For years, fans of Strictly Come Dancing like us, have wished they themselves could step onto the Strictly dancefloor and now those dreams are about to come true.
6 inspirational and uh-may-zing people are about to get the chance of a lifetime to compete as part of The People’s Strictly for Comic Relief. The programme starts next Wednesday (25th February) at 9pm and follows 6 very lucky people who have been nominated by friends and family to take part in the show.
The contestants have each been paired with professional dancer from the Strictly Come Dancing family and are training hard as they perform to the nation. They will become the new stars of the show.
The pairings are:
Phil Barnett and Janette Manrara – dancing the foxtrot
Trishna Bharadia and Aljaz Skorjanez – dancing the jive
Anna Kennedy and Robin Windsor – dancing the charleston
Cassidy Little and Natalie Lowe – dancing the paso doble
Heather Parsons and Ian Waite – dancing the viennese waltz
Michael Pattie and Aliona Vilani – dancing the tango
We will follow their story from taking their first steps to ultimately competing on the Dancefloor in episode 4. What’s more, us the audience at home will have the chance to vote on who will be crowned The People’s Strictly Champion on Red Nose Day!
Here’s a little more about each of the pairings, so you can get to know our couples:
Phil Barnett and Janette Manrara
From: St Ives
Hero Qualities: Founder of Youth Theatre Company, Kidz R Us
Dance Partner: Janette Manrara
Quote: “This is my all-time dream, one of the best things that has happened in my life.”
Twenty years ago, hairdresser and amateur-dramatics enthusiast Phil gathered a small group of local kids for a one-off concert in aid of Save The Children. Following its success, he decided to give up his full-time hairdressing business and set up ‘Kidz R Us’, a Youth Theatre Company for six to 24 year-olds in St Ives.
Through practical engagement in the performing arts, the company aims to build confidence in its young members, providing them with a hobby, a goal and a safe family environment. Since it started, Phil estimates that 2,000 children have been through its doors, half of those being from disadvantaged backgrounds. They have also raised over £2 million pounds through their 50-plus shows and events.
Whilst Kidz R Us has helped some young people through tough times and bad situations, for others, it’s provided a fun hobby – and a few have even taken the skills honed at Kidz and gone on to become professional actors in the West End.
But now it’s founder Phil’s turn to take to the stage! Trading directing for dancing, Phil is temporarily swapping his musical theatre stage for the Strictly stage. Wish him luck!
Hero Qualities: Multiple Sclerosis and disability fundraiser and awareness campaigner
Dance Partner: Aljaz Scorjanec
Quote: “Whether or not you win, you feel as though you’ve already won. I’m getting to do things I’d never have dreamed about.”
Trishna was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008, at the age of 28. She has since worked tirelessly to help and support others with MS, putting aside her own health issues to help raise awareness and inspire others with the illness. She has worked particularly hard within the Asian community, where she feels that disability is often hidden away and discriminated against, as well as with young people who have been diagnosed with MS.
Trishna volunteers with several MS charities, including the MS Society, Asian MS and the MS Trust and, in 2013, she was named ‘Volunteer of the Year’ at the MS Society Awards. As well as fundraising, Trishna is also Editor of the Asian MS quarterly newsletter; writes for MS and disability-awareness magazines and blogs; and speaks at both local events and large pharmaceutical conferences about MS – something which was initially very hard for her due to her shyness and fear of public speaking. She is keen to put a ‘face’ to MS, rather than being viewed as a statistic.
Outside of her time spent volunteering, Trishna works hard to ensure MS doesn’t stop her leading an active life – she plays hockey and attends regular Zumba classes. She is a Strictly Come Dancing super-fan who never misses an episode. (She puts the show on series record to make sure of this!) At a dance event last year she met her favourite dancer, Aljaz, and made a beeline for a selfie with him! We can’t wait to see her excitement when she’s actually dancing on the Strictly floor with the man himself!
Hero Qualities: Meningitis Research Foundation fundraiser and awareness campaigner
Dance Partner: Aliona Vilani
Quote: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; life is about learning to dance in the rain.”
