The pandemic put paid to the hugely popular Strictly Professionals tour for the last couple of years. But now it’s back and the 10 tip-top dancers are ticking off the days until the Blackpool show.
Karen Hauer, 39, is a Strictly veteran having joined the show in 2012 and is the longest serving female professional. The last Strictly pro tour was in 2019 – ‘and it was exceptional,’ she says.
So what made it so special? “You’re surrounded by the best dancers in the world, people who are part of the Strictly family who you’ve danced with for a long time and with whom you have a deep-rooted bond.”
She won’t single out a particular dance she likes best. ‘When you have a director and choreographer as gifted as Jason Gilkison (Strictly’s Creative Director) the whole two-hour show is a treat. On Strictly, you only see a percentage of what we can do. On the tour, to be able to do complete dance routines live is electrifying.”
Karen is already match-fit, though, having just completed a tour with, Gorka Marquez. 31. Even so, he’s been spending time in the gym building up his strength. ‘The men have to do all the lifts so you have to be in good shape for that.
Gorka lives with his actress fiancée, Gemma Atkinson – they met on Strictly – and their daughter, Mia, three in July. He said: “I’ll be able to sleep in my own bed some days, when we’re in Manchester, for instance, but Gemma will bring Mia to see me on other occasions. She likes to see Daddy dancing.”
This will be 32-year-old, Luba Mushtuk’s, first pro tour. “I have performed on the Live Tour,’ she says, ‘although that was quite different as it is more of the TV show format. I can’t wait to transport audiences into my world.”
This will also be Kai Widdrington’s first pro tour. ‘I remember sitting in the audience at the Eventim Apollo in London three years ago really wanting to be a part of it one day.’
Says Kai, 26: “I love dancing with celebrities but we only get a couple of minutes to show what we’re capable of each Saturday on the TV show. On this tour, and in the best possible way, we can show off. And the adrenalin you get from a live audience gives you that extra ingredient.”
Back in the day, he almost signed with Southampton Football Club but chose dancing instead. ‘I loved Elvis and Michael Jackson. I loved the way music made me feel when I was dancing. In the end, it was a no-brainer. And then I ended up on Strictly. It’s changed my life.’
Katya Jones, 32, is champing at the bit, she says, to get on the tour. “On the TV show, the challenge is to take famous beginners and teach them how to dance. On this tour, it’s purely professionals which means we can achieve a different level of performance: two hours of fantastic dancing, wall-to-wall energy.
“And I love the interaction with the audience. That energy flows in both directions. It’s hugely exhilarating.
“We finish the show and it really feels like we’ve made the world a better place. If I’ve made just one person happier, that’s my job done. I always say, it’s not about what you do; it’s about the feeling you leave people with. And, if my muscles ache at the end, I know I’ve given my all.”
This will also be the second pro tour for, Nadiya Bychkova, 32. She said “I loved being able to show what we can really do as professional dancers. It was an amazing experience last time and I feel so ready to go even further for this tour.”
She keeps herself fit all the time. “This is my job. This is what I do. I’m not too fond of the gym but I love to hike and walk.”
And her favourite dance? "Definitely the rumba. It’s the most difficult, the most dramatic, the most rewarding,” she added.
“It’s such a pleasure to dance with fellow professionals for all our fans. It means so much to bring joy to people after the turmoil of the last couple of years.”
Seasoned Strictly veteran, Neil Jones, 39, agrees. “The pro tour takes us back to what we used to do. The audience gets to understand who the individual professionals really are and what they’re capable of.
“The group numbers, the solo routines are out of this world. Personally, my favourites are the paso doble and the jive, the drama of one, the energy of the other.
“’ve always taken care of my body. I’m always stretching. I have regular sessions with my physio so, if anything goes wrong – I tore my calf muscle, for instance, during the 2019 run of Strictly – it heals very quickly.
“I was back dancing after two weeks rather than the eight predicted. I like to keep going. And, after two years isolated in my flat, I can’t wait to get in front of a live audience again.”
Graziano Di Prima, 27, is equally enthusiastic but this will be his very first pro tour. He said: “On the Strictly Live Tour, you feel a bit like a rock star. I can’t describe the noise that thousands of people make. This one, though, is going to be much more up close and personal. I can’t wait.”
Dianne Buswell, 32, could tell Graziano what makes the pro tour special. “There’s nothing to beat showing people what we’ve grown up doing all our lives.
“There’s something very particular when a professional dances with a fellow professional. Magic happens. It’s a real firecracker on stage, one of the best things I’ve ever done. And it never feels like hard work because it’s so joyful. Everyone watching feels like they’ve come on a journey with you.
“One of the reasons I dance is to escape from everyday struggles. It’s a double whammy if I can give back some of that to people watching me perform.’
Will one of those be boyfriend Joe Sugg who she originally met on Strictly? “Absolutely. He’s my Number One fan! And my parents, Mark and Rina, are going to fly over from Perth to see the show. I’ve got itchy feet waiting for it to begin.”
For Strictly newbie, Cameron Lombard, 21, each experience is another first. He eplained: “I joined the Strictly family last June when I moved to London. I’ve no real idea what the pro tour is going to be like.’
“But all the other dancers say that it is one of their favourite things in the Strictly calendar. I’ve been hiking up the mountains above Cape Town in preparation and doing a bit of kick-boxing, too. I’m raring to go.”
Last word from Karen Hauer. “There’s enough bad news in the world today,’ she says. ‘How nice to welcome the public into a happy bubble, to spread a little sunshine and offer two hours of unapologetic escapism.”