“Well, I went for a screen test and I guess they recognised my talent,” says Shirley Ballas chirpily in response to being asked why the BBC chose her to be the new head judge on Strictly Come Dancing. But having been Latin American champion ten times in the USA, three times in the “British Open to the World” championships, plus European and German Latin champion, the 57-year-old clearly has the credentials.
And Ballas couldn’t be happier about stepping into Len Goodman’s shoes when Strictly returns this week. “It’s becoming more real by the minute and I can’t wait,” she says.
Ballas was born Shirley Rich in Leasowe on the Wirral in 1960, and started going to ballet classes at three years old. Aged seven, having been to a meeting of the Girl Guides in the local church hall, she heard music coming from one of the adjoining rooms.
“The door had a little round window, so I pulled myself up and I saw a beautiful group of people cha-cha-cha-ing. I fell in love straight away. They can’t have been that good, but I thought it was like watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly!
“I knocked on the door politely and walked in, and the gentleman told me they were starting children’s ballroom classes that Saturday, and my mum agreed that I could go. I had to walk about a mile and a half to get there, but I never missed a single class, sunshine or hail.
“I’m now 57, and – except for a few months when I gave birth to my son Mark – I’ve never taken a break.”
Having worked in the industry all her life, Shirley has inevitably encountered a couple of the Strictly judges already. “I’ve known Bruno Tonioli for over ten years, he’s a good friend, and I’m looking forward to all his antics! I’ve met Craig Revel Horwood several times, and I sat alongside him at my screen test, so I kind of know what to expect. Darcy Bussell and I haven’t had a chance to get to know each other yet, but I can’t wait.”
As the new head judge, how does she feel about having to keep Bruno and Craig in check? “Oh, keeping those boys under control will be a piece of cake! And Darcy will be the one keeping me under control, I’m sure! It will be a lot of fun – very serious in parts, because I’m going to be a strict, firm, but extremely fair judge – but I can’t wait to see what this year’s celebrities have in store for us.”
On the next page: Shirley reveals her most important moments on the dancefloor