“My girlfriend doesn’t get jealous. I dance with Lesley Joseph and Anne Widdecombe, so I don’t think she’s uncomfortable with it.” With a new series of Strictly Come Dancing launching this Friday, Annie Ridout catches up with Anton Du Beke, the nation’s favourite dancer…
This article was first published on The Early Hour in 2016.
The 14th series of Strictly Come Dancing launches this Friday, at 9pm. Anton Du Beke, 50, has featured in every series to date; leading the likes of Anne Widdecombe, Jerry Hall, Patsy Palmer and – this year – Lesley Joseph around the dance floor. In anticipation of the new series, we talk school (which he didn’t like), sports and dance (which he loved), his highly academic girlfriend, the Strictly Come Dancing judges and what advice he’d give to other young men looking to break in to professional dancing…
“I was raised in Kent by a Hungarian father and a Spanish mother. I have a sister who’s just a bit younger than me, and a brother who’s 10 years younger. It was an interesting childhood because my parents both worked; two jobs each, at times – mum in an old people’s home as a nurse, my father as a waiter, then working with aircraft components.
Our family was different to normal English families because with both my parents being foreign, there was no English influence. In some ways, it was harder that they weren’t from the same country, as it meant their mother tongue was difference, so our house language was English. I spoke Spanish and Hungarian as a child but not much and so I lost it. I can’t speak either much at all now, which is a shame.
Mine wasn’t a particularly musical family, nor were my parents performers. My father was born in Hungary during the communist regime – so music was all classically-based. Russian influenced, I suppose. And my mother’s tastes had a more Mediterranean feel.
Strictly Come Dancing star Anton Du Beke on becoming a dancer
I got in to dancing just by chance, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I popped along to a local dance school, liked it, and decided it was for me. There were lots of girls there, which was always interesting. But mainly, it was the fact that ballroom was competitive. I was sporty growing up – so that appealed to me. I enjoyed dancing with a partner but it was about the competition, not the romance; the sense of achievement you get from it.
I don’t remember there being any fuss about me getting into ballroom dancing from my peers. I started quite late into my schooling, practicing just once a week in the early days. I used to get more stick down the golf club. I was known for being good at sports, at football and cricket – not so much rugby, though; I’m not built for that.
MY GIRLFRIEND HANNAH IS HIGHLY ACADEMIC. SHE WENT TO UNIVERSITY AND SHE’S INCREDIBLY BRIGHT AND INTELLIGENT, WHILE I’M THE POLAR OPPOSITE: CREATIVE, PHYSICAL
I wasn’t the most academically gifted. For me, school came a bit too early – the learning. I enjoyed studying more when I left school. I was much more into dancing and sports in those days. It’s funny, because my girlfriend Hannah is highly academic. She went to university and she’s incredibly bright and intelligent, while I’m the polar opposite: creative, physical. So I think when I was young, school lessons didn’t grab me. I was perfectly willing to learn; and not a skiver – just disinterested.
I went to a comprehensive school and the way they taught didn’t appeal to me. They needed to find a better way, rather than just not bothering with people like me who learn differently. I’m not an unintelligent man. But to have gone through school as I did… I slipped through the net.
I was never one for homework, I wanted to go out and play sport. One of Hannah’s friends has a son who’s just started school. It’s a very good one – and they do an hour of homework in the morning before starting their lessons. For me, that would have been perfect; it would have been great if they’d kept me behind or got me in earlier. I couldn’t motivate myself when I was at home, alone.
My parents were working so they just put trust in the school system. They weren’t strict when it came to my education, as they didn’t really understand the English system. I’d get home from school and they weren’t there. It was a time when you got yourself to and home from school.
But what they did give me is an incredible work ethic – my mum never had a day off work sick in her life. Mum still says to me now: just keep working.
Becoming a ballroom dancer
With ballroom, when you’re young, you have classes once a week at dance school and then start competitions. At this stage, you find a partner and together, you leave dance school and instead have lessons with coaches. You go and practice every day – the two of you. Together, you have as many lessons as you can afford during week then do competitions at the weekend.
With competing, you start by going round the UK then when you reach a higher level, you compete globally – at the Dutch open, the German open. It’s a bit like with golfing; they’re big events. Dancing is the same. The better you get, more you evolve.
