look on his face that suggested he had been forced to perform under duress.
---- I think Tess-Tess made a solid host, with Claudia Winkleman serving as an excellent mad sidekick. I have and will argue at length in favour of Brucie, but I'll admit that it is nice to have a break from him every now and then.
---- Huzzah for free online voting. I will be interested to see if it affects how the show unfolds. Previously, Strictly fans such as myself have watched the show at the mercy of those people who are silly enough to pay to vote (via phone). With free online voting will more people now be participating? If so, how will it change things?

I'm predicting Julien and Janette will be there again next week alongside Fiona and Anton. I feel Dave should be in that position instead of Fiona but am guessing he has more fan support.

As good as Sophie was this week, I still don't see her going the distance. The final four as I see it will be: Ashley, Natalie, Vanessa and Rachel.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Strictly Come Dancing Week 1: Boom

Dave Myers provides the weekend's highlight.

The coffee table is stained with port, Jenn and I are doing contra checks in the kitchen, and there is popcorn all over the sofa; "Strictly Come Dancing" is finally under way, y'all. Boom! This weekend produced some 2.5 cumulative hours of Strictly joy, and I have to say I enjoyed almost all of it. With 15 couple to get through, I'll waste no more time and get straight to the recap:

Abbey and Aljaz - 32
Abbey Clancy and Aljaz Skorjanec
These two are just a little too beautiful for me. They are sickeningly gorgeous. Even in their training montage, these two insufferable Übermensh looked as if they were in a catalog for clothes I couldn't afford. It was a lovely waltz, but I'm not sure I can stand people who look so good. Meanwhile, in honour of Aljaz, here's Slovenian Fact no. 2: The Slovenian National Anthem was originally a drinking toast.

Natalie and Artem - 31
I spent the first half of the dance wondering whether Natalie's side-boob-showing dress was going to turn things post-watershed, then the second half wondering who in the great googly-moogly thought it was a good idea to dance to Boney M's "Rasputin." I don't think it was either Natalie or Artem's idea because they appeared to be staging a protest to the song by refusing to dance to its beat. Things got weirder afterward, with Brucie referring to the Hopak preesyadkee (a) as "cobbling" and then being genuinely confounded that no one but him had ever used/heard the term before.

Susanna and Kevin - 28
Kevin to me looks like the boy band member that gets dropped when his aspiring group auditions for "X Factor" and are told they have one too many singers. Additionally, as a new guy he has yet to learn the all-important Strictly pro-dancer trick of not making your partner look bad by dancing rings around them. Meanwhile, Susanna's dancing seemed to me a physical representation of the mental states of many of the girls I went to high school with (keeping in mind that I'm in my mid-30s) who now litter their Facebook pages with panegyrics to their younger selves.

Sophie and Brendan - 28
Bleh. I dislike Brendan so much he blinds me to the quality or otherwise of his partners. But if I remember correctly, Sophie looked gangly in this one. Also, I find the comedy heart tattoo on her bicep to be distracting.

Patrick and Anya - 28
I'm really against having jive as a first-week dance because it's challenging and high energy. It's the sort of thing that should be saved until at least Week 7, once couples have better connected and the celebrities are acclimated to Planet Strictly. A jive before that time is too much an exercise in jumping up and down with a smile-in-the-face-of-death grin plastered on your face. But, all that said, this routine felt a little less chaotic than the one performed by Susanna and Kevin, and Anya was clever enough not to outdance her partner.
Pasha Kovalev and Rachel Riley
Rachel and Pasha - 27
You know that thing of being in a dinner party and the evening has worn on enough that everyone's several drinks in, and the fella you are sitting next to decides he will discreetly pass gas but the smell is anything but discreet -- it is, in fact, so egregious a stench as to make you feel violated -- but you don't want to say anything because, really, that fella is a very nice chap and the sort of person who would be embarrassed and hurt if you were to publicly shame him for his flatulence, so you just sit there, suffering, desperately trying to make it seem as if you haven't noticed? That is the face Rachel wears all the time. But she wears it well. I would happily be locked in a trunk with her.

