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'Strictly' star Shirley Ballas: My rules for sending celebs packing

A group shot of Strictly judges Shirley Ballas, Anton Du Beke, Craig Revel Horwood and Motsi Mabuse in front of a silver glitter backdrop with light blue neon lights
Shirley Ballas with fellow Strictly judges Anton Du Beke, Craig Revel Horwood and Motsi Mabuse (Image credit: BBC)

Head judge Shirley Ballas is very excited for the first live show of Strictly Come Dancing 2021 this Saturday!

Shirley, who joined the show in 2017 following the departure of Len Goodman from the judging panel, can't wait to see how this year's celebrity contestants will acquit themselves on the dance floor — and she's already spotted major potential in a few of them.

Ahead of this weekend's first live performances, we chatted to Shirley to find out what she'll be looking out for when the Strictly stars take to the floor...

Shirley Ballas on the return of Strictly

"I'm absolutely ecstatic that I'm going to be going to work and seeing everybody's journey again. You always hold your breath to see if it's actually going to go back on the TV screen again, with everything being so unpredictable, so I'm completely delighted to be going back to work. I'll be seeing all my friends, all the professional dancers, and of course the new journey of all the celebrities."

Judges Craig Revel Horwood, Motsi Mabuse, Shirley Ballas, and Anton Du Beke sitting behind their individual desks (divided by transparent screens) in the Strictly studio

The judges are ready to hand out their first scores of the series. (Image credit: BBC)

The first live show is a nervous time for the celebrities — do you get nervous too?

"Terrified! My knees shake. You've got to walk to your seat, even though it's just a walk — I have tripped on those heels a few times, you know! And not quite made it to my chair on the right time to the music. I think it's just anticipation, but yes, I do get nervous — I want do a good job for the British public."

How do you approach scoring in the first week? How much of it is based on what you've just seen, and how much of it is about potential?

"Well, they have had several weeks to get ready for the first dance, so it should actually probably be quite strong. After this, they only get one week at a time, so I don't cut them too much slack, although I do understand that they're nervous and coming out in front of 15 million people for the first time. So I take that a little bit on board, but I will be watching what you can do within three weeks — three weeks is a long time!"

How much do you think viewers form their allegiances based on that first dance? Two years ago Kelvin Fletcher wowed everyone with his first routine, but last year Bill Bailey had more of a modest start... 

"Ah, I don't think you can predict that. I mean, when Kelvin came out and did that samba, I think we all almost fell off our chairs! Obviously, he was magnificent. Bill Bailey, I can still see him now doing his cha cha cha in his gold trousers — I thought, 'ooh, lordy be, help us!'. And then he turned out to be just magnificent because he studied — he liked to study as well as practise. He did everything he could to win that competition, and I applaud him for it. What a win, and well-deserved!"

How do you feel about having Anton Du Beke on the judging panel full-time this year?

"I've known Anton over 30 years, and of course when he stood in [for Motsi Mabuse] last year for a few weeks, he was very very good. 13 weeks is a little different than two weeks, but I'm sure he'll be absolutely sensational. I know that this was a dream for him, so he'll be the most excited puppy of all! We're all going to be excited, but Anton is really excited!"

What potential have you spotted in this year's celebrities?

"I think Dan Walker's got the perfect neck, shoulders and height for ballroom, so I'm interested to see what he brings to the ballroom side of things. And then you've got AJ Odudu, she's got a personality that will fill the room — she lights up any room! And Judi Love from Loose Women, I think she's going to have more rhythm than all of them put together! I've seen a little 'boom boom boom' in those hips, so I think she will surprise people — I've got this strange feeling she's going to come out and do the most spectacular dances."

There's no elimination this weekend, but how are you feeling about the dance-offs this year — does sending someone home ever get any easier?

"It never gets any easier, and it tugs at my heartstrings, but it's part of my job. I'm used to judging in competitions where, let's say if there's 500 couples in the competition, I have to winnow it down to 300, so I'm used to eliminating people. I just want everyone to bring their best foot forward — I want my job to be super-difficult when I have to send people home! And if you have a particular favourite, then vote, and I will definitely be sending home the person on that particular evening who doesn't dance the best: not what they did before, not what they're about to do, not what talent I think they've got, but what they do exactly at that point in time in front of me."

  • Strictly Come Dancing goes live on Saturday September 25 on BBC1 at 7pm.