Nerves, Exhaustion And 12-Hour Days: This Is What It's Really Like To Train For Strictly

We go behind the scenes with Paralympian Will Bayley and his professional partner Janette Manrara as they prepare for the dance floor.

I’m stood outside a nondescript building in the middle of a residential street in Brighton on a cold, grey and wet Tuesday morning.

It feels a million miles away from the sparkle and polish of Strictly Come Dancing, but right now, it’s Paralympian Will Bayley’s office from Monday until Thursday while he trains for this year’s series.

The table tennis champ is used to putting in the hours – it helped him win gold in Rio 2016 – but unlike some of the other celebs taking part, he has zero dance experience.

Will Bayley and his professional partner Janette Manrara
Will Bayley and his professional partner Janette Manrara

I wait with Will on the steps of the studio until his professional dance partner, Janette Manrara, arrives smiling and brandishing the keys to the rehearsal space.

Inside it’s eerily silent.

“Do you want a coffee?”, Janette asks as she tucks into a croissant.

Glamorous, it ain’t, but this is where the magic begins.

So just what goes into teaching a routine to a complete dance novice in the space of a week? A lot more than you might think...

The days are LONG...

Will: “We usually start on Monday morning, early doors and we can train from nine until five and then we have the option to carry on until nine.”

Janette: “We normally do until nine.”

And it can feel like a LONG week…

J: “We have names for each day of rehearsal: so it’s Motivational Monday, It used to be called Terrible Tuesdays because Tuesday is the day you come in and you’re tired from Monday and you’re going ‘oh my gosh I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and I’m never going to get this routine done’. But we’ve changed it to Terrific Tuesdays.

“Then we’ve got Wonderful Wednesday and Thrilling Thursdays because that’s when you do the routine from top to bottom and you’re like ‘oh my gosh this is going to happen on Saturday’. And Freaky Friday, because he was so scared [laughs].”

Will and Janette get to work on this week's routine
Will and Janette get to work on this week's routine
Matt Bagwell/HuffPost UK

The routines are only put together on the Sunday before training…

J: “I’m very lucky that my husband [Aljaž Škorjanec] is on the show, so we use each other a lot for the man and woman’s steps. We’ll normally do that together on a Sunday, and just have the whole routine ready to go, so when we come in on a Monday we’re ready to teach them.”

Will’s disability has to be taken into account when creating the routines...

J: “This year is the first time I’ve had to do it very differently. So I’ll choreograph bits and pieces, but because of Will’s disability I have to really adapt things, so my creative process is a little bit slower than normal.

“There are things that I think he can do and he can’t, and the other way round, so I’m really creating a lot for Will and with Will, which is cool because I’ve never done it that way before. I always play to the strengths of my celeb.”

There is a special dedicated team who help the pros out with the routine and production...

J: “We have a team – they’re called the dance team – which is a group of three or four people that come with us pros, and they help us because we get like writer’s block. They’re amazing because they’ll give us ideas, help us with song choices and help produce the routine.

“So for example, in week one, it was all my ideas and I knew in my head what I wanted so I sent them visuals and clips and photos. The team are so good, they just get it. They’re the best in the business.”

But the pros have the final say...

J: “Ultimately, the pro gets final say – so if I don’t like the song or the concept or something’s not working, then the pro has the final say. But the dance team are incredible. I’ve never had anything where I’ve been like ‘what is that?’ [laughs].”

Strictly Come Dancing
Strictly Come Dancing

Rehearsing without props can be tricky...

W: “I think on the first week where we had a wall it was kind of like ‘how am I gonna get from here to here?’ because I had to walk through it, which I’d never seen before and you don’t want to trip up and stuff like that.”

J: “Sometimes things even change at the studio so the whole thing we did for the Quickstep, where we had the wall we had to get through, I said to Will ‘don’t lock in that routine too much because it might change’.

“Everything went perfectly but you do have to adapt sometimes when you’re dealing with big props and sets. That’s what the Friday rehearsals are for so you can see the floor, the props and the set. You do feel really prepared by the time the show goes out live on a Saturday night. You’ve done it enough times that you’re not worried about it so much.”

There’s only so much preparation the pros and celebs can do...

J: “We try and pre-prepare as much as possible for props and costumes and things like that, but you don’t know if you’re going to stay in or not. It’s really such a huge puzzle to put together.

“I try and tell Will what the next dance is a week in advance, so he knows what we’re doing next week. We talk a little bit about it on Friday and Saturday, but because the pressure is on so much to deliver on the Saturday night I try and keep it so he’s not thinking about it.”