Ashley and Ola - 25
Room for improvement here. My feeling with both Ashley and the aforementioned Rachel is that they will click into gear before long and eventually surpass Sexy Abbey®, who will peak in Week 9.

Mark and Iveta - 24
Mark is these days performing as the mother in Hair Spray, a role that requires a fair bit of moving around. So, I was more optimistic at the start of the dance than the judges claimed to be. In terms of storytelling, this was probably the best performance of the weekend and the actual dancing was all that bad, either. That said, I wasn't too keen on Mark's slicked-back hair. It made him look like Francis Buxton from Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

Fionna and Anton - 24
If your own version of the Strictly Come Dancing Drinking Game included the rule "Drink every time someone mentions James Bond" you are no doubt reading this from a hospital bed. You probably didn't even manage to stay conscious long enough to see Fionna dance. What you missed was not terribly inspiring but far better than you would expect based on Anton's previous partners. However, based on Fionna's unrelenting 80s hair and Anton being, well, Anton, I am already cringing for their salsa, whenever that may be, so you may not want to rush your recovery.

Deborah and Robin - 24
I want to like Deborah, because I like Robin. I found myself watching their performance with a sort of pleading hopefulness: "Oh please be something I can like." And while I managed not to hate it, I didn't terribly enjoy it. For one thing, she was incredibly skippy, making the tango look like a slow foxtrot, and her arms were no good. I feel like she is capable of doing better but I'm not entirely sure I care. By and large, I find her a bit boring.

Julien Macdonald can't even vogue properly.
Julien and Janette - 20
Julien has a strange habit of finishing his sentences by INEXPLICABLY SHOUTING. I suspect this is because he DOES A LOT OF COCAINE. As much as I enjoyed his conversation with Bruno about being "bent" (I was especially amused by Bruno's observation: "Sometimes you have to play straight for the money"), on the whole I find Julien to be VERY ANNOYING. And there's also the fact that he's NOT AT ALL GOOD AT DANCING. Hopefully, he won't last BEYOND WEEK 3.

Ben and Kristina - 19
Crikey, that Ben is a big chap, isn't he? Under the right conditions, it probably wouldn't take too much convincing to get me to "turn" for the ol' fella. I like him. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, and I think we can all agree that if he can get a dance in which lifts are allowed that is going to be awesome. This performance, in fairness, was pretty stompy but I still feel he was undermarked. Jenn's feeling, meanwhile, is that he has yet to fully give himself over to the Tao of Strictly. Hopefully he will. Based on the way in which Jenn literally howls upon seeing him, I think one can assume she is keen to have him stay in the show for a while.

Vanessa and James - 19
Because Jenn and I have somewhat recently taken to waking up at an ungodly hour, we end up getting to hear a bit of Vanessa's show each morning. Which has resulted in a gradual softening of our views on the Radio 2 presenter. When Vanessa was first announced as a Strictly contestant, Jenn was not at all keen. But, with the aid of time, and a very large glass of port on the night, that had changed to eagerness by the time Vanessa took to the floor. The dance was good enough and her remark about being stuffed into a corset is the sort of sass that will carry her to at least Week 6.

Tony and Aliona - 16
Somewhere in a lost corner of Wales there must have been at least one old couple who got really excited because they thought they were about to see Welsh-language folk duo Tony ac Aloma. Instead they saw a golf bloke that only Brucie remembers and my favourite Russian lady. Overall, it wasn't as bad as the score suggests. Aliona was wisely conservative in her movements and Tony did a good job of holding form in bits where he was standing still. When he moved, however, he made a face as if doing so was causing him to rip stitches from a hernia operation. Jenn's pretty sure he'll be the first to go, which is sad because: A) I love Aliona; and B) Julien should be the first to go.

