Shirley Ballas interview: Wallasey-born Strictly Come Dancing star
‘Queen of Latin’ Shirley Ballas has enjoyed decades of global dancing success after discovering her talent in her childhood home of Wallasey.
With a list of major title victories and a record as the only dancer to have ever won the British Open to the Latin American Championships twice with two different partners, Shirley is more than qualified for her head judge duties on the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.
She took time out of her hectic schedule as an international dancing coach to chat to YM Liverpool about her rise from Wirral to the world’s stage.
Interview by Natasha Young
Tell us about how you got into dancing as a child and what made you want to pursue it:
I was at the Girl Guides at the church hall and we were in one room while adults were dancing in the other. I just remember hearing the music and I went and looked through the window and they were doing the cha-cha-cha and I just loved it.
I knocked on the door and asked the gentleman if they did children’s classes – I was only seven and he said ‘yes we’re actually starting on Saturday’ so I went along.
I was a kid who wanted to do everything – singing, dancing, you know.
What was growing up in Wallasey like as a platform for your early dancing success?
It was difficult because I was raised by a completely single parent with zero help from my father. My mother had to work hard to raise my brother and I and to get me shoes and a little dress and this and that, which was a lot back then for her, but I think she soon realised how much I loved it.
We didn’t always have the bus fare so I’d walk to and from the church, and it didn’t matter if it was raining, sunny or snowy – I’d still do it.
I remember [my mum] telling me when I was about nine: ‘while you show dedication I will always support you’, even though her friend said ‘you’re wasting your money, she’ll never get off the housing estate, she’ll never amount to anything, it never happens for kids like this’. My mum didn’t listen and she gave me the maximum help she could.
When you were winning top titles, did you feel it was important to show all of that support and dedication was paying off?
I never really thought about anything other than the fact I loved the music and it didn’t really matter where I was. In the school playground I had [the other children] all lined up doing formation dancing but that’s why I got bullied at school.
I just loved [dancing]. My mum said I never stood still, I was always doing the cha-cha-cha around the kitchen!
What was it like joining the panel on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ when it was already so well established with a big legion of fans?
My son pushed me into going for that job because I was also being bullied by men at the top of my industry. He said I should try for Len [Goodman’s] job but I had no TV experience at all so he just gave me a nudge and said ‘why don’t you just try?’ because he’s from Broadway, performing in the theatre and everything.
I did and I was fortunate enough to get it. He was the first person I called and it was just the most amazing experience.
I was nervous about the paddles and sitting, but I wasn’t nervous about the critique because it’s what I’ve done all my life. It was absolutely breathtakingly surreal.
How have you adapted to the media and social media attention that Strictly brings?
I was very surprised [in 2017] when my ex-husband did a write-up two days before the show aired and said some vile things, but I forgive him for that so I didn’t react.
Then other people wanted to step forward and have their minute and say whatever so that was difficult.
It’s more difficult for my mum because my brother committed suicide and then that was splashed all over the papers.
I had a meeting with her after the show and I told her it was her choice if I take the show back on but the media will always come with it, and she said ‘no, do it again’.
On social media, with the people who say horrible things about me I try to respond back two or three times with kindness and give them a chance and if they continue to be bullying then I block them. I always give them a chance because I never really know whether they’re not having a good time in their own life.
“With ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘Strictly’ programmes around the world I have had something to do with most of them”
How challenging is it for you to be firm but fair with all contestants when their dance ability and experience varies so much?
To be honest I don’t really find it challenging at all. They present to me, every week, a dance and I judge them – I don’t compare one to the other and I judge them specifically on their own journey and improvement.
I try to give a few critiques on their technique and some confidence as to how to move forward so I find that part to be really exceptional. I really enjoy seeing them come back and improve.
Has the show had any impact on the wider dance industry and bringing people into it?
Oh [it’s had] a huge impact on our industry. In most social classes now people will go along to have company, meet people, to get fit or to socialise.
I think it’s been good for the country as a whole, and generally the whole world. With ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘Strictly’ programmes around the world I have had something to do with most of them.
I’ve either trained [people in] them as adjudicators or trained them as dancers or what have you, so I find it a huge phenomenon all over the world.
In terms of everyone else understanding the appeal and importance of your dancing, do you think it would have been easier when you were starting out if there was something like that at the time?
Well they had ‘Come Dancing’ with the Peggy Spencer Formation Team. That was always a favourite show of mine and later I went on to be on there as well, teaching the presenter.
At that age I didn’t think about it – all I knew is I loved music, I loved to move to music and I loved dance. I loved all the ballroom and all the Latin and it was a huge part of my life, I just couldn’t think of anything but that.
The only time I ever took a break from dancing was when I gave birth to my son, and then I was back six weeks later doing the US Championships after he was born.
You’ve achieved a lot in terms of winning big championships and you still hold records. Do you have a proudest career moment?
My proudest moment ever was giving birth to my son – he’s my priority – but in my dance career it was winning the British Championships.
I won it when I was 23 years old and I won it again in 1995 when I was 35 with two different partners.
I won it with my first husband and then he went on to be hugely successful and I had to go back to the beginning and start from scratch.
The second year after winning I went back, and he was second and I was 96th. Then in 1995 I came first and he was second so it was a huge learning curve to go back to the beginning and start with my second partner Corky who was roughly a beginner. I trained him from scratch.
“My mum said I never stood still, I was always doing the cha-cha-cha around the kitchen!”
How do you juggle your career in the dance industry with the increasing demands of Strictly?
That’s proved a little difficult [in the latest] series but I manage to do it. I go a couple of days a week and do my teaching because we’re the hub of ballroom dancing. We have major championships at the BIC Centre in January, the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in May and the Royal Albert Hall in October so I always do a full 10 days of teaching running up to those events to prepare people.
Then I judge at the Albert Hall, Blackpool and the BIC Centre and I’ll tour the United States at the end of March.
Do you have any big plans lined up for 2019 that you can tell us about?
I have but I can’t say!
I’ll also be touring in the United States and I’ll be moving back into my home in London. I’m hoping to move back [from the United States] in March so that’s a big deal.
Then we’re running up to the British Championships in May, and before you know it we’ll already be back for the next series of Strictly!