Startled by saucy knickers, bamboozled by fake tans and subjected to torture by Katya: How ED BALLS is loving every green-faced minute of Strictly Come Dancing!
Dance partners: Ed Balls and Katya Jones in a Facebook snap
They say fancy footwork is a good thing in Westminster and Strictly Come Dancing has long been a favourite in the Balls-Cooper household. But when I was approached by the BBC to take part back in May, I was cautious. People like me just don’t do things like that and, when I talked to my wife Yvette, I thought she’d tell me not to risk making a fool of myself.
‘You have to do it,’ she said instantly. ‘How could you possibly pass up the opportunity to learn to dance on the biggest TV show there is?’
I turned to Jeremy Vine, a Strictly veteran, and when he said it was the best experience he’d ever had, my mind was made up. I was going to do it.
I was absorbed in finishing my new book for the next few months, but as August and the new series grew closer, the fear hit me. I started waking up at 4am with the Strictly theme tune ringing in my head.
Yvette and I might have thrown some slightly dodgy shapes at Labour Party conferences, but the only real dance experience I’d ever had was a lesson on a cruise ship – which made me determined never to attempt Latin again.
This will be interesting, I thought...
Strutting his stuff: Ed with his yellow suit and green face in his 'Mask' style dance with Kataya on Saturday night
The day of the big reveal: I’m one of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing contestants. I go on Chris Evans’s Radio 2 show to make the announcement, which is immediately met with a flurry of speculation about how rubbish I’ll be.
I can’t blame people – the Strictly ballroom is a very long way from my comfort zone.
The idea of dancing live on television makes giving a speech in Parliament seem like a walk in the park.
'I can't blame people for going into a flurry about how rubbish I will be when it was first announced I was in the show'
First day of rehearsals for the launch show. The week before, it had dawned on me that I’d need something to wear for rehearsals. I consulted Yvette, who said what I needed was ‘leisurewear’. Having spent the past 25 years in a suit, I didn’t own anything fitting that description, so Yvette went on Amazon and ordered several pairs of stretchy black trousers and T-shirts.
I turn up to the rehearsals in Roehampton wearing a pale blue T-shirt.
First day of rehearsals and Ed's wife Yvette Cooper was forced to go onto Amazon and order pairs of stretchy paints and t-shirts as Ed didn't own 'leisurewear'
Within five minutes of strenuous jumping around, it’s covered in visible sweat patches. Looking around, I realise there’s a good reason everyone else is wearing black. I spend the rest of the day hiding behind fellow Strictly contestant Laura Whitmore, the MTV presenter, in a desperate attempt not to appear on camera.
For the group dance, I’m with Janette Manrara, Oti Mabuse and a new professional dancer, Katya Jones, originally from Russia. When I dance with Katya, I have to pick her up, swing her around and then point my finger.
I’m exhausted and struggling, until she starts shouting instructions to me with a ferocity I last saw in some of my Commons opponents: ‘Turn around, put me down, boom!’ For some reason, this approach works.
Ed showing off his dance partner Katya who told him no crisps and chocolate when they first met
The official launch of Strictly 2016, our first live dance and the moment we contestants find out who our professional dance partner will be. When I learn I’ve been paired with Katya, I’m really pleased – and rather nervous, too.
She’s extremely tough, as I learn after the show when she spots the beer in my hand. ‘That’s your last one,’ she says.
She tells me I’m going to be banned from snacking on crisps and chocolate, too. But she’s also a fantastic teacher and, as it’s her first time on the show, it feels as if we’re both learning how it all works together.
Ed says he was pleased with his match but was really nervous too as Katya is 'tough' but a great teacher
Yvette and our children visit me in my dressing room before the group dance, and I show them my moves. The kids fall about laughing, giving me a taste of what I’m in for.
When it comes to the performance, I think I’m passable, but when I watch it later, I find it excruciating. I realise I’m doing what middle-aged people do after 11pm at wedding receptions – moving every part of my body and hoping some of it works.
It’s the definition of dad dancing. I think I’m just moving my shoulders, but actually I’m also moving my hands, and my chin.
I realise I’ve got a lot of work to do to isolate individual body parts and force them to do what they’re supposed to.
Scared about his fitness he tries his best to keep moving
One week into training and my body aches constantly. Katya makes me repeat moves until I’ve got them right. I know I’ve made her particularly frustrated when Russian phrases which I assume are swearwords slip out.
She’s a strict disciplinarian and if I’m late for rehearsal she makes me stand with my arms outstretched and a bottle of water in each hand, which, if you haven’t tried it, I can promise quickly becomes very painful. I’m not very supple, so she makes me do stretches in the dance studio and also when I’m home, which Yvette finds hilarious. I’ve insisted Katya doesn’t drink coffee before we meet in the mornings. Her energy levels are higher than anyone I’ve known, and if she’s caffeinated her choreography leaves me exhausted before we’ve even got to lunchtime.
Ed admitted he didn't want to emulate John Sergeant or Ann Widdecombe, who went for pure entertainment value
Our first dance is the waltz and I’m putting everything into learning the steps properly and trying to get my frame right.
