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The STRICTLY Dance Diaries

JoWeekOne1Meet Jo Willacy, 41; journalist by day, Ginger Rogers by night (in her dreams). Married to Gavin, they have been learning to ballroom and Latin dance for nearly four years – all of which stemmed from Jo’s love of Strictly Come Dancing.  

Dancing isn’t just a passion and a form of exercise for Jo, it’s helping to keep her alive. Find out why in this, her first instalment, then follow her weekly blogs, as she talks about her dancing life, all things Strictly and aims to get you up and dancing in time for Christmas. Here, Jo explains what got her in the mood for dancing…

Whenever I hear music these days I start counting. That’s a strange phenomenon for me as I’ve always been a words person. Literacy. Tick. Numeracy. A big fat cross. But now, whatever I’m doing, whether it’s cooking with the radio on or driving with a CD playing, music sets me off; a 1,2,3,4, and 5, 6, 7, 8… Counting the beats, I know within seconds whether it’s a cha cha, rumba, quickstep or jive. Then, more often than not, I practise a few steps. By myself. A quick cha cha with my Marigolds on is fine, but attempting a rumba while driving is slightly trickier. Trust me, I’ve tried it.

My love affair with Latin and ballroom dancing began 14 years ago. For a long time, it was only admiration from afar. In ‘real’ life, I was touched by my then 57 year old dad having the balls to learn salsa.

Jo with Dad at Gav's 40th fancy dress
Jo with her dad, David at husband Gav’s 40th – the theme was ‘dress as anything starting with G’ – Jo was Ginger Rogers and David was jazz singer George Melly

Dad’s passion for it was infectious. (He still does it now – aged 71 and three years on from his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease.)

mugA few years later, in ‘TV reality’ life, I was mesmerised by a new show called Strictly Come Dancing. The music, the costumes, the glitter balls and, of course, the dancing, enchanted me week after week, year after year.



Jo and Gav doing the jive on a Mediterranean cruise across the Bay of Biscay with Apton Dance School

The love affair blossomed until, one freezing Thursday night in January 2010 (yes, you’re right to wonder why it took me so long – more on that next week), admiration turned to action, and I found my feet attempting to follow what was being shouted out from the front of a school hall – ‘forward, replace, side-close-side’. Slowly at first, a touch faster, to music, then with – heaven help them – my hips attempting to wiggle – and finally – ta da! – we were told we’d just learnt some basic cha cha cha steps. And that was it. Latin and ballroom dancing became my passion.

Jo and Gavin at an annual dancing weekend with their dance school

By my side that night was my husband, Gavin – a reluctant participant who’d promised to ‘try it once’. Fast forward nearly four years and I’ve got myself a would-be Anton du Beke (Strictly fans, insert the male pro of your choice here!). He tells me he’s trying to channel his inner Artem, but there’s work to be done there, with the pecs, the sixpack and the fancy footwork.

By rights, I shouldn’t be able to dance. By rights (maybe even, Strictly speaking…) I shouldn’t be here. At 41, I’ve lived 33 years longer than was first predicted. When I was born, in 1972, my parents were told I may only survive to be eight. I have cystic fibrosis (CF), the most common inherited disease in the UK. CF causes the internal organs, particularly the lungs and digestive system, to become clogged with thick sticky mucus resulting in chronic chest infections and lung inflammation. Growing up, CF was always referred to as a life-threatening disease; now it’s referred to as life-shortening. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, the average life expectancy was considered to be 31. Now the CF Trust refers to the ‘median predicted survival’ as 41.

On her 41st birthday this year, Jo was in hospital having intravenous antibiotics for a chest infection related to her Cystic Fibrosis – but celebrated all the same

So, having reached exactly that age in July this year (as a hospital in-patient, but celebrating all the same), and having developed diabetes 22 years along the way, I know I’m one of the lucky ones, and luckier still to be well enough to dance. Compared to my peers, though, I’m way down the league table fitness-wise – my lung function is just 38 per cent while theirs, if they’re non-smokers and otherwise healthy, should be nudging top whack.

Jo has three different types of nebulising treatment each day to keep her lungs healthy and get her dance-floor ready (not all treatments done in sequins, mind)

There are wildly differing degrees of severity in CF; that bit’s down to the genes, but hard work plays a part in keeping health stable. I’ve rarely rebelled against doing my numerous and time-consuming treatments even though there’ve been times when I’ve wanted to (and, I hasten to add, still are). Even as a teenager, when it’s common for people with CF to skip treatments in favour of a social life, I combined my then passion – gymnastics – with my treatment, using backflips and somersaults as my chest physiotherapy.

Jo and Gav (Gav as Great Gatsby) doing the Cha-Cha at Gav’s 40th – most of his friends didn’t know he’d even started dancing

Such athleticism is all but a distant memory, but now the likes of Cuban breaks, New Yorkers, lock steps, rondes and spot turns keep me entertained – and challenged (learning to dance is said to be great for staving off Alzheimer’s). I was always an admirer of the slower ballroom dances – the waltz and the foxtrot – so I didn’t start out thinking of it as exercise. I still don’t. And that’s the best thing about it. It really doesn’t feel like exercise, and is never a chore but, in fact, the health benefits are endless, for mind and body. A fast quickstep is a great cardio workout; a lively cha cha is a fantastic thigh toner, while arms poised in close-hold throughout a waltz keeps the bingo wings at bay. There’s also the laughing. Lots of it. What better medicine is there? And answer me this: is there any other exercise that allows you to don sequins and sparkles to your heart’s content? Ballroom and Latin dancing – it’s exercise with bling. What’s not to love?

Jo and Gav learn to dance at Apton Dance Studio

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