Strictly stars pay tribute to Len Goodman as they prepare for UK tour

Anton Du Beke breaks down over death of Strictly judge Len Goodman

Ten Strictly pro dancers are about to embark on a nationwide tour, starting in Hull on May 2 and finishing 31 gigs later in York on May 31 – but there will be a couple of “bumps” along the way.

Actress and presenter Gemma Atkinson, 38, is pregnant with her second child by Spanish pro Gorka Marquez, 32. The baby, a boy, is due as Strictly returns to our TV screens in the late summer.

The couple, who met originally on Strictly, already have a daughter, Mia, who is four in July. She will certainly see Gorka when the pro tour plays Manchester, their home city. “Mia loves to see Daddy dance,” he says.

Meanwhile, at 41, Neil Jones is about to become a first-time father. His fiancee, Love Island’s Chyna Mills, 24, is expecting their first baby in the autumn.

And he couldn’t be happier – personally and professionally.

“I used to be one of the newbies,” jokes Neil. “Now, I’m a Strictly veteran.”

He joined the TV show in 2016 and has been with it ever since.

“As you get older, you become more aware of maintaining your body. But when I look at Anton Du Beke who was still dancing at 54, I feel I’ve years left in me.”

He’s not worried about the punishing schedule which will see the professional dancers performing almost every day throughout May.

“That’s a good thing. It’s a bit like having a car: better to keep it running. You don’t want it standing still for too long.”

He loves the TV show and the journey of the celebrities.

“But there’s something special,” he says, “something uniquely intimate about the pro tour.

“The audience gets to see us at our best, gets to hear our voices, gets to learn more about our personalities.”

Jowita Przystal, who carried off the Glitterball in 2022 with TV presenter Hamza Yassin, is also looking forward to the tour.

Polish-born Jowita, 28, has been part of the Strictly family for a couple of years and this will be her first pro tour. However, she denies there is any extra pressure because of her recent win.

“I just feel happy and blessed,” she says. “Yes, it will be different performing in front of live audiences, but I’ll be surrounded by the best dancers in the world.

“On the TV show, the spotlight is on the celebrities who are given 90 seconds to perform a routine.

“The stage show is something else. For one thing, there’s no real competition involved, just the enjoyment of the dances. I don’t think I’ll be nervous.”

As a counterpoint to all this good cheer, a moment of reflection. Just over a week ago, the world lost Len Goodman, universally acknowledged both as a master of his craft and the nicest man to grace a dance floor.

Everyone, it seems, wants to give Len a 10 and Neil is no exception. But his memory goes back much further than his time on the TV show.

“I remember attending a dance competition which Len had organised,” he recalls, “when I was around 10 years old. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

“Len’s love for dance impacted on me in a big way and on so many others across the world, not just those in the dance industry. He will be sorely missed.”

She may shrink somewhat from the word but Venezuelan Karen Hauer, 40, is also something of a Strictly veteran having been with the show since 2012. “Stop it!” she wails, “I’m still fresh.”

This will be her third pro tour and it never palls. “You never tire of the opportunity to showcase whatever talents you have – and to do so surrounded by other professional dancers.”

But with some days boasting two shows, it must be demanding?

“Yes, it can be exhausting but somehow you raise your game. We all share that inner passion.”

So, the routines apart, how does she keep fit? “I do a lot of weight training, Pilates and yoga. When we’re on the road, I make a point of going to the gym for at least half an hour a day to limber up.”

In Strictly 2022, Karen was partnered with another woman, comedian Jayde Adams. Will that be repeated on the pro tour?

“I don’t want to give too much away but yes, there will be a routine that references that. And the beauty of doing it live is that no two performances are the same.”

By contrast, Carlos Gu is a newbie. On last year’s TV show, he and actress Molly Rainford finished runners-up. Now he’s about to embark on his first pro tour.

“All the other professionals have told me this is going to be a spectacular experience,” says the 28-year-old Chinese professional. “I’m so excited.”

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What about dancing live in front of hundreds of people? “I’m very aware there can be no second takes: get it wrong and you just have to carry on.

“But that’s what’s going to get the adrenaline pumping.

“A live audience always brings out the best in me.”

Italian dancer Vito Coppola, 30, was also a Strictly debutant last year. Partnering singer Fleur East, they finished runners-up.

“I was so lucky to get her – with capital letters. Even now we speak every day. I know she’ll try to see me at one of the shows.”

This will be the first time he’ll be performing in a theatre.

“I can’t wait to experience that feeling when the curtain goes up. I can’t wait to feel the love.”

This will also be Nancy Xu’s first Pro tour: “I’m very, very excited.”

She joined the Strictly troupe in 2019, partnered with CBBC’s Rhys Stephenson two years later.

Last year she danced with actor Will Mellor and reached Week 12.

“Doing the tour is a dream come true,” says Nancy, 31. She says she loves hanging out with the other professionals. “We dance a lot, we talk a lot, we laugh a lot. I can’t wait to perform for live audiences. And, apart from anything else, it’s going to be a great way to see the UK.”

Luba Mushtuk, 33, joined Strictly in 2017, partnering rower James Cracknell the following year. This will be her second pro tour.

“Last year’s was one of the best experiences of my professional life,” says the Russian. “I’m always nervous before a performance but, once my foot is on that stage, the stress evaporates.

“The beauty of it is being able to do what we do best, with routines dreamt up by choreographer Jason Gilkison who’s the best.

“And I loved meeting members of the audience after the show.”

Although Ukrainian Nikita Kuzmin, 25, joined the Strictly family in 2021, partnering Tilly Ramsay (it was Paralympian Ellie Simmonds last year), this will be his first pro tour.

He says: “It gives us the freedom to do what we love doing most and to do so in front of people who are there because they love the TV show. I can’t wait to see the happiness in their eyes.”

Australian Dianne Buswell, 33, has been with the Strictly family since 2017. This will be her third pro tour. Her celebrity partner last year, Tyler West, 27, is planning to see one of the shows this year with fellow Strictly girlfriend Molly Rainford, 22.

Dianne will also always have the support of YouTuber boyfriend Joe Sugg, 31, who she partnered on Strictly in 2018.

“He’s my Number One fan,” [you can forget those split rumours, by the way] “and I know he’ll come to as many shows this time as he can. It’s my birthday on May 6 when we’ll be in Glasgow so I’m sure he’ll be there.”

So, what, in her opinion, makes the pro tour special?

“I think it’s the passion we have for dancing. When we’re all together doing what we love, it generates a sort of magic.”

Sentiments that the much-loved, much-missed Len Goodman would surely applaud.

  • Strictly Come Dancing: The Professionals tours the UK from May 2 to 31. Tickets and venues:

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