Dave and Karen - 16
Boom. Let's all just take a quiet moment or two to reflect upon the highlight of this week's Strictly: After a minute and a half of frantic running around in incongruous circles, as if participating in a Benny Hill version of "Supermarket Sweep," Dave throws up his hand and shouts: "Boom!"
It was brilliance.
Indeed, the whole thing was brilliant. Not brilliant in a Kara-and-Artem-in-the-final-making-you-weep-with-their-awesomeness sort of way, admittedly. More "brilliant" in a I've-been-drinking-all-day-and-have-just-found-half-a-Kit-Kat-on-a-bus-seat-and-will-now-eat-it-without-worrying-myself-with-questions-about-its-origins sort of way. It was great to see Dave having such a good time and great, as well, to see Karen genuinely enjoying herself. Indeed, this performance and her response to it improved my opinion of Karen threefold. 
I also loved Dave talking to Tess Daly after the scores were given: "Well, you can't go but up, Tessa."

-- From next week, you will be able to vote for your favourite couples online, for free, rather than having to phone in a vote a pay a fee. This, my friends, is why the BBC is better.
I love Tess Daly.
-- The Daily Mail bitched about Tess' yellow dress in an article so snide I won't link to it. But that affords me opportunity to assert my opinion that Tess Daly is one of the best female presenters on television. I used to work in television, producing live shows. In a live show, one of the host's primary responsibilities is to keep things moving. Think about how quickly Strictly would derail without her there holding it all together. And think, too, how expertly she does this without saying "We're running out of time" or "Have to cut you off" or something else rude and obvious. She is professional, warm and clever. Basically, I love Tess Daly; and criticism of her always annoys me. Especially when that criticism is bitch-cattiness about her being blonde or supposedly being fat. Tess Daly fat? Fuck you, Daily Mail. I will hunt you down and poop in your shoes!

Who's in the Final Four?
It's way too early to be guessing at winners yet, but I predict the last four standing will be: Ashley, Rachel, Natalie and Ben. Yes, I'm putting a lot of faith in Ben's ability to improve, but rugby players have a good track history in Strictly. Even Gavin Henson did relatively well and that man is so dumb he could be outwitted by a stationary train.


(a) The "Russian" -- actually Ukrainian -- kicking dance.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Seventeen hours of my life

5:40 - The alarm on my phone goes off. My mind allocates exactly half a second of total alertness to allow me to hit snooze. I roll over and wrap my arms around Jenn.

5:50 - The alarm goes off again. This time I am utterly confused, struggling to fully comprehend the concept of sound, let alone the sound I am hearing or its source. Amid some confused grunting I manage to click off the alarm and fall -- literally -- out of bed.

6:00 - Beep beep beeeeeep. The BBC pips inform me of the time as I butter toast. For pretty much the whole of my life my breakfast has been two slices of toast, jam and tea. I sit down and eat these things at the table, listening to Vanessa Feltz on the radio explaining that things are not going well in her "Strictly Come Dancing" training. I hear Jenn get up and moan as she walks into the kitchen. In a few minutes she brings me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, which I drink in one gulp. Breakfast done, I pack my things and get ready to head out.

6:54 - I catch a glimpse of the time on the platform display at Cardiff Bay train station just as I bank my bicycle to the left. I like cycling this early in the morning. There are very few cars to contend with, and the stretch of my commute that takes me across the Cardiff Bay Barrage is particularly peaceful. The tide was in as I rode by this morning and the water calm. Looking across the channel I could see the sun rising over the Mendip Hills in Somerset and the lights of Weston Super-Mare and Bristol.

7:00 - beep-beep. My little Casio watch marks the hour. I am in my office switching out of my cycling shoes and into a pair of running shoes. In the last month or so I've started going to a gym just across the road from my office. The gym is deplorable; it is like working out in the physical manifestation of a person's memories of regret. The gym used to be a large nightclub, notorious for tolerance of underage drinkers, which was shut down in 2006. Absolutely no work has gone into changing the interior since then. The DJ booths are still there, the dancer podiums are still there, the bar is still there. The only changes are the addition of weights and workout machines and shower/locker rooms that have been installed at the lowest possible cost. I would not go there were it not so incredibly convenient and cheap.

