When Len Goodman stepped down from Strictly Come Dancing to spend more time with his pickled walnuts, he left a huge hole in the judging panel. Who could ever replace him? Who could ever bellow out “se-VEN!” in quite the same way? But, of course, someone had to take on the job – and dancing into the room came Shirley Ballas.
Quite literally, she danced into the room. Strictly’s new Head Judge made her first Strictly appearance on Saturday night’s launch show, and even though she retired from dancing back in the 90s, she still has the moves – as the “Queen of Latin” proved during the opening number.
First impressions count, and Shirley made a good one.
Then it was time for her to take a seat in Len’s old chair – and she seemed entirely at ease sitting between Darcey and Bruno. She even asserted her authority as Head Judge by taking over Bruno’s role as gesticulator-in-chief, reducing him to kissing her arm in admiration. A woman after his own heart?
So, what is Shirley Ballas like? She seems tough and no-nonsense. She promises to be a stickler for footwork and technique, and she knows what she wants. She says she will be firm but fair, giving honest feedback without being nasty.
If anyone knows what she’s like it would be one of her former students, and Joanne Clifton reckons Shirley will be “tougher than Len” – but “not quite as nasty as Craig”. Celebrities, consider yourself warned.
What remains to be seen is whether Shirley has a sense of humour. That was a huge part of Len’s appeal: his creative insults and compliments, his banter with the rest of the judges. Will Shirley make us laugh? Will she have chemistry with Darcey, Craig and Bruno? Hopefully they take her out to the pub so they can all loosen up around each other and bond a bit.
The Strictly Come Dancing judges (Getty)
The launch show was only a sneak peek at Shirley as Head Judge, but what it revealed was promising. She’ll return with her number paddles on 23rd September, and that’s when we will see whether she lives up to her claim that she’s stricter than Craig. When he gets out his 2 paddle, will she whip out a 1?
When Len retired, the job of Strictly Head Judge became the most desirable vacancy in showbiz (leaving Anton du Beke and Brendan Cole salivating at the idea). But it was also a major risk for whoever was chosen to sit in Len’s chair, because they would be judged against the man who filled the seat before them.
When the BBC chose Shirley it was a major surprise: here was a hugely accomplished dancer who was totally unfamiliar to most UK fans sitting at home. But it also seems to have been a clever move.
Shirley Ballas won’t be another Len Goodman (although she does bear a striking resemblance to another Strictly ex-judge: Arlene Phillips).
But she will be herself – and what she brings to the show is this huge experience in the dance world, this tough attitude and also a clear joy in what she does. She will carve her own judging style and bring her own personality to the panel.
Will Shirley make a success of Strictly? We will find out when the show returns in a couple of weeks – but the signs are very good indeed.
Strictly Come Dancing returns on Saturday 23rd September