Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Strictly taught me: cynicism's for losers

It's that miserable time again. All that remains of Christmas is a half eaten tin of Quality Street, and January looms bleakly ahead, as appealing as a long haul flight with an irritable bowel and a toddler in tow. But it's not so much the festive season that I'm in mourning for: no, more than the novelty Christmas jumpers, it's the sequins and spandex of Strictly I miss.

By now, Strictly Come Dancing has been brightening British living rooms for 12 consecutive years. Yet it's only in recent years that for me, the lure of the glitter ball finally took hold, and the glint of X Factor hopefuls' newly whitened teeth was replaced once and for all with that of Claudia Winkleman's shiny, shiny hair.

Dance is an art form which has long held the ability to transcend all kinds of social and cultural differences. The Argentine tango is one which purportedly first found life in the brothels of Buenos Aires. The dance floors of 60s Britain, sound-tracked by Northern Soul, was where the simmering discontent of youth found its first real outlet. This year, I've witnessed dance everywhere from on stage at London's Coliseum to the beach front of a remote Greek village.

In pop culture, dance has been depicted time and time again as a tool for self expression, release, the discard of youthful hang ups. In Dirty Dancing, where nobody puts her in the corner, Baby finds her wings in the form of self-identity and sexuality - and all thanks to those killer moves (plus Patrick Swayze's snake hips).

The dance that features on Strictly might appear a poor, mainstream substitute for the type that led seminal cultural movements or caused a young woman's sexual awakening, but its universal allure is still strong. Every year, the show is responsible for generating the few topics of conversation where I can engage just as enthusiastically my grandmother and my best friend.

It's not the jive or samba alone that generate Strictly's mass appeal, though. The over-arching element running through the entire 12 seasons has been that of pure, unadulterated fun. And in this age of cynicism, where snark is rewarded in retweets and generally rules supreme, Strictly Come Dancing is a refreshingly straightforward form of entertainment. It relies not on the sharpness of its wit, but instead the mere willingness of a group of celebrities to risk making fools of themselves.

In the most recent series, we watched the ever-wooden Judy Murray attempting to tango, Essex 'lad' Mark Wright's emoji-esque smile crumpling as he was overcome yet again with emotion, and Caroline Flack completing her transformation in the British public's consciousness from Harry Styles-preying cougar to ballroom belle. Judge Bruno Toniolli's language was as flowery and fabulous as ever, his use of simile quite unparalleled anywhere else on television, and Claudia Winkleman's deadpan style proved her a worthy replacement for Brucey.

As The X Factor's ratings decrease year on year, so Strictly's continue to rise; for while Simon Cowell's manufactured pop behemoth struggles to retain any relevance, Strictly never had any in the first place. Free from the limitations of appearing cool or attractive to a particular demographic, it continues to do what it does best: providing non-snide, consummate joy, with a liberal sprinkling of glitter and lashings of fake tan.

It's self aware, too, in a way that the majority of its prime time rivals could never manage. Interviewing the finalists at the close of this year's series, for instance, Zoe Ball found herself asking the contestants about that millennial buzzword, their 'journey'. While elsewhere this would have most likely prompted a tearful account of just how life-changing their few weeks spent on television had been, on this occasion, the sofa merely erupted into laughter.

When asked how much it would mean to win the competition, more often than not, Strictly contestants also concede that while it would be the icing on the most glitzy of cakes, they're just happy to have taken part. And for once, my typically cynical reflexes fail to engage. I believe them. Sure, it might have helped to revive the flailing careers of a fair few Z list actors, but you get the sense that more than anything else, they've simply had a ball.

In Alexei Sayle's recent Marxist demolition of Strictly in The Guardian, he described the talent show as promoting "the idea of simplicity over complexity, of popularity over talent, of banality over genuine invention because complexity encourages critical thought and critical thought is the enemy of authoritarianism." I'm all for a Marxist take down of most things, but on this occasion, I have to disagree. Any Strictly viewer can confirm that with Craig Revel-Horwood around, there's plenty of  room for critical thought. 

Ok, that's not exactly what Sayle's getting at. With its points-based scoring system,  it could be argued that Strictly does in fact encourage conformity, and reward those playing most carefully within the rules. But often, what makes the show most entertaining is those who don't play within these rules, or who simply fail to live up to them. In fact, most years, it's the celebrity with two left feet, proving that we can't all expect a ten from Len, who most ardently captures the public's attention. 

What Strictly lacks in revolutionary flair, it makes up for, in my eyes, in its celebration of fun and its disregard for the sneering critics most success stories can inevitably expect. Caroline Flack's triumph this year, the very day that headlines declaring her a cheat for a few years spent at stage school appeared, was proof that cynicism really is for losers.

This article originally appeared in Gander Magazine, and can be found here