7:17 - I am on the dance gym floor. Today is a sweaty day -- cardio. I choose a running machine from the many empty ones that are available. Generally I choose a machine that is as far away as possible from Weird Boxer Guy. He's there every morning along with a trainer who I'm guessing is a former boxer who got hit in the head one too many times. The trainer is probably about 5-foot-6 and speaks in a quick and totally incomprehensible Valleys accent. I mean totally incomprehensible. I used to work in the Valleys and never had trouble understanding people but this guy is impossible. Were it not for the fact that Weird Boxer Guy will respond to him in English I would assume him to be speaking another language.
Weird Boxer Guy rarely speaks, though. Generally he just mindlessly runs or cycles at really high speed, wearing a sauna suit that makes him look like a jacket potato. Occasionally he and the trainer will occupy a little corner of the gym and he will do that thing of hitting pads that the trainer holds up. He strikes with a sickening amount of force. I mean, just from the sound of the pads you can tell there is tremendous power in the hits. I am certain a single clean punch from that guy would knock me completely unconscious. This is why I prefer to keep my distance.

7:55 - I have just finished running 5k and rowing 3k. I did the run in 24:06 and the rowing in 12:30. My face is stinging from sweat. I usually like to work out until 8 a.m., so I look around for something to do. I climb onto a stair machine of some sort but can't seem to really get it going. According to the little digital display, the machine is under the impression that I weigh 190 kg (418 lbs.). I cannot figure out how to convince it otherwise. I decide to do push-ups until the top of the hour.

8:40 - Freshly showered and dressed, I am in the office, eating porridge at my desk and reading RideApart. This is the way I roll, yo. Since I started properly working out again I find I am hungry all the time. So each work day starts with an Oat So Simple pot of porridge. I'm sure this is a detail you really care about.

9:05 - Jenn calls. She got the job.
Earlier in the week she had applied for a position in Bristol that would see her taking on greater responsibility and taking home more pay. The implications of her getting a job in a city 50 miles away (30 as the crow flies) are exciting to think about. We'll almost certainly move there, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. In the immediate, I am simply letting her know how proud I am of her for getting the job. As I do this, I hear my voice arc exactly as my father's does when someone tells him good news. When we do this we sound like we're lying, like we don't care at all about your good news. 
I can assure you that we are, truthfully, really excited for you -- we just don't sound that way. I have long had a fear this same disingenuous tone would also come out at shocking news. Specifically, I have found myself anxiously imagining a scenario in which the police come to tell me that a close friend or family member has been murdered, and I incriminate myself by not sounding very surprised or upset.

10:00 - I tear into a cereal bar. I have been staring at the clock for at least five minutes, waiting for the top of the hours. I am hungry all the time.

11:00 - I open a box of raisins. Hungry all the time.

12:00 - Lunch. A ham sandwich and sea salt crisps. Hungry all the time.

13:34 - I am eating an orange, looking out on a rainy miserable day. Cardiff gets roughly 44 inches of rain a year. The average precipitation in St. Paul, Minnesota is 32 inches a year. But it's the cloud cover that really bothers me. Through September there will be breaks, sunny days, but by late October a great heavy grey blanket will have been pulled across this island that will not lift for at least 6 months. Very soon my cycle to work and home will both be in pitch dark. This causes me a tremendous amount of anxiety. Last winter I suffered a depression so bad and so impenetrable that I now fear the coming Long Dark. Really, I have anxiety dreams about it.
On a slightly cheerier note: I have just checked and, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Bristol gets just 35 inches of rain a year. It is also, apparently, "amongst the sunniest" cities in the UK. I think I may be grasping at straws here.

