Strictly's newest male pro AJ Pritchard says the show's been a real learning curve, but it seems he's taking it all in his stride…
Strictly would be nothing without the tireless efforts of its pro dancers. Here, new boy AJ Pritchard talks about the highlights and challenges of his debut year - and reveals that the pros are competitive both on and off the dancefloor...
How have you found being part of this year's Strictly Come Dancing so far? "It's been amazing. I love being part of the Strictly family, so all the pros, the celebrities, and all the behind-the-scenes people. It's just so nice to be working in such a productive environment."
What's been the biggest challenged for you? Has anything come as a surprise? "I've never done anything like this before, so I'm basically learning on the job; about camera angles and the way everything works. Also, nothing prepared me for the craziness of Strictly – it's a massive show!"
You're partnered with gymnast Claudia Fragapane on the show. What's she been like to work with? "It was strange dancing with Claudia at first because I'd only ever performed with my professional partner, Chloe Hewitt, who's also on the show. But Claudia's amazing - we're both very competitive and like to train hard, so we suit each other perfectly."
Competitive AJ reckons he and athlete Claudia make the perfect partnership
How long do you usually spend in training? "One week, we trained eight hours a day for three days."
What? Eight hours solid? "Yeah, but I do give Claudia a lunch break, honest! The time flies by because we've only got three days, so you start training and then you lose track of time, so then you just keep going until you get it right."
So, what's it like performing live on a Saturday night? "What's surprising is that the adrenaline is rushing before you even do your dance. When we're up in the 'Clauditorium', as we call it, the energy is crazy. I've competed all over the world, in front of thousands, but the adrenaline as you dance on that Strictly floor on a Saturday night is out of this world!"
AJ enjoys the energy of performing live on a Saturday night
Have you bonded with any of the male pro dancers in particular? "Aljaz has brought the PlayStation into the men's dressing room, so when we're not dancing we all play on that. You think it's competitive on the dance floor – on the PlayStation it's another level!"
What advice have any of the judges or pro dancers given you? "When I first started, they said just be yourself and try to make it easy for Claudia, so she can perform and be happy on the stage, so when she's dancing, she just feels relaxed and has a great time."
How did you feel recently when the judges criticised your samba routine for being too fast? "We were flying around the room, so I accept that I really did put the pressure on Claudia that week. I love the samba, but the paso doble is my favourite Latin dance – I enjoy getting into character."
AJ and Claudia's fast and furious samba got mixed reviews from the Strictly judges
We know you've been dancing since you were 12 – did you face any negativity from people growing up because you liked ballroom? "No I didn't. As a child, I was always very positive and proud of what I did. I used to perform in school, doing shows for everyone there, and I'd perform in shows all over the area where I lived, so I never had any problems because I was happy and I let everybody know what I did."
So you didn't suffer any 'Billy Elliot' type stigma, being a boy who liked to dance? "I think if you're not confident as a child and not happy to show what you're doing then obviously people are going to pick on you. But if you're confident, you love what you're doing, you're good at it and you've won things, everybody tends to treat you really well."
You and Chloe were contestants on Britain's Got Talent in 2013 – how did your experience on that show compare to being on Strictly? "The two shows are completely different in that when I did Britain's Got Talent it was very much a quick-fire thing. We went there, we auditioned, then we did the live show on the night. Whereas with Strictly, it really is like being part of a family. We see each other every week - the pros, the celebrities, all the staff - we know each other so well and, every week, we get to know each other even better."
AJ and Chloe first found TV fame on Britain's Got Talent in 2013
Are you getting recognised more now as a result of being on Strictly? And do you mind it? "At the beginning when I was really new to the team, it didn't really happen. But now when I'm in Bristol and I go to the shopping centre across the road from where I train, people spot me and want a photo. I am starting to get used to it now – but I don't know if it'll ever become normal."
Strictly Come Dancing continues on Saturdays and Sundays on BBC1
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