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JANE FRYER: The amateur dancers who make Strictly stars appear like slackers in sequins

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Just about every spring since 1920, the world of competitive ballroom has cranked into manic overdrive.

Across the globe there may be fevered preparation — a frenzy of anticipation, a fiesta of faux tan and a surfeit of teeny, sequinned dresses.

It culminates in a samba across the immaculately-sprung floor of Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom — and the ultimate of the British Open.

That is the top of true ballroom and Latin American dancing. For 96 years, dancers from as much as 64 countries have tangoed into Blackpool to compete within the 13-day annual Blackpool Dance Festival. Careers are made here. Dreams come true. Many, many tears are shed.

‘Blackpool is our Wimbledon — our major, major championship,’ explains Oskar Odiakosa, an amateur dancer-cum-chartered accountant from Beckenham, Kent, who appears within the Rising Stars category. ‘If you ought to construct a legacy, you’ve got to win Blackpool.’

‘Blackpool is our Wimbledon — our major, major championship,’ explains Oskar Odiakosa (left), an amateur dancer-cum-chartered accountant from Beckenham, Kent. Right, Lauren Claydon, 23, says ‘I only really work to bounce’

Thanks to former Strictly Come Dancing winner and film producer Stacey Dooley, we are taken inside Blackpool

Due to former Strictly Come Dancing winner and film producer Stacey Dooley, we’re taken inside Blackpool

Due to former Strictly Come Dancing winner and film producer Stacey Dooley, we’re taken contained in the fabulous art deco constructing where it isn’t just celebrities ‘having a go’ for a month or two, but real dancers who’ve dedicated their lives to be the very best of the very best.

In Blackpool’s Dance Fever, we see all of it. Every little thing from the highly-polished chandeliers hanging from the ornate ceiling, to the crisp white dinner jackets of the Empress Orchestra. The dozen judges flown in from all over the world, who strut about with clipboards — and the previous champions glowing with success on the side-lines.

Then there are the competitors, jiving round after round, as numbers are whittled down from the lots of to the 12 hallowed finalists.

Some, like Oskar, 28, and Lauren Claydon, 23, are amateurs.

‘I’m in internal audit, in real life’, he says. ‘But here we’re driven by art and fervour for our craft.’ She’s a lettings agent also from Kent.

For the 40-plus hours every week they’re not doing their day jobs, they’re training either together, or apart, or travelling to competitions at home and abroad — about 15 a 12 months, on average.

‘I only really work to bounce,’ says Lauren. ‘It’s not low cost — it costs me between £10,000 or £15,000 a 12 months. But I find it irresistible. I can’t imagine my life without it.’

Oskar explains: ‘Walking out in Blackpool is like walking into a completely new kingdom. Just like a fairy tale — it inspires you to dance your heart out, to be your best.’

Oskar explains: ‘Walking out in Blackpool is like walking into a very latest kingdom. Identical to a fairy tale — it inspires you to bounce your heart out, to be your best.’

Presenter Stacey Dooley - pictured here with partner Kevin Clifton at the Strictly 2019 final

Presenter Stacey Dooley – pictured here with partner Kevin Clifton on the Strictly 2019 final

The professionals take it much more seriously. Darren and his Ukrainian partner Marina have been dance partners for some time, but that is their ‘first Blackpool’. They’re hoping for first place within the Skilled Latin event — probably the most prestigious category.

Neither thought they’d make it here. Earlier this 12 months, Darren, an incredible strapping South African decorated with tattoos, was still recovering from double hip surgery that had left him in a wheelchair.

‘Each hips! I assumed it was over,’ he says. ‘I assumed I used to be done with competing.’

Then, just as he was finally recovering with the assistance of a Ukrainian doctor friend of Marina, the war broke out.

‘Dancing saved us. If she will be able to get through that, then the competition is the straightforward part,’ he says.

Kevin Clifton and Stacey Dooley. The couple got together following their season on Strictly Come Dancing in 2019, and are now expecting a baby together

Kevin Clifton and Stacey Dooley. The couple got together following their season on Strictly Come Dancing in 2019, and are actually expecting a baby together

With every dancer, the fervour is palpable. All of them appear to have had some sort of calling.

A necessity to bounce. To lose themselves in movement. ‘Once I hear the orchestra, it’s just butterflies inside. It’s something unbelievable. The vibrations pick you up and carry you across the ground,’ says Darren.

‘Once I’m dancing it’s exactly where I’m purported to be,’ adds Rebecca Scott, 24, who has been samba-ing since she was 4.

For her partner, 23-year-old Lloyd Perry, from Wales, dancing was inevitable.

His grandparents were skilled ballroom dancers. His parents run a dance school. His younger sister also competes. He had ‘no natural talent’ at football and didn’t wish to get his face tousled in rugby. He tried dancing when he was eight and that was that. He won his first major tournament when he was 10.

‘I’m not a shy person and a bit of little bit of attention goes a good distance with me. I wanted to bounce and I live for the competitions,’ he says.

Meanwhile, Lauren thinks she got it from her mum, a baton-twirler who competed for England. ‘She was really good!’