14:09 - I am eating a piece of courgette and lime cake that Jenn made. In my mind I have decided that her new job is part of a logical progression toward her one day being given an MBE.

17:02 - I happen to catch a glimpse of the time as I cycle past a bus stop display at the Doctor Who Experience. I am tired and not at all looking forward to the uphill climb back into Penarth. At Paget Road there is a 100-foot climb in a space of about 200 metres. Writing it out, that doesn't sound terribly impressive to me, but I assure you the hill is very steep and -- despite the fact I cycle up it every day -- very exhausting. In fairness, Paget Road has nothing on Bristol's Park Street, which is so intense elite athletes compete on it. To avoid Paget Road, I go about a quarter of a mile out of my way to a zig-zag path that was recently installed. Climbing the hill is no easier here but affords one the opportunity of doing so without impatient drivers riding up behind you. On the whole, British drivers are overly aggressive and often completely blind to what's in front of them. This creates a somewhat adversarial feeling to my evening commute that I try really hard to contain. I will admit to occasionally being one of those cyclists that you hear about.
I realise, though, from conversations with in-laws, that some people drive poorly around cyclists because they simply don't know how to handle the situation. So they take less-than-safe actions in trying to simply speed past the whole confusing mess. If you are one of these people, here is my advice. Nay, here is my plea: Count to 15.
I have found that in the overwhelming majority of urban situations an opportunity for a car to pass safely without risk to myself or others will present itself within 15 seconds. Really. I used to say 30 seconds but then I started counting to prove my point and found the delay time is dramatically less. So, if you find yourself "stuck" behind a cyclist, simply keep a distance great enough that you would not run over him or her were he/she suddenly to fall over, and start counting to 15. Within that time, scan well ahead of the cyclist (don't just target fixate on the immediate obstacle) and identify safe opportunities to pass. It's just that simple, and 15 seconds is not going to make or break anyone's day -- it's certainly less time than it takes to fill out a police report should you injure a cyclist, and considerably less time than the prison sentence you'd receive for reckless driving were you to kill someone.

17:37 - I am in the flat, drinking tea and eating biscuits.

18:50 - Jenn and I sit down to dinner. It is not so terribly exciting; I have made fish cakes, rice and peas while Jenn has been studying for her driving theory test, which is tomorrow (EDIT: She passed!). The meal is quickly made and quickly eaten because we need to get out the door soon to make our dance class. Thursday is Lindy Hop night, where we learn how to dance like this. We aren't quite at that level, yet; after a year of classes I still have a tendency to suffer mental shutdowns, like when a computer freezes up because you've issued too many commands. Still, I really enjoy it. The teenage boy in me especially loves Lindy Hop class, because it means getting all handsy with about a dozen women.

19:24 - I am awkwardly hugging my motorcycle in the street, holding out the choke with my left hand as I start the bike and hold in the brake with my right. I have to hold the choke out, otherwise it will pull itself back in. According to the internets, this may have something to do with my throttle cable. I don't know this at the time, however, so I am left standing there with my hand up Aliona's skirt (a), as it were, waiting for the engine to warm.
Normally we would take the train, but this week the class is in a different, less-train-friendly location. To be perfectly honest, I am happy about this because it gives me an excuse to go somewhere on the bike. When I first came up with the idea of getting a motorcycle I told myself it would allow me greater freedom -- the ability to go where I want to go when I want to go there. But it turns out that I don't really have the desire or time to go places as often as I would have previously thought. Possibly, though, this is due to my having stifled such a desire for seven years. I haven't explored Britain at all, and perhaps the fact I haven't is the main reason I now don't; I have beaten myself down into an anti-adventure mindset.

20:35 - I am 'trucking' about in a small, hot room. Trucking is a move where you move side to side, as if skating. Groucho Marx does it here in comedy style. There are no mirrors in the room, so I can't tell whether I'm doing it right. It doesn't feel as if I am because the move is hurting my knee. Still, I am having fun. I genuinely missed my calling by failing to get into swing/Lindy sooner.