I don’t want to emulate John Sergeant or Ann Widdecombe, who went for pure entertainment value.
I’m hoping to make people smile, but also show the judges I’ve really tried to learn to dance.
My first performance with Katya. When the famous music begins, my nerves start rising.
Earlier in the week, I’d shown Katya around the House of Commons. Our waltz is set on Westminster Bridge, so despite the strangeness of what I’m about to do there are elements of familiarity, too.
I’m just me, albeit dancing on television – I am even wearing a suit – so I haven’t thought about putting on a performance.
Despite his first dance mistake Ed admits no one seemed to notice and his family were so supportive
Big mistake. Fifteen seconds in, I miss a step which I must have practised hundreds of times. I’m so upset because I’m sure everybody will have seen me mess up.
After the show’s over, my mother- in-law, who’s been watching in the audience, comes over and says: ‘That was great!’ I say: ‘What do you mean? I messed it up.’
Then I speak to Yvette, who’s at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool and has booked a room to watch me with 100 others.
When I tell her how disappointed I am, she says: ‘But we all loved it! We didn’t see anything wrong at all.’
I have a Strictly epiphany today. After the waltz, Darcey Bussell told me I needed to get into character. Then a friend of mine visits during rehearsals and Katya tells me to do the dance for him while I am shouting out all the steps with as much energy, commitment and wildness as I can.
We do it, and they both tell me it’s incredible. I assume I look ridiculous until Katya shows me my performance, which she’s filmed on her phone, and I realise I look much more convincing when I fully commit to the silly faces and exaggerated movements.
It's not long before the outfits get wilder and Ed is told to get into character more
We’re using social media to show our progress, making Facebook videos of our rehearsals. I’ve come a long way since an early, and notorious, attempt to get to grips with social media, when I accidentally tweeted my own name instead of searching for it.
As I admit in my book, Speaking Out, it’s only by facing up to your mistakes that you improve. Strictly is ramming the lesson home.
What nobody tells you about Strictly is that all your clothes are going to be sewn together. Even your boxer shorts and your shirts. It’s to prevent anything from coming loose as you dance, but it feels like putting on a giant romper suit.
'As I stand waiting to perform the Charleston live on television, dressed as a dancing cowboy, I know I have to really attack it'
I began Strictly saying I didn’t want to wear anything sparkly or camp, but I’ve had to abandon my principles. On Strictly, nothing can ever be too camp.
As I stand waiting to perform the Charleston live on television, dressed as a dancing cowboy, I know I have to really attack it. And I enjoy it, too. Afterwards, Bruno says I looked like a flapping rooster, but at least he praises me for giving them a ‘proper dance’. Katya and I were really chuffed. I receive a tweet from George Osborne, saying: ‘Come on Ed Balls!’. I’ve had so many kind messages from former colleagues from both sides of the House, including a text from Gordon Brown telling me he’s become a fan of Strictly for the first time. Michael Gove, Tom Watson and Ruth Davidson have all been in touch.
There are some things in life which transcend political divides, and Strictly’s clearly one of them.
Since I’m dancing the samba, the big question this week has been, am I going to succumb to the exotic lure of a spray-tan?
I don’t even really know what it is, so Katya shows me the hose and the plastic tanning booth that celebrities and professionals alike stand in to become bronzed.
When she shows me the skimpy paper knickers worn during the procedure, I am horrified. They look like something you’d find in a dodgy shop at a motorway service station halfway up the A1!
'When she shows me the skimpy paper knickers worn during the procedure, I am horrified'
In the end, I’m spared the ordeal for another week, because I’m performing dressed as Jim Carrey’s character from The Mask, complete with yellow suit and green face.
I accept that it’s a Rubicon I must eventually cross, though, and that to leave Strictly without having at least my upper body turned tangerine would be to miss out on an important tradition.
I’m hoping to try it next week, if I’m still in the competition. I won’t go for a ‘full Jeremy’, though.
Ed says he was practising his Jim Carrey impersonation by going up to his kids in the kitchen and saying ‘somebody stop me'
He told me he went totally naked for his spray-tans. I can’t help but wonder what dance would require that level of commitment.
The samba is impossible, frankly, but I’m hoping what I lack in style I can make up for in characterisation. I’ve been practising my Jim Carrey impersonation by going up to my kids in the kitchen and saying ‘Somebody stop me’, which I’m told is deeply annoying.
It’s been an immensely hard week, physically. At the start of the week I didn’t know what glutes were, but I certainly do now.
'I didn't know what glutes are but I certainly do now'
I also had no idea how much shaking the maracas could make my arms ache. I’ve lost more than half a stone since my Strictly experience started, thanks to Katya’s regime of six-hour sessions and confiscating my packets of Wotsits. I’ve even been dancing on train journeys, trying to cram in as much practice as possible.
I spoke to my father yesterday and asked him what he thought of me being on Strictly.
He said: ‘I think it’s absolutely terrible… and absolutely fabulous at the same time.’
For me, it’s definitely the latter – and not so different from politics after all.
Ed Balls dancing with his wife Yvette Cooper in 2012. She encouraged him to do Strictly
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