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.