21:10 - We are back on the bike and heading home. We choose a circuitous route because both Jenn and I enjoy being on the bike. This is a happy development one might not have guessed a year ago, when I first started all this talk of motorcycles. Back then, her response was a pretty firm "No." In hindsight, though, this was not so much opposition to my having a motorcycle but to my buying a motorcycle -- an obstacle I would eventually find a way around.
In Leckwith, I choose to filter through a line of traffic stopped for a light, but do so timidly, so that when the lights change I am still between two lines of cars rather than out ahead of them. This is a bad place to be because although most drivers in the UK are content to have a motorcycle zip alongside them, they are unwilling to ease back at all and allow the motorcycle into a proper lane. I guess the thinking is: "Hey, you can't have it both ways. The law allows you to jump to the front of the queue, so either get to the front of the queue or don't filter."
Fair enough. One of the benefits of my bike is that it can out-perform most people's cars, so I simply twist the throttle hard with aim of getting out ahead of the traffic. As soon as I do this, however, I realise I have not communicated my intentions to Jenn. I feel her legs squeeze me as she struggles to maintain her grip on the bike's thankfully largish luggage rack. Feeling her unsettle causes me to immediately close the throttle and she comes lurching forward, our helmets colliding. We get to another set of lights and I apologise profusely. She doesn't care, but the thought that I might could have thrown her off with such an idiot move will bother me for the next several days.

21:36 - I am eating a cereal bar and fretting over all the things I need to do before bed.

22:40 - Having showered (dancing is sweaty business) and made everything ready for the next day, I finally crawl into bed with Jenn. She is already half asleep. Instinctively she rolls over and puts her head on my shoulder. I kiss her, then reach my right hand up to click out the light.

(a) Aliona is the name Jenn gave to my bike, after my favourite Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer, Aliona Vilani.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Strictly Come Dancing: First impressions

The mornings are getting cooler, the air has a certain smell and feel that triggers a twinge of happy nostalgia. It's autumn; the Long Dark approacheth. And that can mean only one thing: Strictly's back. 

Yes! It's time for bowls of popcorn, glasses of port, glitter, awkward faces, imagined dramas, fake tans, milquetoast covers of pop songs, cheesy humour, scantily clad women, and, occasionally, a bit of dancing.

This year marks the 11th series of "Strictly Come Dancing," and the fourth since the format changed to include a "launch" show, in which the celebrities are paired with their professional partners before being hidden away in a hermetically sealed dance bunker for three weeks. There, they learn the basics of Twitter banter and are taught how to smile all the way through one of Sir Bruce Forsyth's jokes. They may also pick up a dance step or two, which could potentially help them in the weeks ahead.

The aforementioned launch show took place on 7 September, with a record-number 15 "celebrities" in the lineup. As always, the word "celebrity" is applied loosely, but I'm proud to say I recognised seven of them without having to consult Google. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the prospect of having to sit through so many people this year, but the plus side is that more "celebrities" also means more barely dressed Eastern European dancers.

One of the biggest changes this year comes in the absence of Erin Boag, who had been with the show from the very beginning. That leaves just Brendan Cole and Anton du Beke as the only two dancers left from the first series. Personally, I'd put my money on Anton to last the longest. If Strictly is ever cancelled, he'll retreat into the sewers, Phantom of the Opera-style, and host his own version of the programme with people he has abducted from Tube stations.

Also missing from the starting lineup this year is Natalie Lowe, the uber-athletic Aussie with whom I would liked to be trapped in a lift, armed only with PowerBars and several albums of sexy mood music. Natalie broke her foot just a week or so before the launch show. She probably did this kicking a charging rhino in the face, as part of her training regimen. The good news is that one of my favourite dancers, Aliona Vilani, was drafted in at the last minute.

