Embraceable you: doing what comes naturally
at a local social in Haute-Savoie.
Photo: Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos
What makes me human is a love of dance. On the dance floor, age, colour, nationality, status and education are of no consequence, only a shared ability to respond to the rhythms of music.
I suspect that far more people know me as the bloke who appeared on Strictly Come Dancing than have ever heard my speeches or read my books. A ten from Len mattered more to the public than a glowing editorial will ever do – and probably to me also.
My dancing experience started badly as a gauche, one-footed teenager who hovered in the corner with the other boys whenever the school or church organised some ghastly “social”. But I was soon caught up in the sounds and beat of the rock’n’roll era. Dancing just happened naturally, untaught.
One episode opened my eyes to the power of dance. As a student, I was travelling with friends across Khrushchev’s USSR. We stopped in Kyiv and wandered into a park enclosure where Soviet youths were dancing, rather sedately. I spotted an attractive girl, took her on to the floor and launched into a fast and rather unruly jive. Before long, the local people joined in. Then a couple of heavies appeared and frogmarched the two of us away. I was given a stern lecture in broken English on “western degeneracy” and she narrowly escaped charges of hooliganism.
Some years later I lived and worked in East Africa. There I fell in love with Olympia, my late wife. Olympia was a Goan who had been brought up with a love of music and dance. She was a talented classical pianist, but was no music snob, and switched effortlessly from Beethoven sonatas to Elvis Presley love songs. We courted in the nightclubs of Nairobi and danced to fashionable bands from Congo and South Africa. The warm glow of remembrance of those days is always suffused with those sounds.
Children and careers put paid to our dancing. But when our children had passed the babysitting stage, we wanted to do things together and discovered Kelly’s, the local dancing school. We had always danced by instinct, so we had to start from scratch with the basic techniques of ballroom and Latin and with memorised routines. It was difficult and we almost gave up, but we both had a streak of determination and competitiveness and started to climb the long ladder of grade examinations.
This burgeoning hobby came to a sad end when Olympia fell victim to cancer, which, in its later stages, disabled her. I put dancing in the past tense, and the medals were tucked away.
After Olympia died, I wanted an escape from grief and went back to the school where our teacher, Sam, offered to partner me. I gradually improved and passed more exams. That led to an enterprising television producer fixing up a dance with Alesha Dixon, the hot favourite to win Strictly that year (which she did), and, from there, to the Strictly Christmas show and a foxtrot with the wonderfully gifted Erin Boag to the sentimental strains of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”.
Now, my Friday dance lesson is jealously protected: a small refuge from a fraught ministerial routine. For an hour, I completely switch off from affairs of state and immerse myself in the finer points of posture and footwork. In truth, in my eighth decade, the hips no longer move as freely as they once did. But there is satisfaction in small improvements and I can learn much from my teacher Nick and from my partner, Cheyenne, who together mix teaching with competing to join the world’s top couples. And in the background another coach, Anne Gleave, in her day the world’s number-one professional dancer, is coaxing perfection from some remarkable Chinese or American pair. It is a humbling but uplifting experience.
I have been happily remarried for ten years now. Rachel and I have no aspiration to join the world’s dancing elite or even to win medals. But it is one of our simple pleasures to roll back the carpet and dance – or, as we did last Saturday, turn up at a local dance and jive.
The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show