Matt Bagwell/HuffPost UK

It really helps if you love music...

J: “I’m teaching him how to dance, but really more than anything I’m teaching him a routine, so steps to music, with technique... hopefully [laughs]. But you cannot teach what Will brings to the table.

“He loves music and for me as a dancer, I know how much I love music and what I feel when I hear a song, so to see someone who is not a dancer or an artist come out and feel what I feel when I hear a song or when I do a certain step is so rewarding. It’s like the biggest battle won, because I don’t have to teach him to enjoy it, he just does.”

The pros don’t get a day off while they’re still in the competition...

J: “You’re so busy during the week and Friday we’re in the studio, Saturday is obviously show day and Sunday is meant to be our day off, but we pros, if we’re in the competition, we don’t get Sunday off. It’s almost the most important day of the week, as it’s the day that you do lots of research and gather your thoughts about the steps and what you want to use and what the storyline is.

“Because the celebs don’t have a lot of time to learn you can’t come in not knowing what you want to do.”

Unlike the celebs...

W: “I just chill out on Sundays. If I know what dance I’m doing then I might watch a few. I listen to the music on Sunday too.”

J: “I do tell him to take the day off because you need the rest time as we’re doing such long hours and are so busy throughout the day. He’s using his body in ways that he’s not used to. And his mind… learning so much new information and remembering steps, you need the day off. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Strictly Come Dancing
Strictly Come Dancing

Being a sportsperson or athlete doesn’t necessarily make things any easier...

W: “It’s very different. I knew it was going to be physically challenging, especially with my balancing, which is a real problem for me physically. I still don’t feel that strong on my feet and often feel like I could fall over. But we’re working on that, which is why we’re doing a lot of core exercises.

“But I’d say it’s mentally where I find it more tough and I notice that by a certain time, if I’m learning a new routine, my mind won’t take in any information, no matter how hard I try. Literally, I get a mind blank and I’ve never had that before in all the years I’ve been playing [table tennis]. I don’t remember having it because I’ve been good for a long time – like 10 years – so I don’t remember that learning phase when I had to learn how to play.

“Sometimes it goes in reverse too, so I can have a good day and then by six or seven o’clock it can turn really quickly into a bad day.”

The pros use different training techniques depending on the celeb...

J: “Everybody’s completely different so as a teacher you have to become a chameleon. Will, because he’s such an athlete, he really depends on his muscle memory. So the only way we can make things stick in [his head] is not by writing or visualising, he just has to drill it over and over and over again. So we listen to the song a lot [laughs] because it has to become muscle memory.

“But Ranj [Singh] last year struggled a lot with memory. He liked to write things down and I knew he did because he’s a doctor, so I got him a journal so he could write down his routine.”

Strictly Come Dancing
Strictly Come Dancing
Matt Bagwell/HuffPost UK

It really is as nerve-wracking as it looks…

W: “I go out into a big table tennis match and I’m ready for it. I know what I’m doing, I’m really in control of myself. But here I don’t feel in control of anything. So then the nerves really can take over.

J: “Every now and then you’ve got to let it out. If you’re that nervous, it’s ok to cry.”

The initial professional group numbers are recorded in advance...

J: “We start pro rehearsals in July and that goes on until the end of August. This year we’ve actually pre-recorded six weeks of the pro dances because the levels of exhaustion from all of the professionals was insane. So now we’re in a very nice place because we’ve pre-recorded so we can just focus on the celebs in the first weeks.

“Normally on Monday mornings we have a group refresher. We’ve already choreographed the routine earlier in the year and then on the Monday we’ll have a four hour refresher in the studio with the choreographer where we sit down and map out the whole routine again. And then after that we go to rehearsals with our celebs.”


And yes, all the pros do get on...

J: “I love love love the pro dances. For us professionals it’s our time to really go for gold. And we have such a nice group. We genuinely all get on and like each other. So it’s really rewarding for us to do them.”

As well as learning to dance, the celebs learn about themselves too...

W: [I’ve been surprised] how I’ve been able to cope. I thought I’d struggle a lot more. And that’s massively down to Janette who has made me look as good as I can look. In the launch show I had zero confidence. It’s not just about whether I look stupid or not – I want to enjoy it. I actually want to put on a show as well.

“It’s not that I just want to survive – I want to win!”

Watch Will and Janette in action when Strictly Come Dancing returns to BBC One this Saturday at 7.10pm.

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