So, without proper segue, let's look at the couples who will be taking to the floor when Strictly returns on 27 September:

Abbey Clancy and Aljaž Skorjanec
There's a formula to the celebrities that end up on Strictly, and Abbey is ticking the boxes of Pretty Girl With No Discernible Talent Of Her Own, as well as that of Woman With An Annoying Accent. Abbey's claim to fame is that she married Peter Crouch, who, of course, is famous for being tall and having a name that sounds like an unpleasant sex act. Her professional dancer Aljaž, meanwhile, is from Slovenia, which is a place all of us have heard of but know absolutely nothing about. In an effort to rectify that situation, I will hunt down one fact about Slovenia for every week that Abbey and Aljaž stay in the show. Here's Slovenian Fact no. 1: Slovenia is bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. (You still can't picture where it is, can you?)

Ashley Taylor Dawson and Ola Jordan
Ash was in a pop band, apparently. But he's on Strictly because he ticks the box of being The One From Hollyoaks. I know nothing else about him, but I hope he does well because he's got Ola as a partner. Ola, of course, is well-known for suffering an affliction that makes her allergic to clothes. She battles on, though, trying to live a normal life as a dancer on a light-entertainment programme. Truly, she is a hero. A hero who may one day snap and get naked on live television. The longer she stays in the programme the more likely this is to happen. So, please vote for Team Ashola.

Ben and Kristina
Ben Cohen and Kristina Rihanoff
Ben was one of the people I had actually heard of. And I have to say, I like him. Firstly, he was on the England rugby squad that won the World Cup in 2003. I got really emotional when that happened. For years afterward I kept a sound file of the BBC commentary when Jonny Wilkinson made the last-second drop goal, winning the match. The commentator is rapturous when he shouts: "Wilkinson kicks for World Cup glory!" Genuinely, every time I listened to it I would cry. This goes a long way, perhaps, to explaining why I have had so much trouble fitting in in Wales. But another reason to like Ben is that he set up a foundation to combat bullying, which he promotes the hell out of on Twitter. Also, he rides motorcycles. And he is dancing with she of the warrior princess thighs, Kristina.

Dave Myers and Karen Hauer
Another person I had actually heard of, Dave is the goofy one off "Hairy Bikers." Prepare yourself for endless food puns and intolerable attempts at his accent by Brucie. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about Karen. I think I managed to make myself like her last year, but I can't remember why. Side note: Am I the only one who feels Dave's head is now much too big for his body since he's lost weight?

Deborah Meaden and Robin Windsor
Hey, it's that one lady off that one show I never watch. But in fairness, I've decided I like her after watching her bio video. Asked who she would invite to a dinner party she said: "Well, I know it's cliché, but Elizabeth I." Which doesn't strike me as all that cliché, really. Our Debbie is dancing with the Big Gay Awesome that is Robin Windsor, who is, in my opinion, the personification of what Strictly is about. The man embraces the sparkle.

Fiona Fullerton and Anton du Beke
Anton du Beke is the answer to the question: "Who's going to get stuck suffering the formerly attractive woman with zero work ethic?" Fiona was in a Bond film no one saw and hasn't really done anything since. Including update her hairstyle. If these two last beyond Week 4, I will be surprised.

Julien Macdonald and Janette Manrara
Ticking the box of both The Camp One and The Welsh One, Julien is a fashion designer, apparently. I had to be told this. In my own little alternate Strictly universe I would have teamed him with Robin. The power of their combined campiness could have powered London for a year. Instead he gets stuck with ultra-tiny and unknown Jannette, who looks to me like that girl you knew in high school who made a point of turning you down for Prom, even though you never asked her to go.

Mark Benton and Iveta Lukosiute
I recognised Mark from the posters outside the Wales Millennium Centre advertising his role in the musical Hairspray. Jenn had no idea who he was. I don't expect him to last too long. Which is too bad because Jenn and I are both fond of Iveta. Now that I think of it, though, I can't remember why we're fond of Iveta. Ah, according to a previous post: "I liked how relentlessly positive she was about her dance partner... she had to know she was never going to be anything more than a fiddler on the Titanic, but she did so with aplomb."

