Strictly Soviet – how communism created some of Russia’s greatest dancers

Bridget Kendall uncovers the struggles faced by some of Strictly Come Dancing's professional partners

When Gleb Savchenko, one of the new Russian dancers on Strictly Come Dancing, turned 13, his grandfather asked what he’d like for his birthday. “I said, ‘I want dance shoes’… And my grandfather said, ‘Don’t you want something a boy would want – a bicycle? A skateboard?’ But I wanted the shoes… So we went together and bought them, and I was really, really happy.”

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By this point, Gleb had been dancing for five years and was already addicted to ballroom. It was the 1990s – a grim time in Russia. Many people had no jobs or tiny salaries. Gleb’s dancing career was a family enterprise. His grandparents and uncle helped pay for lessons. His father drove him two hours across Moscow and back every day for training sessions. His mother sewed his costumes and told him to try harder when he came second in a competition.

A decade earlier, when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union, Strictly’s Kristina Rihanoff was also being groomed to excel. She was brought up in Vladivostok in the Far East. “In socialistic Russia all children were pushed. You were sort of faced with the ideology that you had to be the best, to deliver for your class, for your school, for your country.”

Gleb Savchenko with Anita Rani on Strictly Come Dancing

But dancing school was also fun. She enjoyed the sparkle and glamour of the competitions – an escape from the grey world around her. A little older than Gleb, she now recognises the limited horizons of her provincial Soviet childhood. “You don’t really understand, living under the Iron Curtain, as a child. You just accept things around you, you don’t really see… Now I understand everything foreign was acknowledged as propaganda.”

So they danced waltzes and foxtrots, but there was no samba from Brazil or Argentine tango. And the jive from America, that Cold War enemy, was off limits. To keep abreast of new steps, they would seek out videotapes of big competitions. Kristina studied them to memorise all the routines.

Marina Tarsinov, a former national champion, learnt to dance in another remote part of the USSR, Tajikistan. She recalls the excitement of getting a recording from that all-time mecca of ballroom – Blackpool. Even though it turned out the technician put the film in the wrong way round: “It was in black and white and had no sound. But we were so happy to see actual dancing, and to learn from this recording – the style, costumes, hair, dancing… Then we realised we’d learnt everything backwards because he put it in wrong.”

Kristina Rihanoff with Kevin Clifton on Strictly Come Dancing

It was a Blackpool couple who first helped give ballroom dancing respectability in the USSR. Until the 1950s the authorities opposed it as too foreign and reminiscent of the tsarist Russia they’d demolished. But, in 1957, Moscow hosted an international youth festival that brought in people from all over the world. Among them were the British European ballroom champions, Harry Smith-Hampshire and Doreen Casey, who performed their show dance to an audience in the Kremlin.

After that, ballroom dancing was on the list of approved amateur hobbies offered by local palaces of culture. Some Soviet officials still regarded it with suspicion. Leonid Pletnev, a veteran Soviet ballroom champion, recalls one competition held at night in secret, after it was banned by an official. “It was really a spy story, how we got to this palace of culture – sitting in the bus with curtains closed and then running inside… That was how far it could go… They called us ‘agents’, ‘agents of counterpropaganda'”.

Almost no dancers were allowed to travel abroad. It was when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 that everything changed. Now the new obstacle to travelling was money. Leonid Pletnev recalls driving all the way from Russia to Blackpool because he couldn’t afford the plane ticket. In Germany he worked as a dishwasher. In Norway he paid his dance teacher in kind, by doing odd jobs for him.

The post-Soviet era meant an exodus of some of Russia’s top talent. Marina Tarsinov and her husband, Taliat, now run one of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in New York. Kristina Rihanoff visits her mother in Vladivostok every summer but has no desire to return full-time. Gleb Savchenko’s career as both a dancer and model took him first to Latvia, then Hong Kong and New York; then professional dancer on the Australian and American versions of Strictly; and now London. He too has no plans to return to Russia.

So what of the next generation of Russian ballroom dancers? Will they be as dedicated and motivated? Kristina thinks her teenage nephews have a different mentality: “It’s much more relaxed and they are not driven, because they have much more than we had. Now you can get clips from YouTube, you can travel and you can get lessons from the best… But it takes a special person to push themselves.”

But Gleb believes plenty of young Russians are still hungry to escape to something better: “I’m sure there are people somewhere, in a small city, practising and dreaming to be out there and have a chance… And they are still watching the videos from Blackpool and trying to copy the routines. And that’s what they live for.”

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Strictly Russian is on BBC Radio 4, Saturday 12th December at 10.30am