THERE is a twinkle in the bright blue eyes of Ed Balls, politician turned Strictly sensation, as he discusses who might follow in his dancing footsteps from Westminster or Holyrood.
“Ruth would be brilliant, don’t you think?” he deadpans. “She came down to the show and seemed very up for it. Kez would be amazing. And Nicola, of course, would smash it. What a dance-off that would be. I wouldn’t recommend any of them did it while in office, of course, but they should all do it one day …”
It’s a little surreal, discussing the potential or otherwise of Scottish political leading lights Davidson, Dugdale and Sturgeon on the dancefloor with Ed Balls in the midst of the Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour rehearsals, just before the show rolls into Glasgow (it’s at the Hydro tonight and tomorrow). But surreal is what Balls is all about these days.
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His website describes him as "Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, Visiting Professor to the Policy Institute at King’s College London, Norwich City FC Chairman and contestant on Strictly Come Dancing 2016". He is stopped in the street by people who want to talk to him about dancing and children do impressions of his Gangnam Style routine.
“Now, that is weird, isn’t it?” he says. He shakes his head. “I remember being in my school playground in the 1970s, doing impersonations of Jimmy Hill and the Two Ronnies, and now kids are doing an Ed? That’s hilarious.”
Who could possibly have foreseen the way TV viewers would take the former Shadow Chancellor and Labour MP for Morley and Outwood to their hearts, keeping him on the Saturday-night dancing show week after week, as he valiantly fought to learn cha-cha after Charleston after cheeky chappie jive?
“Well, it was fabulous, wasn’t it?” he laughs, taking a break from practising his signature pony jump move with professional partner Katya Jones. “Strictly is a wonderful show because everyone loves it – from kids to grandparents. Whether you support Celtic or Rangers, Villa or West Brom, you can enjoy Strictly. It brings people together.”
He frowns. “I think it’s a shame, though, when people say, 'Oh, we knew you were a politician, we just didn’t realise you were a human being too.' That’s harsh – politicians are human, with families and real lives, trying to do their best.”
Dancing was never on Balls’s radar; his wife, fellow Labour MP Yvette Cooper, was much more fond of it than he was, he says. “Yvette did ballet and tap when she was younger and she has always liked to dance at parties and conferences – we’ve just had our 19th wedding anniversary,” he explains. "We’ve taken a few lessons. I think we’ll keep it up after the tour.”
But while Balls was perhaps supposed to be the token bad dancer on the show, he was never as terrible as, for example, previous disasters Ann Widdecombe and John Sergeant. “I was partnered with a winner,” he says, smiling. “Katya didn’t want to do all the work and leave me standing still. We tried to put the content in and we tried to get it right.
“Yes, there was a bit of pantomime, and Craig [Revel Horwood, the "nasty" judge] was a bit harsh but Len would commend us for our content, and that meant a lot.”
He admits the reaction to his time on Strictly has taken him by surprise. “As a politician, when people come up to you on the street, you are never really sure if they are going to say they voted for you or they can’t stand you,” he says. “Suddenly being able to make people smile has been warm and unexpected. And I get to go on tour around the country and perform in huge arenas. I mean, Paul McCartney performs in packed arenas, but me? What on earth is going on?”
He is not planning a return to politics any time soon. “If I’d wanted to get back in, would I be dancing around in a yellow jacket with a green face or pretending to be a male model?” he laughs. “No, for the first time in my life I have no career plan and I’m learning to enjoy it.”
Balls will perform in Glasgow alongside five other celebrities – series winner, sports presenter Ore Oduba; singer Louise Redknapp; actors Lesley Joseph and Danny Mac; and model Daisy Lowe.
With the exception of Joseph, who has filming commitments, they are rehearsing in a music and arts venue and studio space in Camden in London and the atmosphere is buzzing.
Staff going about their day jobs seem unfazed by the constant activity – backing dancers go over their steps relentlessly in the foyer ("one, TWO, three, four and TURN …"), the professionals eat carrot-and-coriander soup and do impossible stretches in the cafe, and costume fitters flit in and out of mysterious back rooms in a flurry of floaty feathers and sparkly sequins.
There’s Lowe, a vision in black lace and Doc Martens, trademark smile at full dazzle; Mac, earnestly discussing his "journey" and his perfect-scoring samba; and lovely Redknapp, concentrating hard as her partner swishes her around the practice studio.