Artem and Natalie
Natalie Gumede and Artem Chigvinstev
No clue who she is. She ticks the box of being The One From Coronation Street. But, in her favour, she has Artem, which means that at some point she will be thrown 30 feet in the air or have to balance on dental floss or some other mental thing. I like Artem because he rides a motorcycle.

Patrick Robinson and Anya Garnis
He's a doctor on TV, apparently. So prepare yourself for numerous medical-related puns. I have no idea who Anya is, but apparently she's Pasha Kovalev's professional dance partner and possibly romantic partner (here they are dancing on the US version of "So You Think You Can Dance"). Since no one really knows who either of these people are, I suspect they are doomed to not get past Week 7.

Rachel Riley and Pasha Kovalev
This is Jenn's favourite couple because she loves Pasha. I'm not so sure, though, because I can't decide how I feel about Rachel. I think she annoys me. It's that whole "I'm an Essex girl, me" thing. But if you consider how Pasha managed to eventually turn Chelsee Healey into someone I didn't hate on every level, there's tremendous hope for the "Countdown" lady. Expect to hear that show's theme song worked into at least 30 more jokes, by the way.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Brendan Cole
Murder on the dance floor. Get used to hearing that phrase over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And again. What upsets me, though, is that Sophie's saddled with Brendan, which I feel is something akin to a jail sentence. Perhaps Sophie was caught shoplifting, or she attempted to blackmail someone, and as punishment she has to spend several hours in the arms of that intolerable goof.
Jenn quote: "Oh dear, Brendan's looking a little bit tubby."

Susana Reid and Kevin Clifton
I have long had a wee crush on Susanna Reid, so I was really hoping she would end up with James Jordan as a dance partner, because of his classic ability to get ladies to behave like naughty, naughty whores. Instead she's been paired up with Kevin Clifton, fiance (a) of Karen Hauer. An interesting little fact I worked out about him: Grimsby-born Kevin is the first British dancer to join this British show since Robin Windsor, back in 2010. With his addition, there are now four British dancers on the show –– all male. The last British female on the show was Karen Hardy, who left the show in 2008.

Tony Jacklin and Aliona Vilani
Poor, poor Aliona. Jenn and I love her so much that we named my motorcycle after her. She had been reported to have been dropped from the show but was brought back at the last minute after Natalie's rhino-kicking episode. However, being stuck with some bloke of whom I had never heard before, despite the fact that I was partially raised by a grandfather who never stops watching golf, suggests that she is at very high risk of going out in the first week.

Vanessa Feltz and James Jordan
As mentioned above, I feel James was a poor choice here. But it may be that this pairing is more a reward to Vanessa, who has frequently been a guest on "It Takes Two," the daily Strictly programme hosted by Zoë Ball. Initially things don't look very promising for these two and I'm hereby predicting a Week 5 exit.

Elsewhere: The launch show featured musical performances by Jessie J and Rod Stewart. Brucie asked Rod if he'd ever consider doing Strictly and Rod said he'd "love to" in a tone that suggested the only time he'd genuinely "love to" take part in Strictly is if painful death were the alternative. This led to Jenn and I discussing who we would like to see in an all-rock-n-roll version of Strictly, with David Bowie being one of our top picks. Somehow (probably because we had consumed an entire bottle of port) this resulted in our doing impressions of a David Bowie robot. Here's Jenn's.

Who will be in the final: It's so hard to guess at this point, because so much depends on how well the celebrities take to the silliness of the show. Strictly is all about conformity; you give in and you accept the Tao of Strictly or you go home. I feel a safe bet for the final contestants at this point are: Ben Cohen, Natalie Gumede and possibly Ashley Taylor Dawson.

What do you think?


(a) I really wish I could have arranged for a band to launch into "Ballroom Blitz" when I proposed to Jenn.