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He is best known as the energetic and ever-smiley host of CBBC – but Rhys Stephenson has taken on a very different challenge by putting his best foot forward on Strictly Come Dancing.
And as soon as the competition began, the 27-year-old and his pro partner Nancy Xu – competing for the first time herself after featuring in 2019 as a backing dancer – were earmarked as one of the bookies’ hot favourites to lift the coveted Glitterball trophy.
But being tipped to win does have its downsides as Rhys says the hype about his ability piled on the pressure.
He threw himself into the spirit of the BBC hit as Nancy, 29, helped him perfect his form with a posture device worn across his shoulders, got him suited up and created a Viennese waltz routine that wowed the judges. And their hard work put them in fourth position on the leaderboard in the first week.
Here, the pair reflect on their great rapport, Rhys’s lifting power and the drastic move he suggested to help keep his nerves at bay…
Hi, both! How did the first weeks of your training go?
Rhys: It was great. I was so excited.
Nancy: Just after we were paired, he immediately showed me
How did you impress Nancy?
Rhys: I went to lift her while hugging her and lifted her so quickly and with so much strength that she nearly went through the ceiling. I hadn’t realised how light she was! Nancy was like, “Your lifts are going to be great.”
Nancy: A lift is not about how strong you are, it’s about the timing, and when Rhys hugged me like that – it was perfect timing!
Rhys: She says it was a hug but it was more of a Heimlich manoeuvre.
Did you find you worked well together immediately?
Rhys: She’s brilliant. I can’t see us falling out. The only thing that I predicted was me being hard on myself and having a temper tantrum, because I wanted to get something right.
Nancy: I am very hard in practice but I am a nice person really.
Rhys: She warned me not to be put off by her face. She said it might look a bit hard but it’s not personal, it’s just her “resting training face”. So I had to be careful not to look at her and think that she hated me. That was just her being intense.
You began the competition as one of the bookies’ favourites. How did that feel?
Rhys: I didn’t understand what they had seen to be able to make those assumptions! It was flattering, obviously, but there was a little
bit of added pressure. Before the show started, friends of mine said they wanted to bet on me and I was like, “Don’t do that, let’s just wait.”
Your rapport is great. We guess you were both happy with the pairing?
Rhys: I’m so happy.
Nancy: He’s my first celebrity partner and, having seen what he could do,
I felt so lucky.
Rhys: We both have a lot of energy – Claudia Winkleman knew she wouldn’t get a word in edgeways when she interviewed us. If they took mine and Nancy’s energy, they could power a few countries with that.
Nancy, it’s your first time competing though you’ve been on Strictly before. Are you nervous too?
Nancy: Yes but I wanted to go for it. I wanted to push Rhys too, because I knew what he could do. I’m tough.
Rhys: It’s literally like military school. Drills and everything.
What kind of crucial advice did Nancy give you before the series began, Rhys?
Rhys: We’d done a little jiving and she taught me some technical things, like the importance of your knees and lifting them up after the kick, so it’s more like a flick. But the main thing she told me was just to have fun.
Do you have a leaning towards the ballroom or Latin?
Rhys: I think I’m going to be more of a Latin dancer.
Nancy: He’s also got huge ballroom potential, because he has a long neck and he’s already showed me some great shaping.
Rhys: I’d never done ballroom in my life! All I’d done was street dance. With Strictly, you have to know where you’re placing every part of your body, you can’t get away with just flair on its own.
From the start, were you both in it to win it?
Nancy: I was. I started doing competitions when I was eight, so I’m a very competitive person.
Rhys: I’m so competitive. I’d do whatever it takes to lift that Glitterball trophy. But I love celebrating others too. If someone else does an incredible cha-cha-cha, I’ll be screaming for them.
How nervous were you to enter the Strictly whirlwind?
Rhys: I was about 80% excited and 20% nervous. When the show begins and they say, “Rhys and Nancy, you guys are up,” that’s when I’m paralysed with fear. So I told Nancy to give me a couple of quick slaps across the face and I’d be fine.
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