As I get ready to speak to Strictly Come Dancing’s head judge Shirley Ballas, I begin to feel the familiar pang of nervous energy before interviewing someone who can only be described as a total success-story-turned-household-name. After all, her impressive professional dance career spans over 35 years and Shirley remains the youngest ever female to reach the British Open To The World dance championships final. Tap and ballet were her forté in her early years, but it wasn’t until she had a peek at a local church hall dance class – which she later found out were learning the chacha- cha – that she discovered her passion truly lied with ballroom and Latin. In the first few minutes of our chat, my apprehension is fading into the background, as Shirley is nothing but warm, genuine and humble. Zooming me from her mother’s house (who’ll be turning 84 when we speak), she talks about Strictly returning to our screens, when she’s most herself and the power in being vulnerable.
What’s your morning routine when you’re filming strictly?
“I get up at around 5:30-6am and I have my eight-ounce glass of water. I don’t need to do my hair and make-up because that’s done when I get to the studio, so I just need to have a quick shower. I try to do at least 45 minutes on my Peloton bike too.”
Why is it so important for you to stay regularly active?
“[Exercise] puts me in a better place, mentally. I’ve always liked yoga and running, and when I invested in my Peloton, it was a great way to connect with my son, Mark [professional ballroom dancer on Dancing with the Stars] who lives in California. I love it because you can do 15 or 90 minutes, depending on how much time you’ve got, and the trainers are so motivating.”
Can you share your earliest memories of dance?
“I was in my Guides group in the church hall and I was doing CPR on a dummy when I could hear this amazing music coming from the next room. I trundled along and pulled myself up to look through this round piece of glass in the door and I could see some adults dancing. I used to do ballet and tap, but somehow ballroom and Latin overtook everything in my life and those are my earliest memories of the music finding me, rather than the other way around.”
Do you have any advice for someone who might be nervous to give dancing a go?
“I don’t think anyone should be nervous about going along to their local dance studio. It’s not all about learning how to dance, you make life-long friends; there are competitions you can go to; it’s good for your health. That’s why I think Strictly is the perfect avenue – you can follow the contestants’ journeys and they do it over the course of an intensive three months. The general public can take their time though and go with friends or even learn to dance together as a family. Anyone can learn the basic steps!”
What are your non-negotiables for a healthy lifestyle?
“If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to do a 10-minute meditation just to calm me in the middle of the day. Some kind of daily exercise or movement is good too – you don’t even need any equipment, just put on a piece of music and move. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s OK to take a step back sometimes. For example, I’ve been at my mother’s this week, but rather than beating myself up, I’ll say, ‘OK, when I get back to my normal routine, I’ll make sure that it’s part of my schedule’. Healthy choices and things that make you feel good are so important.”
You seem to have a great bond with your mum. What do your loved ones mean to you?
“I’d rather have friends and family over any form of possessions. My mother is my rock and not a day goes by unless we talk. She’s taught me everything about work ethic, she’s helped raise my son and she’s been there every single day. My girlfriends, Karen Hilton MBE and Terrie Martin, my son, my management team and Danny [West End actor and Shirley’s boyfriend] all have my back and I feel like I can trust them, which is hard to come by these days.”
Would you say you’ve struggled to show your vulnerable side in the past?
“For sure. When I got the job [on Strictly], they told me that I was going to have to let my guard down in order to let the general public in, which has been a very difficult thing to do. I come from an industry that has a lot of bullies and Twitter, I find, is the worst for that kind of thing. I think generally people don’t want to be mean; a lot of the time they’re lashing out in the moment because their favourite person is voted off. I give people three chances to turn around, but I’m not frightened to repost someone’s handle if they’re being really mean.”
Tell us what excites you about this year’s line up?
“I love the contestants’ storylines and following them on their journeys. You’ve got Rose Ayling-Ellis, AJ Odudu, Greg Wise – they’re all personalities, so it’s going to be really interesting. I love the glitz and the glamour; I love the fact that Dan Walker is about six foot six and will be wearing sequins. Will it be a man or a woman to take the title? I certainly can’t tell from the launch show.”
Who would you say surprised you the most last season?
“When Bill Bailey came out in his gold trousers and did the cha-cha-cha, I thought I’m not sure about this, but he went on to win the show. I adored him and I was so glad that someone over 50 won. It’s not just about talent, it’s about work ethic, so anyone can do it, you just need a little bit of technique, lots of musicality and the ability to follow your teacher.”
What makes you feel confident?
“I’ve learned to be confident without makeup after being with Danny, but at the end of the day, Strictly is a stage show so you have to have your hair done because you’re going out to millions of people and that’s nothing new for me. My stylist, Alexandria Reid, is just unbelievable. I went for a pant suit, rather than a dress, for the launch show this year because you’ve got to think about how it’s going to sit behind the desk, not just when you walk down the stairs. I like both – I like the stripped down and the glam look.”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“I wish I had the knowledge to handle the bullies that I have now. To anybody out there who’s experienced being bullied, as long as you know who you are as a person, the issue is theirs, not yours. When you’re younger, you tend to worry about a lot of things, but I’d say just go forth in life and enjoy every single minute, because it goes so fast.”
I’m most me when…
“I’m discovering a lot about myself when I’m just with my boyfriend. He doesn’t judge and you can just share everything.” My most memorable
Strictly moment was…
“Ann Widdecombe dancing with Anton du Beke when she wore a yellow costume and did a bum spin. She performed week in, week out, faced all the criticisms and just got on with it.”
The last year has made me grateful for…
“Danny, Charlie (my dog) and Karen. During lockdown, Karen and I did our walks together every day and she takes care of Charlie for me when my schedule gets really busy. I got to know Danny a lot better too and we had time together that we never would have normally.”