For the past three days the British newspapers, broadsheet and tabloid alike, have been obsessed with a particular story.
No, not Trump’s latest outrage, or the Brexit fiasco, or Russian poisoners, or anything so tiresomely familiar. The object of their attention is — a kiss. Or, if you prefer the vernacular of some of our earthier publications, a ‘snog’. For those foreign readers unfamiliar with a word widely-used in less-refined social circles, ‘snogging’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘to kiss and cuddle amorously’.
The participants in this erotic display were a comedian nobody has ever heard of, Seann Walsh and a Russian professional dancer (ditto) named Katya Jones. We have all heard of them now. They are respectively a celebrity contestant and his professional dance partner on a BBC reality television show called Strictly Come Dancing, a contest that starts with fifteen competing couples and over the course of two months ends with one pair winning the ultimate prize, a trophy shaped in the shape of a ballroom ‘glitter ball’. The show holds tens of millions of television-watchers – my wife among them – in thrall every Saturday evening during the autumn months. (The format has been sold to dozens of other nations, including the United States, where it is called Dancing with the Stars.)
Anyway, after dancing a tango on the Saturday night, a performance that one of the judges declared to be the most sensual he could recall, a tabloid published its scoop – grainy pictures of Seann and Katya relaxing over a post-rehearsal drink or two at a nearby pub, leading to an exhibition on the pavement outside of flirtatious behaviour, which included that now infamous interweaving of tongues.
On seeing the pictures splattered all over the papers, Mr Walsh’s partner promptly denounced him in a long Twitter message as a rat and an emotional bully. “I am not a victim,” she began mysteriously, before decamping from their shared home, taking the shared cat with her. Miss Jones’s husband, a fellow-dancer on the show, sensibly – or insensitively – said nothing. The perpetrators of the outrage issued abject apologies for their behaviour, naturally blaming it on the devil rum.
The incident has divided the nation – once more, it may be said, along the familiar lines of remain or leave. That is, should the couple stay on the show or be booted off. A media debate has erupted pitting the couple’s outraged detractors – concerned that participants in a supposedly ‘family programme’ might be putting the nation’s morals at risk – against shoulder-shrugging defenders – at pains to point out that dancing is merely, as one columnist neatly put it, a “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”, the couple’s behaviour being, if not commendable, then at least perfectly understandable.
No doubt the ‘Me-Too’ movement will soon be weighing in on behalf of Mr Walsh’s wronged girlfriend. The government has so far remained silent, although Theresa May’s little podium dance at the recent Conservative Party conference suggests that she might be a secret Strictly fan and that we might expect a statement from Downing Street at any time.
The detractors have a narrow point, of course. The show has seen so many dance partners falling in and out of love, or lust, some with marital consequences, that the phenomenon has acquired an epithet: the ‘Strictly Curse’. Some curse.
A broader and more obvious point is that the sensual movements on the dance floor, the obvious sexual attraction between some of the partners,
the anticipation of revelations of an affair, are the very reasons that so many viewers watch it. Indeed, without the flimsy costumes, both male and female, the erotic innuendos, the sexual tensions inherent in many of the dance routines, and the calculated double entendres of the judges, the show would fall as flat as the dancers’ figures are curved.
Part of the pleasure of watching clumsy, flat-footed celebrity contestants like Seann Walsh is in seeing how the professional partners miraculously turn the stumbling immobility of their pupils into rhythmic fluidity, sentry-like postures into alluring poses, atrophied hips into swivelling differential gears. This transformation involves countless hours – weeks – of physical sweat-drenched proximity, which is bound to generate sexual attraction. Some suppress it, others liberate it. Whenever I observe (secretly, from behind my newspaper) the sultry gyrations of the strikingly attractive Katya Jones, I wonder how anything but liberation could ever prevail.
Many years ago there was a programme on the BBC – actually in name and format a direct ancestor of Strictly – called Come Dancing, hosted by a prissy, plumy-voiced presenter called Peter West. It featured ballroom couples gliding around the floor with numbers on their backs, the men in black tie the women in billowing gowns. No rumbas, no tangos, no jives – in short, no vertical expressions of horizontal desires. It was stilted and snooze-inducing.
It’s successor programme has never been anything but unabashedly about sexual frisson, whatever the stiff-necked critics of Mr Walsh and Ms Jones claim. The Strictly producers have reportedly told Walsh and Jones to tone things down a little for their next dance – a Charleston, I understand. How disappointing. I commend them to bear in mind Dooley Wilson’s advice: “You must remember this/a kiss is just a kiss/a sigh is just a sigh/the fundamental things apply …”