PEOPLE SAY I’M PARTNERED WITH THE LESS EXPERIENCED DANCERS BUT THEY’RE ALL SUPPOSED TO BE INEXPERIENCED – THAT’S THE BEAUTY OF THE SHOW
There isn’t much money in it initially, so I did shows and teaching. In those days, dancing wasn’t on the telly – you weren’t a personality in any way. But Strictly Come Dancing has come along and the whole landscape has shifted. I haven’t competed since starting Strictly 15 years ago. It has brought an audience to ballroom, and to Latin American dancing.
Every year, Erin [Boag, also on Strictly Come Dancing] and I tour around the UK – doing musical theatre and ballroom. The popularity of Strictly has brought an audience to dance – people want to see it. So I go and tour. Brendan [Cole] has a show – Flavia [Cacace, ex- Strictly Come Dancing] has a tango show. The new audience is the best thing.
Strictly Come Dancing was really my breakthrough, when it comes to performing. It came about because the BBC were making a show and needed professionals so we went and did screen tests. In the first series, there were only eight of us, including Erin, Brendan and me. Brendan and I have been going ever since, wonderfully.
Ann Widdecombe and Anton Du Beke – Strictly Come Dancing 2010, Week 2 – BBC One
When I’m on Strictly, I work a six day week. There’s the rehearsing Monday-Friday, then on Saturday we have the show. And Sunday is a day off. By that point, my dance partner needs a day off; a day away from me! Then it’s back to it on Monday.
MY ADVICE TO ANOTHER YOUNG MAN, HOPING TO BE A PROFESSIONAL DANCER… IF ANYONE TAKES THE MICKEY – TELL ‘EM TO BUGGER OFF
People say I’m partnered with the less experienced dancers but they’re all supposed to be inexperienced – that’s the beauty of the show. But I’m always lucky that the ladies are such incredible personalities – I have a great time with them. I was just literally speaking to Anne Widdecombe a minute ago; she’s on great form. These are people you wouldn’t have shared a life experience with outside of the show. And now you’re firm friends.
There aren’t any I’ve clicked with more than others; they’re all lovely and I’m not just saying that – they’re genuinely lovely. Every time, I’m hoping they enjoy it. And they’ll do as well as they can do – as you’ve only got a week to practice. I like a tryer – if they don’t try, I get a bit grumpy. My feeling is, if you don’t care – why should your audience? If you’re trying your best, the audience will give you a fair shout. That’s the Strictly audience.
I’ve found all my partners, so far, amazingly easy to dance with. Though, that said, there are varying levels of easiness. It does depend a little on how close I can get to them, or how long I need to keep them off the ground. But they’re all beginners. You adjust according to person you’re dancing with.
My girlfriend doesn’t get jealous. I dance with Lesley Joseph and Anne Widdecombe, so I don’t think she’s uncomfortable with it. And she loves the show. She comes every week and thinks it’s great. I say: should we let someone else come? And she says NO. It’s easy to forget what your partner does professionally so she comes to see me perform and it’s a reminder that I’m actually quite good at something.
I love all the judges but I’ve known Lenny [Len Goodman] the longest – he’s an old friend, a dear friend – but I love the other guys as well. I think we’ve got a great panel. Though, of course, they’re terribly unfair to me and my partners – every week, it’s too low, too harsh – they always give us the wrong marks.
My advice to another young man, hoping to be a professional dancer would be: don’t do just one style of dancing until you’re at the stage to specialise. Have fun with it, and if anyone takes the mickey – tell ‘em to bugger off. Just enjoy it; there’s no better place to be than in dance studio, with that camaraderie. It’s the best place in the world.
I started out doing ballroom and Latin American then in my competing years, I dropped Latin American. I also did classical and contemporary but I wish I’d done more of everything – ‘cause I love it all. I love tap dancing. I wish I’d done it growing up, but I didn’t – so I’m not very good at it. With ballroom dancing, you have blinkers on, you’re constantly going on to the next competition.
At performing arts school, you do everything. If you want to be in musical theatre, a commercial dancer – you have to go to performing arts school, really. I say: don’t just think you’re an actor – be a triple threat (dance, act, sing). But if you want to be a ballroom dancer, you’ll do lessons and be really specific. Or to be a classical dancer, you’ll need to go to classical dance school.
But if you can, if you choose to go down that road, do other stuff as well – extracurricular. If you’re going to be a performer as opposed to competing, you need those strings to your bow. You don’t want to go to an audition and not being able to do the dance – you’ll lose jobs. With competitions, you’re judged as a couple.
As for future career goals, I want to carry on doing what I’m doing. More shows, I still love performing – getting out in front of an audience, it’s what I live for. It’s the whole point of it. I love doing Strictly, so hope that continues for many years to come and that a I’m part of it.”