For Oskar it was more of a slow burner. While he never really fancied the actual dancing itself — ‘it looked a bit daunting’ — he loved the concept of doing the lifts.

Sadly, aged 13, he joined the unsuitable dance class and he was told there would never be any lifts but, regardless, has been hooked ever since. Now, every minute he isn’t working is devoted to dancing, training, weights, cardio and running.

‘It’s not too difficult to seek out a balance,’ he says. ‘I’m very organised.’

Even so, all have paid for his or her passion through the years.

Blackpool Tower Ballroom. In Blackpool’s Dance Fever, we see it all. Everything from the highly-polished chandeliers hanging from the ornate ceiling, to the crisp white dinner jackets of the Empress Orchestra

Blackpool Tower Ballroom. In Blackpool’s Dance Fever, we see all of it. Every little thing from the highly-polished chandeliers hanging from the ornate ceiling, to the crisp white dinner jackets of the Empress Orchestra

Not only with injuries — strains, sprains, ligament damage, ruined hips and, in Rebecca’s case, a broken nose when Lloyd by accident smashed her within the face together with his elbow (‘In fact we danced on!’ she laughs).

They’ve also sacrificed evenings, weekends, holidays, parties and time with friends and families.

On top of all that, lots of them were teased at college for his or her reasonably area of interest passion.

Lauren was called ‘orange’ for her competition-ready fake tan.

Lloyd was ribbed rotten by his schoolmates. Oskar has all the time felt the odd one out being considered one of the few black ballroom dancers in Britain.

But this can be a tight, friendly community where everyone knows everyone, support is powerful and, more importantly, Strictly has modified every little thing.

‘Suddenly individuals are way more interested,’ says Rebecca. ‘Going to ballroom dancing classes is now the primary social thing for couples to do together.’

This is a tight, friendly community where everyone knows everyone, support is strong and, more importantly, Strictly has changed everything

It is a tight, friendly community where everyone knows everyone, support is powerful and, more importantly, Strictly has modified every little thing

No wonder. In addition to strength, balance, mobility and suppleness, ballroom and Latin dancing may improve your cognitive abilities and mental agility.

Not that this lot have to worry about any of this. They’re elite athletes — young and lithe and exquisite and fit.

Which is a very good thing, since the commitment required is extraordinary. There’s little time left for anything aside from work or dancing. Lord knows how their partners cope. Everyone knows in regards to the ‘Strictly curse’.

Lauren’s long-term boyfriend Joe is a train engineer and may’t dance for toffee. ‘He’s got two left feet,’ she jokes. ‘He doesn’t find it irresistible, but he’s all the time been so supportive.’

Amateurs Lloyd, who runs a social media marketing company, and Rebecca, a dance teacher, have been dancing together since they were 13, despite living greater than two hours apart in Wales and Solihull. They’ve won just about every major tournament going, aside from Blackpool.

‘I do know her inside out. It just works,’ says Lloyd. ‘But a dancing partnership is sort of a marriage or any relationship: you may have to work hard at it to maintain it going.’

Rebecca says they’re telepathic: ‘I do know what he’s going to do before he does it! it comes from years of consistently having to maneuver in synchronisation.’

Amazingly, what with their training, competing, and day-time jobs, they’ve each found time for long-term partners, each of whom are ‘really understanding’.

Which isn’t all the time the way it pans out on Strictly — but perhaps truly committed dancers can tell the difference between physical proximity and lust.

It’s a really punchy competition calendar, with each contest preceded by weeks of last-minute rehearsing of 4, separate, perfect dances — the cha-cha-cha, the samba, the rumba and the paso doble.

Amateur dancer Lauren Claydon doesn’t have a dress sponsor, so gets hers second-hand. Often they are cast-offs from Strictly

Amateur dancer Lauren Claydon doesn’t have a dress sponsor, so gets hers second-hand. Often they’re cast-offs from Strictly

There’s also limitless primping and preening and, ideally, the sourcing of a latest dress, which may cost hundreds. (Lauren doesn’t have a dress sponsor, so gets hers second-hand. Often, just like the neon-yellow feather concoction she’s wearing on this contest, a cast-off from Strictly.)

So, in any case that, it may be very hard when, suddenly, you’re not called back for the following round and are left to observe from the sidelines, in all of your glittering finery.

‘That’s the worst part — you simply wish to keep dancing, but you’ll be able to’t,’ says Oskar. ‘It may well be very hard.’

I’m not going to inform you how all of them fared this 12 months. Should you’re eager to know, you’ll be able to look it up, but I wouldn’t.

Because this programme isn’t in regards to the winners and losers, it’s about a rare world of hard graft, sacrifice, blisters, joy, commitment and partnership — all driven by hope, love and dreams.

Oskar explains it well: ‘Walking out in Blackpool is like walking into a very latest kingdom. Identical to a fairy tale — it inspires you to bounce your heart out, to be your best.’

And if it doesn’t work out, it is going to presumably encourage you to dig deep, do one other thousand hours of coaching, and are available back again next 12 months.

Blackpool’s Dance Fever is on BBC1, Monday night at 8pm and is then on iPlayer.

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