Sell your story about a TV show.
This is how Hannah-Louise Annett’s story about the truth behind ballroom dancing appeared in the Daily Mail.
By HANNAH LOUISE ANNETTS
Shoulders back, stomach in, chin lifted and a huge smile on my face – it’s the same ritual I perform every time before stepping on to the dancefloor with my partner where I hope to blow the judges away with the waltz we have been practising for weeks.
Seconds before our name is called, my fiercest competitor sidles up, strokes the dress that has taken weeks to sew, and whispers: ‘Feathers? Gosh. How retro!’ ‘What do you mean?’ I ask, as the music to our dance starts up.
‘Well, you know – old fashioned. Bit obvious. Anyhow, you’re on – good luck darling,’ she sneers. It was a well-timed comment designed to throw me off balance, but we got the better score. I’m used to such underhand tactics, it’s all part and parcel of the bitchy, cutthroat world of ballroom dancing today.
Cut-throat world: Hannah Louise Annetts has had to make enormous sacrifices
I enter around 12 competitions a year and have made very few friends on the circuit – I’ve learnt from previous mistakes. I keep myself to myself and guard the design of my £2,000 bespoke dresses like a state secret to stop one of my rivals ripping it off. At competitions I don’t let the dresses out of my sight – it’s not unheard of for them to mysteriously go missing or get a stain on them.
This is the real world of ballroom dancing and I can tell you that it bears very little resemblance to the friendly, jokey version on Strictly Come Dancing – as the professionals in the show will know only too well.
Sisterly it certainly isn’t and sabotage is rife. I’ve been left battered and bruised as rival dancers have ‘accidentally’ pressed their stiletto heel into my foot or jabbed me in the ribs with their elbows. During my 14 years of ballroom dancing, I’ve come to realise that cuts and bruises are nothing compared with the emotional toll of performing at such a top level. It isn’t that ballroom dancers are inherently nasty, but something about those sequins and crystals doesn’t bring out the best in people where nothing but winning competitions and trophies will do.
Ballroom dancing is about the relationship and chemistry with your partner. To dance convincingly, particularly in latin numbers, you have to have a connection. Strictly viewers will have heard the judges talking about the ‘marriage’ between a male and female dancer. It’s an intense relationship and the source of much jealousy, betrayal and an illicit affair or two.
Practically every series of Strictly comes with rumours of at least one love affair between the celebrity and their partner. If you spend five hours a day in somebody’s arms, it’s not surprising that it occasionally leads to more entwining away from the dancefloor. Your partner will be touching you in a way your husband or lover might never have done.
I’ve been attracted to some of my partners but never allowed myself to fall for them. In my career I’ve seen dozens of marriages break up because of affairs. What people won’t realise is how important dance partnerships are. The professionals on Strictly can laugh it off when they’re paired with a talentless celebrity, after all it makes for good TV. But in my world it is all about finding the perfect match. Without a great partner, you can’t enter any competitions and you can’t practise.
There is enormous competition for partners, and with more female ballroom dancers than male it can get pretty heated.
One of the ‘gentleman’s rules’ is that nobody should attempt to steal somebody’s dance partner, but that is flouted all the time. It doesn’t matter how well established a relationship is, if a dancer thinks they can do well with somebody else, their partner will be unceremoniously dumped.
In a bizarre type of ‘dating’, dancers will advertise through specialist publications or online for new partners and will try each other out by meeting for a few hours to chat and dance before committing.
When they work, these relationships are incredibly intense. I’ve ‘tried out’ with partners who were scarily controlling and possessive. One said he didn’t like my dresses and that boyfriends outside dancing were forbidden — one even said he would not dance with me if he heard that I had a boyfriend as he should be the only man in my life.
It’s understandable that people assume male dancers, with all their posturing and preening, are gay. Far from it — uncomfortable situations with male dancers making unwanted passes are part of dancing. Often arrogant — you have to be to do well — many male dancers expect you will also be their girlfriend.
My last dance partner and I broke up three months ago. We both decided we were just not compatible and lacked that vital spark. He was my tenth partner. Other partnerships finished because I improved faster than they did, there was a clash of personalities or my commitment to dance was stronger.
One partner was Hungarian and his English was so poor it was never going to work. I’ve moved all over the country to be closer to a male dancer so that we can practice every day. In recent years I’ve moved from my family home in south Yorkshire to London and Wolverhampton, often staying in the dingiest of digs. Significantly, the male dancers never agree to move. From top dancers, through to judges and choreographers, ballroom dancing is dominated by men.
While the men are judged on their skills, the women are judged on their appearance too, so it’s no wonder eating disorders are rife. One teacher told me my breasts were too big to ever be truly successful. I’m naturally slim but I still eat nothing on the day of competition, to make sure my stomach is as flat as possible.
Then there’s the expense. The spray tan, fake nails, hair pieces, and false eyelashes are a must. I own 16 dresses – which cost anything from £800 to £2,000 a go – and 20 pairs of shoes (which cost £70 a pair and must be dyed the colour of your dress.) For their part, the men just need to don a black suit.
So why do we do it? Well, it’s not for the money. Most prizes are not financial so to earn a living, you must reach an incredibly high level, then pass exams to become a professional who can earn from teaching. It is important you build an excellent reputation as an amateur, as I am now, if you are going to eventually command the £100-an-hour fees a professional coach can charge. But the sacrifices are enormous. My parents reckon that since the age of 18, when I went into this full time, their investment has been £25,000 a year, by the time you account for dresses, shoes, beauty treatments, travel and classes.
When I began, none of us had any idea what I was letting myself in for. I was five when I began ballet and tap. But at eight, I was terribly shy and my mum Diane, now 54, who had done some ballroom dancing, suggested I try it.
Dancing with a partner would, they hoped, give me some confidence. Within weeks ballroom had become my favourite dance class and within three months I was winning competitions. By the time I was 15, I was representing England and competing in national contests.
My father, who is 66, is a management consultant, but he also trained as a tailor and makes my outfits.
Despite the stress and the bunions and blisters – I have the ugliest feet in the world – I am addicted to ballroom. At school I passed exams with flying colours. I toyed with the idea of studying law and becoming a barrister – my parents, while supportive of my dancing, encouraged me to do a degree that would lead to a more traditional career. But I went against their wishes because I only wanted to dance.
It’s only now I look back and realise how huge my sacrifices have been. I feel I’ve missed out terribly on a young student life. Incredibly, I have never set foot in a nightclub. While I’ve had the odd boyfriend, my relationships outside dancing have been fraught with difficulty. Few men can cope with their girlfriend having another ‘partner’. But the problem is that ballroom dancing is now deeply embedded in my psyche. Like those celebrities who become obsessed with staying on Strictly, my one-time hobby has become addictive. And to give it all up now – as I am within touching distance of becoming professional – would seem such a waste.
Tonight, when you turn your TV on, and hear that familiar theme tune striking up for Strictly, spare a thought for me and my bunions.