Strictly’s Anton Du Beke is looking suspiciously youthful as he dances around a deserted West London restaurant to illustrate the perfect steps for a waltz. But I am more intrigued by his boyish appearance.
The only remaining original pro dancer, who has been promoted to a judge for the current series, grins. So, is it Botox? I ask. He laughs.
‘I have had Botox, but only between my eyebrows to stop a twitch I get in my eyes.’
Is it another hair transplant, like the one he had in 2018?
‘You’re getting warmer, but that was bloody painful and I don’t need to do it again.’
So what is it?
He twists his head from side to side. ‘I’ve stopped dyeing my hair. I’ve let the grey come out. In lockdown I couldn’t dye it and my wife kept telling me to leave it because I looked so much better.
‘When I went back to Strictly the hair girls refused to dye it. They put me in the chair, made me look at myself and told me how ageing my old hair was. Then they cut it into this new style [with a rather quirky Tintin quiff] and I’ve had compliments ever since. I’m now a “silver fox”! Who knew it would make me look younger?’
A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today
Now 55, this once broke, ferociously driven Latin pro dancer from Kent has – in the past 17 years since the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing began – mamboed his way into national treasure status as one of the most popular and loveable stars of the show. Known chiefly for partnering the less naturally gifted celebrity dancers (Kate Garraway, Nancy Dell’Olio, Judy Murray and Ruth Langsford to name a few) he has proved himself to be charming, sportsmanlike, and highly entertaining, providing more Strictly TV gold moments than any other dancer – who could forget Ann Widdecombe being swung round in circles by her arm and legs?
He is still in touch with most of his former partners. ‘It’s a tight bond,’ he says. ‘You become their therapist, teacher, psychologist, motivator, and chief tea maker. That’s hard to walk away from.’
While others talk of the curse of Strictly, for Anton it has been a life-changing and completely unexpected gift which has led to a blissfully happy marriage he never thought he’d have (to businesswoman Hannah Summers, 45, whom he met in 2011). It also led to a fatherhood he thought would elude him when, after IVF treatment, Hannah gave birth to twins Henrietta and George in 2017, the same year the couple married.
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And, as Strictly’s cast of dancers came and went, only the ever-popular Anton has remained, rising from the floor to the judge’s panel to cover for Bruno Tonioli, who cannot travel between the UK and the US (where he judges Dancing with the Stars) due to Covid restrictions. Along with the greying hair, this promotion is a move away from the flamboyance and camaraderie of the young dancers to sitting with the older, wiser dance experts including Shirley Ballas, 60, and Craig Revel Horwood, 56.
‘I love being one of the dancers. I see all the names of the celebrities signed up and I get very big pangs. I’d love to be the one to dance with John Whaite [the Bake Off winner who will be half of the show’s first all-male pairing] because I think it’s marvellous to be inclusive, and I’d love to have been partnered with Rose Ayling-Ellis [the EastEnders actor who is the show’s first deaf contestant].’
It almost sounds as if he is a reluctant judge. But there is nothing reluctant about Anton. Last year he stood in temporarily for Motsi Mabuse and loved it.
‘I was delighted to be asked,’ he says. ‘It’s a real thrill. I’ve known Shirley for 35 years and Craig forever. He was one of the first people to congratulate me along with Bruno and Motsi. They’re a good gang.’
His stint on the panel is billed as being for this year only, with a return to the dance floor next year. But, given his popularity, who knows? Anton can only smile and shrug. You wonder whether his fellow pro dancers are leaving gifts on his doorstep in an attempt to curry favour. ‘They all tell me they are missing me,’ he says. ‘But they know I’m fair, they know I understand what they do.
‘I’ve never had a problem with any criticism, except when Alesha Dixon was on the judging panel [2009-2011]. She was savage and it could be pretty upsetting – especially for the celebrities. For me, it’s more about being constructive and entertaining.’