Model and actress Lowe lost out in the dance off to Balls in week eight of the 2016 series – a casualty, perhaps, of not being quite as well known to the Strictly fan base as some of the other celebrities. She is relishing the chance to do the tour. “I’m just really, really glad to get the opportunity to dance every day again,” she says, fervently.
It’s a surprise to learn that Lowe, so elegant on the catwalks and so dazzling on the dancefloor – that beautiful waltz! That cheeky Charleston! – lived in terror of messing up on Strictly every single week. “Oh God, yes,” she groans, rolling her eyes. “I’m really clumsy, not elegant at all. I mean – what do I do? I walk on catwalks, one foot in front of the other. Dancing – on television, in front of people – made me so scared I would fall over I could hardly speak before I went on.
“I was so far out of my comfort zone. But I think, thanks to my partner Aljaz, I finally got it – that there is absolutely no point in doing it, if you’re not going to do it with a bit of confidence.”
She pauses. “It’s funny, but I did Men’s London Fashion Week recently and as I was walking down the catwalk, suddenly, I thought, 'Hell yeah, I can do this. I can strut.' I didn’t feel like that before Strictly.”
As Lowe departs, swapping her boots for a pair of strappy peach satin heels and hitting the dancefloor, Redknapp arrives, grabbing a seat and a bottle of water at the end of her practice session. Of all the celebrities taking part in the 2016 series, Redknapp was the one who found it hardest to "let go" and enjoy herself – despite being hailed as a brilliant dancer from the beginning.
“I did love it, much more than I thought I would, but I suppose I was nervous about putting myself out there in such a public way,” she explains, slowly. “I’m quite a private person, so I really wasn’t sure how it would go. I didn’t want to look stupid, you know? But it was amazing – and the reaction was so wonderful.
“Especially from other mums – lots of women came up to tell me, 'Well done for doing it.' Maybe a little bit of you can get lost when you become a mum, because your family becomes more important. I loved that so many women understood that.”
Considering this is the 10th anniversary of the live show, with more group dances to learn on top of individual routines, everyone seems very relaxed.
“Everyone is really looking forward to it,” agrees Revel Horwood. Much friendlier and funnier than his on-screen Mr Nasty persona might imply, he is flitting between costume room, cafe and studios to speak to the dancers, stage crews and PR people milling about inside the venue. “There will be more group dances, we’re bringing the singers out more, more music, more fun – we’re really going to town.”
The tour will be head judge Len Goodman’s last as he announced last year he was retiring from the TV show. Former Strictly champ, award-winning dancer and choreographer Karen Hardy is joining Goodman and Revel Horwood on the tour, prompting speculation she may be in the running for the TV job.
“Hmm, yes, she’s very mouthy, isn’t she?” says Revel Horwood, frowning. “We’ll have to tone her down a bit." He adds, firmly: “I have no idea who will replace Len. As long as he or she is a ballroom and Latin expert and can get a point across succinctly in 10 seconds or less, I’ll be happy. It’s harder than you might think. Everyone who has tried it has failed initially.
“Why has Strictly survived? Because there is no malice in it. And you’re watching people learn a skill they will have for life.”
Oduba, who won the 2016 series with his partner Joanne Clifton, is adjusting to life with a new partner (Joanne’s sister-in-law, Karen). “Joanne is off touring the country in Thoroughly Modern Millie and she is happy, which is great,” says Oduba. “It’s great with Karen. Like on the TV show, I have learned very quickly just to do what the Clifton says.”
Like his fellow competitors, he is genuinely taken aback by the reaction from fans, but says he is managing to stay "pretty grounded" by it all. “I was at an event in Birmingham recently and the organisers told us to wait a bit before we left because a few people had turned up to see us,” he explains. “I thought maybe 10, 15 – we looked out the window and there must have been 200 people.”
He grimaces. “We needed security to escort us back to our hotel eventually. That’s very, very strange. You’re not really prepared for that kind of thing when you sign up. But the thing is, it’s lovely while it lasts. I know that it all ends next year, when there is a new series, a new batch of celebrities, and nobody remembers us lot at all.
“Doing the tour is a way of prolonging the Strictly magic for a little bit longer …”
The 2017 Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour is at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow until tomorrow. Visit strictlycomedancinglive.com