Ashley Banjo has taken on two new roles of late: judge on ITV’s ‘Dancing on Ice’ and choreographer-turned-matchmaker on Channel 4’s ‘Flirty Dancing’. But first and foremost, he’ll always identify as a dancer – and says it helps him work through life’s stresses.
“When I’m performing, it’s kind of otherworldly, you forget where you are for a minute,” he says. “You can be going through the worst day, or have something on your mind – telling yourself ‘get over it’, ‘don’t be angry’ – but when you’re dancing, you’re almost forced to shut it out.
“It’s like you enter a different mind space, almost. You go out of the adult, conscious brain and you enter this primal, subconscious state.”
Banjo found fame in 2009 at just 21 when the dance troupe he created, Diversity, won the third series of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. He’s since had a steady stream of presenting gigs plus sell-out arena tours with the troupe, but says dancing back in his Essex studio, alongside friends and family, helps him handle the pressure.
“It’s very judgmental and it’s quite superficial, that world of celebrity, fame and doing things in television,” he says. “But there’s something about movement and dance and music – it’s got the power to lift your mood in the way that nothing else has.”
He even credits time in the studio with keeping him tee-total: “I don’t drink or anything and when people say: ‘Really, how do you not?’ I think it’s because of my dancing.”
Dance also helped Banjo process the death of his nan, who died from cancer in 2015 just before he was set to go on Diversity’s ‘Up Close And Personal’ tour. He choreographed a routine in her memory and spoke about her death on stage, alongside his brother, Jordan, who’s also part of the troupe.
“It was a way to honour her memory, but it ended up being a bit of therapy really,” he says. “For every night of 50 or 60 shows, we got to dance it and by the end we felt 100 times better about it and like we’d told people. To this day, I feel like it really helped me to deal with it all.”
While the good outweighs the bad, Banjo acknowledges there’s a downside to dancing at his level. “I’m my harshest critic,” he says. “I know how a good performance feels, so unless it’s like that, it can really make me down. I hate the feeling of a bad performance, it’s the worst feeling in the world.”
But without dance, he wouldn’t have met his wife, Francesca Abbott, who’s due to give birth to their first child this month. The pair met when he was 16 and she was 18, when Abbott signed up for his dance class.
Abbot doesn’t dance regularly anymore, but Banjo jokes she sometimes sneaks into Diversity rehearsals to learn a quick routine – and he says the pair are “always dancing around and being stupid” at home. In this way, he argues, everyone can enjoy the benefits of dance.
“It doesn’t have to be big and shiny,” he says. “It can be really intimate just between two people and still be really powerful.”
The ‘Flirty Dancing’ finale is on Thursday 7 February at 10pm on Channel 4. Catch up on All 4.