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Ian Waite: “We like to see people struggle but come through in the end. It’s part of life…”

On 26 April Strictly dance stars Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe appear at the Key Theatre with an entirely new show. Called simply An Audience with Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe, it promises something a little more intimate... Toby Venables talked to Ian Waite about the tour, his time on Strictly and his worst ever dance moments  

Tell us a little about the new show… 
Basically, it’s just myself and Natalie Lowe. We’re going to be performing a lot of our favourite dances, but it’s going to be much more of a smaller, more intimate feeling; rather than just being a show up on the stage we’re going to get the audience much more involved. I’m presenting the whole show, and we have a great singer called Luke Upton, who is a bit of a YouTube sensation. He’s really up-andcoming and we’re really excited to have him performing, because he’s really too expensive for us! And this is our first show on our own. Obviously we’ve done a lot of touring with Strictly – the arena tour, and also the theatre tour with Craig Revell-Horwood, Strictly Confidential. We also did the pro tour a few years ago, with all the pros, but it’s really nice to be doing our very own tour for the first time.

I was struck by the use of the word ‘audience’ in the title – the audience seems such a crucial component of Strictly.
Exactly. This actually came from a show that we did in Milton Keynes, at The Stables, which is a very intimate theatre – about 400 people – and everybody is very close, with the floor in the middle of the audience. That show was just thrown together at the last moment really, by me and Natalie, but everybody absolutely loved it. We had a standing ovation, and the promoter said: ‘This is a really great idea; rather than taking the big venues, why don’t we do lots of smaller ones and make it more intimate?’ And that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve been dancing together for about eight years now, so over those years we’ve put together some awesome dances. One we actually danced in the semi-final of Strictly as a solo number – an American Smooth danced to You Don’t Bring Me Flowers – and it’s sort of our signature dance, so we always make sure we do that at some point in our shows. We also did some bits for Strictly Confidential – Craig’s show – but we’ll be putting together new dances as well. We have always found it very easy to choreograph together, as it always seemed so right and so natural. This show is a real treat for us, because it just means we can do what we want to do, and perform the dances we want to dance. It’s very emotional, because it’s coming from us. More personal.

Strictly – and dance in general – has become huge over the past few years. Why do you think that is?
It harks back to the days when we used to have big ballrooms and big bands, and the dance floors were packed. It’s old-fashioned entertainment which people still love. The theatres in the West End are still packed, and people still love going to the theatre, and this is along the same lines. But it is old fashioned, and to begin with on Strictly we all thought: ‘This is crazy!’. When I heard the format – ballroom dancing with a celebrity – my first reaction was that they would never get the celebrity’s to dance well enough. I mean, we’ve being doing this for 20-30 years, so how are they going to get to be as good as us…? But then we saw some of those celebrities literally improve overnight – because they were doing 30 hours of practice! And they really were turning into dancers. Obviously the naturals tend to come to the front – but even the ones who aren’t so talented and who struggle in the beginning capture the audience’s imagination. We like to see people struggle but come through in the end. It’s part of life.

Strictly seems quite different from some reality TV, in that it celebrates real achievement.
I think it’s the approach of the show and producers. The ethos of the show is not about showing anybody up – it’s fun, and all about the family. There was a time when we thought it wouldn’t appeal to the younger kids and teenagers, but actually it has. I think partly that’s because they include modern songs, bring in sports people and pop stars who you wouldn’t necessarily think would do something like that. It really is a big family on stage too, and it is lovely to be a part of that. It’s been a huge part of my life – first seven years on the main show and then five on It Takes Two. It Takes Two is a very important part of it, I think, because we’re showing the nitty gritty – the training, the trials and tribulations… People love that side of Strictly. It’s been a dream, really, because I got to work with Zoe Ball, who I danced with in series three, and we’ve remained great friends.

You were partnered with Natalie during the show. Is that as nerve-wracking as it is being teamed up with a new celebrity, or as pros do you just snap to it?
We were lucky. I’m very tall – I’m 6’4″ – and all my life I’ve struggled to find a partner tall enough. On Strictly they were looking for a tall girl for me. Natalie had inquired, and she was tall – 5’10” – so they said: ‘We’ve got this amazing girl from Australia…’ And they actually brought her over for me for the show. So, I have everything to thank Strictly for, because she was the perfect partner for me. And it gelled instantly. We had an awesome time – we danced on the tours together for a few years, and did a solo demonstration on the arena tour, which was a great moment, going out and dancing in front of 15,000 people at the O2. Quite a defining moment! But yes, any professional dancer could get with any other dancer and dance with them. They all know the same steps and if they’ve been trained well, it’s easy to pick up with a partner. They do swap them around a lot on the show. That used not to be the case back in my day – we stuck with our partners. But a lot has changed; they get choreographers in now, whereas we used to choreograph all our own group dances and routines.

