By: Michael Hogan

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Arise, Judge Tony Beak. Seize that scoring paddle and shine. But does Thursday morning’s breaking news also mean that another member of the Strictly Come Dancing cast is set to move into the Glitterball-spinning spotlight? Could this finally be the year of fan favourite Nancy Xu?

There’s already much ballroom buzz about the announcement that Anton Du Beke will be joining the judging panel for Strictly’s 2021 series when it foxtrots onto our screens this autumn.

The move makes perfect sense. Due to the ongoing uncertainty about international travel, Italian stallion Bruno Tonioli – who usually jets back and forth between Strictly and US edition Dancing With The Stars – won’t want to risk being stranded on this side of the Atlantic when the better-paid gig is over in America.

Meanwhile, stalwart pro Anton proved a hit when he stepped in for self-isolating Motsi Mabuse during the last series. While sympathetic and supportive to the couples, he was attentive to technical detail, with an endearingly nerdy appreciation of arm placement and an infectious love of razzle-dazzle showmanship.

Strictly Come Dancing's Anton du Beke
Strictly Come Dancing's Anton du Beke BBC

For the past 17 years, Anton has been the beating heart of Strictly, so it warmed the cockles to watch him getting his dues and grinning like a lottery-winner.

His series-long appointment will help the balance of the panel, which now has a bona fide ballroom expert for the first time since dear old Len Goodman departed five years ago. Craig Revel Horwood’s background is in musical theatre (cue jazz hands and cries of “fab-ew-lous!”).

Bruno specialises in pop choreography, Motsi’s a Latin and freestyle girl, and twirly Shirley Ballas is, of course, 'The Queen of Latin'. As her regal counterpart, 'King Of Ballroom' Anton can keep an expert eye on fleckerls and chassés.

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It’s also good news for head judge Shirley, who won't live in constant fear of being thwacked by a flailing arm as Bruno gesticulates flamboyantly during his dance critiques, before falling off his chair. Anton will be a calmer, more gentlemanly neighbour – even if he is partial to a laboured dad-joke, followed by a sideways glance to camera.

His hop to the other side of the judging desk surely means that Anton has now hung up his Strictly spats for good. He’ll be 56 by the time the 2022 series comes around, with a whole 16 years on the second and third eldest pros Karen Hauer and Neil Jones (both 39).

He’s the second Strictly pro to have made a sideways shimmy this month. A fortnight ago, it was announced that Janette Manrara would be stepping down from dance duties to replace Zoe Ball on spin-off show It Takes Two. It’s a gig which should suit her sparky personality and high-wattage enthusiasm.

While both are popular members of the Strictly Come Dancing professionals line-up, many viewers won’t miss the pair dance-wise. Anton’s limitations, especially when it comes to Latin choreography, have become increasingly apparent in recent years. Sure, he’s often saddled with an unpromising partner but he tends to play routines for slapstick laughs, rather than teach them proper steps.

Janette has the opposite problem. The pocket rocket excels at Salsas and Sambas, less so at traditional ballroom styles. It’s lovely that she and Anton are remaining part of the Strictly family but their absence from the pro ranks should benefit for the overall standard of hoofing.

So how will producers now reshuffle the pro pack? Well, the current confirmed line-up is (deep breath): six males in Aljaž Škorjanec, Giovanni Pernice, Gorka Marquez, Graziano Di Prima, Johannes Radebe and Neil Jones; and eight females in Amy Dowden, Dianne Buswell, Karen Hauer, Katya Jones, Luba Mushtuk, Nadiya Bychkova, Oti Mabuse and Nancy Xu.

There’s a clear gender imbalance there, so expect to see at least one more male join the team in Anton’s absence. Hotly tipped for a call-up is Kai Widdrington, a pro on the Irish edition of Dancing with The Stars who's previously performed with Neil and Katya Jones.

As a strapping lad from Southampton, Widdrington ticks both the 'hunk' and 'British' boxes. With Anton, AJ Pritchard and Kevin Clifton all bowing out over the past 18 months, a home-grown replacement would be welcome.

Strictly Come Dancing Priscilla routine
BBC

That would make 15 pros – but how many celebrities will be taking their first tentative steps onto the dance floor? This is another variable. It was 12 in last year’s truncated series but it’s traditionally 15 – and producers prefer to have a pro or three spare as injury replacements. We could see several more new faces, then, even if Widdrington gets the nod.

We’ll likely get at least one, if not two, same-sex pairings this year – after the Nicola Adams/Katya Jones partnership was cruelly cut short by a positive COVID test last time – which adds another piece to the casting puzzle.

Frankly, all the maths and moving parts are enough to give us a migraine. One thing’s for sure, though, and that’s the growing demand for firecracker Nancy Xu to be given a shot on the main line-up.

She’s a Latin specialist (hence a like-for-like replacement for Janette). She’s often stolen the show during group numbers, where viewers’ eyes can’t help but be drawn to Nancy’s fiery moves, ripped physique and sheer charisma.

She does a spot of streetwear modelling in her spare time (yoof credibility klaxon!) and as the only Asian dancer in the line-up, would add diversity as well as glamour. She also happens to be a firm favourite here at RadioTimes.com.

After serving two series on the subs’ bench, it’s high time Nancy was promoted and given a celebrity partner – just like Neil when he was paired with Alex Scott two series ago.

Could 2021 be the year of fancy Nancy? Will Strictly fans be going to the Xu? We certainly hope so. Watch this sequin-spangled space.

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Strictly Come Dancing will return to BBC One later this year. While you’re waiting, visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.

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