Anton was 14 when he picked his sister, Veronica, up from a dance class and was immediately hooked. ‘I fell in love with the fact there were rules and form to this world. I don’t like mayhem.’ He took on any job he could – in a bakery, selling antique furniture – to fund his progress in the brutal world of competitive ballroom.
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He was permanently broke, with cardboard covering the holes in his shoes and his extra-long cuffed shirts turned over to hide the fraying edges. To his customers he was charming and funny but on the dance floor he was aggressive and solitary.
‘My dad was a drunk, a violent man, I don’t like to think about him,’ he says. ‘My mum had to work two jobs, so life wasn’t great, but we just got on with it.’
When he first met his wife, Hannah, she called him ‘an island of an individual’ because he was very much a loner. Although he loves his mum and his siblings, he says, ‘We are not the type to be calling each other every day or even every week’.
There were no significant ex partners in his life, and he admits he never expected to find love and have children. ‘I came to it all very late,’ he nods. ‘I met Hannah and I just…’ he stops talking. I think there might be tears, but he pushes on. ‘I never thought I’d be this happy,’ he says and stops again.
They met at a dinner party and, instantly smitten, he followed her to the loo, his only chance to get her on her own. They played golf together and, ‘It was like that,’ he says, looking teary. ‘I just knew I’d never meet anyone like her and I couldn’t let her go.’
He admits that children had never been part of his plan. ‘I always knew if I had children, it would be with the woman I wanted to be with for the rest of my life, but I never thought I’d find that woman. For Hannah, children were a big part of the picture, but it wasn’t simple because she had endometriosis, which makes conceiving very difficult. We talked about it, but my philosophy is there is no such expression as “I can’t”, there is only “I can try”. So we decided to go down the IVF route.’
It was not a simple process. ‘It was injections every single day,’ he says, his eyes filling once more. ‘People say “we” are pregnant, but it’s nonsense. It’s all down to the woman. I felt helpless because the injections made her feel sick, they were painful. I couldn’t do anything except talk to her, give her foot massages and tell her how much I loved her.
‘And from the moment we were told the IVF had worked – the very first time – it felt as if everything was so delicate. Like holding dandelion fluff in your hands and trying not to crush it. I felt scared, humbled by Hannah and just in awe of her, of women. And then our babies were born.’
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He had no fear about being a bad father. ‘I’m not my father,’ he says. ‘Never have been. I was 14 when my brother [Stephen] was born and, because my mum was working, me and my sister looked after him, so I knew all about nappies and feeding. But it’s very different when they are your own. My children delight me every single day.’
Fatherhood – like marriage – came at the age of 50. He was a hands-on, nappy changing, puréed carrots-feeding father and now his daughters are four and a half, he is the dance teacher, the driver, the bedtime story reader and the cuddler.
He takes his role as a provider very seriously, berating himself for missing time with them as he tours the country or performs on Strictly.
‘But you have to work. We just have the two and there won’t be any more. You have to earn the money to give them the life you want them to have,’ he says.
When Covid came along, he says it was the best of times and worst of times. ‘I had all that time to spend with them, which was wonderful, but a few months in I did start getting very anxious. Then I started doing online dance classes, which was massively enjoyable and great fun.’
He is now perhaps less an island of an individual and more a continent of families. He laughs, ‘There’s my family, Hannah’s family and my Strictly family. I’m part of so many families and I love it.
‘My family [his mother lives between Spain and the UK] are close, but we only really speak to each other when there’s something to say. Hannah speaks to her mum and her sister every day. They both live up the road and they come on holiday with us. The house is always full of life and laughter.’
So, what next for Anton? Does becoming a judge mean he can finally slacken off that punishing dancer’s regime (for one year at least), put his feet up and eat cake?
‘No way,’ he says. ‘My old dance teacher [Beryl Turner from the Holton School of Dancing] used to have a motto: “Be better”.
‘To me you never give up, you crack on, keep going, be better and life does get better.’