You started out as a Latin dancer – but isn’t it unusual for someone so tall to excel at Latin rather than Ballroom?
I’ve always been one of those people who, if someone says I can’t do something, it makes me more determined to do it! Most of my dance career I was told ‘No, no – you shouldn’t be a Latin dancer, you should be a Ballroom dancer, because you’ve got the height for it…’ But I didn’t want to be a Ballroom dancer – I wanted to express myself and be a Latin dancer, so I basically just proved everybody wrong! In the UK they didn’t really mark me very well, but then I was lucky enough to represent England in the World Youth Championships, and I won it with my partner. So when I came back I was world champion and everybody was like: ‘Who is this guy? He’s tall!’ But they couldn’t ignore me then, so I got my break. But it’s true that most of the Latin dancers are small, and the Ballroom dancers are tall. I’ve actually turned into more of a Ballroom dancer now, partly because Natalie specialised in Ballroom. We do both on the show, but together we’re more of a Ballroom couple. Your career can actually last longer if you’re a Ballroom dancer, because it’s not quite so energetic!

We hear a lot about what the celebrities learn on Strictly, but as a pro do you feel you have learned from it too?
I have learned so much… especially about TV. I was very confident, very cocky at that age, and I think I probably had a different approach than most people – but that was what the producers were looking for, because I wasn’t the stereotypical, prim and proper Latin or Ballroom dancer. I’d literally just got back from living in Holland for seven years, which completely changed me as a person – for the better. It brought me out of myself, making me a more expressive, more emotional person. And I think they saw something in me that was different, and that was why I went on the second series. But when it comes to teaching and choreographing, you had to choreograph for somebody who wasn’t a dancer, so it had to be very, very simple but also effective – because if it’s boring, nobody is going to vote for it! When I was on the main show I also choreographed a lot of the group dances, and that was an experience in itself, because it was all pros, and a lot had never done group dances with pros, so it was a massive learning curve.

Was there ever any backchat…?
Yeeeees! There was an occasion, not naming any names, when someone raised their eyebrows and said: ‘I don’t like that…’ But you have to be strong and say: ‘Well, if you don’t like it, get out!’ Certain pros would never choreograph anything, then others like myself would be choreographing all the time, which meant a lot more work for us. But it really helped with my career and has developed me as a choreographer, and also improved my presenting skills.
What was your worst moment on the show?
I did fall over on screen once… When I danced with Zoe Ball in the final, she had this fan in her hand that she was supposed to throw off the floor, but she didn’t actually throw it OFF the floor. And towards the end of the dance we broke away from each other and ran around, and I slipped on the fan and fell over. I was literally on the floor for a millisecond, but I could see Zoe laughing and I thought: ‘If I don’t get back with her instantly, she’s so volatile she’ll go offtime, or do the wrong steps…’ So I had to jump up and get back into the swing of the dance. So, a lot of things have been said about that, because no other pro has ever fallen over! It was also very difficult in series four, because I’d got to the final in series two and three, and in series four when I danced with Micah Paris we went out in the first week. That was devastating. We’d worked so hard for that first show, as well, putting in about 80 hours… I don’t think Emma Bunton was doing 80 hours even in week five! So, yes, it was gutting

And the best moment…?
I loved making the finals, but also there were my two dances with Darcey. I danced two showdances with her – once when she was a guest on the show back in 2008, then when she came on the show in 2012 I came back to dance with her again. That was amazing; in the dance world, she is a goddess! To be able to perform with her and be her partner was a real honour. Ballet is a different genre, but we managed to adapt and have something that combined the two disciplines. The 2012 dance I choreographed with Natalie, and a lot of the stuff Natalie couldn’t do, but we knew Darcey could – lots of leg things, lots of lifts and adagio stuff. And she was absolutely amazing. She’d just done a performance at the Olympics in London, so was in top condition – and she was awesome. Look it up on YouTube!

Can you predict when a dance is really going to work well?
Sometimes you just never know. You think a dance is going to be good and it turns out to be a flop, then you perform another and it’s amazing, and gets a standing ovation, and you think: ‘How did that happen?’

Is it partly the audience that changes that?
Yes – and with the show at The Stable in Milton Keynes where the current show really started, the audience reaction was what really set the show on fire. When we came out onto the stage the audience were nearly on their feet straight away! That gives you a certain energy and confidence to produce your best. It was a great moment.

An Audience with Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe 26 April 2016
Key Theatre, Peterborough

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