Since then, AJ and her professional partner Kai Widdrington have been impressing both the judges and viewers with routines including a fun-filled Charleston, a dramatic Argentine tango and a very sensual American Smooth to Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing from The Bodyguard, after which judge Craig Revel Horwood told AJ: "If you’d been dancing as a child, you’d be an absolute pro now."
AJ, 33, and Kai, 26, are not letting the plaudits go to their heads though and, here, in an exclusive interview, the pair reveal how they’re hopeful that hard work and staying focused will help secure their path to the Strictly final. While AJ tells us that she couldn't go to dancing lessons as a kid because her parents couldn't afford it, but now she's living her dream...
AJ, how has your 'Strictly' journey been so far?
AJ: "I’ve been a fan of this show for years and my Strictly experience so far has been everything I imagined it could be and more. It’s been beyond all my wildest dreams. I love all the glitz and glamour and I’m loving learning new dances each week with Kai. We’ve had such positive messages from people watching and I’m taking everything step by step and just being very much in the moment. The whole experience has just been incredible."
How would you rate each other as a teacher and a pupil?
AJ: "Ooh, that’s a good question. After you, Kai!"
Kai: "AJ’s a very good student. She listens and wants to work hard; that’s all you want from a teaching perspective and makes my job a lot easier. She obviously wants to learn how to dance, which helps because you want to deliver the best performance each week. I’d give you a 10, AJ."
AJ: "Aww, thanks Kai. I’ll also give you 10 out of 10! Kai’s very patient and has somehow managed to pull out something in me that I didn’t even know I had! I’ve never danced before and even when I am filled with self doubt and frustration that I’m not picking up a routine maybe as quick as I’d like, Kai always instills confidence in me and makes me believe I can deliver a really good performance each and every week."
AJ, Craig once said if you’d started dancing as a child, you could be a professional now. What was it like to hear that?
AJ: "Amazing! And really moving because I remember, when I was a kid, I always wanted to do dance lessons but it just wasn’t feasible for us to do as a family, as my parents couldn’t afford it. My mum always said to me: ‘You can’t do it now, AJ, but one day you will’. So it’s amazing to feel like we’ve come full circle and I’m now doing all the things my mum said I could when I was little."
It must be encouraging to get such lovely comments from the judges and support from viewers?
AJ: "Yeah, absolutely. I get emotional about it because I’ve often watched back some of our dances and I can’t believe it’s actually me on that dance floor! It feels surreal and it just goes to show what’s possible when you try really hard. It’s never too late to try something new; you don’t know if you can do it unless you try."
And Kai, how are you finding your first year as a pro on 'Strictly'?
Kai: "I don’t think I could have asked for a better partner than AJ for my first season on Strictly; I’ve literally hit the jackpot! Since that first performance, we’ve just been trying to create iconic moments that you can show your grandkids, where you can look back and say: ‘I’m really proud of that’. For us, this experience is about just enjoying it, taking it week by week, and not getting ahead of ourselves. But, yeah, I’m having a great time and we’re having a fantastic time together."
What’s been your favourite dance so far?
AJ: "I've got two favourites. I loved the jive – nothing’s gonna beat those first-week nerves and excitement all in one but it went really positively. But I also loved everything about the Argentine tango. Throwing myself right into the spirit of that dance was just great."
Kai: "The Argentine tango was a real breakthrough moment for us, because we got our first 10, so we were really chuffed. There’s a lot of technical stuff in that dance and, with AJ never having danced before, her feet obviously aren’t trained, so the fact we could get that routine together in four days was incredible. The public sees all the big lifts and big moments on Strictly but when we, as the pros, see those little goals in relation to technique, it’s really rewarding. Our American Smooth to The Bodyguard was pretty special as well."
You’re one of the favourites to win this series — how does it feel waiting for your name to be called during the 'Strictly' results show?
Kai: "Oh, it’s horrible, ha, ha!"
AJ: "It’s so nerve-wracking. Everyone’s been so brilliant and everyone brings something special to the show, so you just never feel safe regardless of how well the routine might have gone. I’m just constantly feeling butterflies, sweaty palms, being held by Kai because I’m trembling so much, just crossing my fingers and toes that our names get called out."
Looking ahead, what would it mean to you to make the 'Strictly' final?
AJ: "Oh. My. Goodness. I literally just got butterflies and my heart skipped a beat when you said that. That’s enormous! Like Kai said, we’re in it week by week, so you can’t really think about it. But, yeah, it would mean a lot to have the support of everyone at home just believing in me, in the same way that Kai believes in me. It would mean everything."
Now you know each other so well, what gift would you buy one another to mark your 'Strictly' journey?
Kai: "I’d buy AJ loads of chocolates. You love chocolates, don’t ya? We’ve needed lots of energy in training, so I’d buy plenty of Ferrero Rochers."
AJ: "I’d get Kai some new headphones. He’s always losing them, so I’d get him a few sets of new headphones for him to keep in every bag and coat pocket, so he’d never be without!"
Strictly Come Dancing continues Saturdays on BBC1.
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