In 1999 Michael tragically lost his 13-year-old son Dave to Meningitis. Since Dave’s death, Michael has been tirelessly fundraising for the Meningitis Research Foundation and has raised over £300,000 – some of which contributed towards the development of a ground-breaking new Meningitis B vaccine, available on the NHS.
The majority of this £300,000 has been raised through an idea that came to Michael in front of the TV 10 years ago: putting on local Strictly Come Dancing events. These fundraisers, called ‘Strictly for Charity’ have now been running for a decade and, as well as generating funds, have provided a vehicle for the Dumfries community to come together.
Michael also leads outreach and awareness events, speaking at local schools and parent toddler groups to teach people the Meningitis symptoms to look out for. Michael’s contribution to the Meningitis Research Foundation has been praised by Scotland’s manager for MRF, Mary Millar, who says: “Michael’s work has saved lives and he is the best fundraiser we have ever had in Scotland. We are incredibly grateful to him.” In 2013, Michael was named Scottish Charity Champion.
Regarding his motivation to dedicate his life to fundraising and spreading awareness of Meningitis, Michael says: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; life is about learning to dance in the rain.”
And now, it’s the Strictly floor that Michael will be learning to dance on – and as one of Strictly’s biggest fans, it’s safe to say he’s more than a little excited!
Hero Qualities: Set up a charity to support intensive care patients and their families
Dance Partner: Ian Waite
Quote: “It’s every little girl’s dream to be in that sparkly outfit, being waltzed around the dance floor with a lovely partner and Strictly makes that dream a reality for a couple of hours on a Saturday evening.”
In 2002, Heather was on a skiing holiday with her son Will, who was seven at the time, when she contracted Necrotising Fasciitis – a flesh-eating bug – that left her in intensive care. Her body’s immune system did not fight the infection and her organs began to fail. Her kidneys stopped working, she suffered a heart attack and her breathing had to be supported. She was in a coma for two weeks, hospitalised for six, and underwent 15 operations. At one point her family were told that her chance of survival was just 30 per cent.
When she woke from her coma, it was the thought of Will at home that helped Heather to pull through, but following her release from hospital, it wasn’t easy for her. Convinced that intensive care patients and their friends and families needed greater emotional support upon recovery, Heather left her job and re-mortgaged her house in order to set up the charity ‘Where There’s A Will’ to help to provide this support. Since then she has been volunteering her time daily at the Intensive Care Unit at Southampton General Hospital offering what she calls “TLC: tea, listening and compassion”.
Heather and son Will recently also developed an app to help ICU patients who can’t speak to communicate with staff. This is now in medical use.
Being a Strictly super-fan, watching Strictly every week is often the only time that Heather takes time out for herself. But now, Heather’s spare time will be spent dancing for Strictly instead!
Keeping active for autism
Hero Qualities: Set up schools and support for people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders
Dance Partner: Robin Windsor
Quote: “Strictly is me time. It’s an autism-free zone. It’s just me, sitting down with a bag of chocolate and Strictly on the telly.”
Anna’s two sons, Patrick, 24 and Angelo, 20, were both diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorders as young children. The severity of their conditions meant that they were turned away from 26 local mainstream schools, as they couldn’t cater for their individual needs. Both boys were finally offered just five hours of home tuition per week.
Anna decided something had to be done for her boys, and with the help of her husband Sean, took on the challenge of founding a school themselves. They relentlessly fundraised and re-mortgaged their home to raise the £627,000 needed, and in 1999 The Hillingdon Manor School finally opened its doors. It started out with just 19 pupils but has since grown to over 150, and is now the largest school of its kind for Autistic children in Europe.
Anna has since set up another specialist school, an autism awareness charity and a respite home for adults. She provides training for the NSPCC and Childline and also runs various other fundraising and awareness events throughout the year.
A self-confessed Strictly obsessive, Anna’s a big fan of dance, and enjoys tap dancing classes when her schedule allows, which she describes as her “autism-free zone”. Upon recently returning to a class, she compared herself to a battery that had been recharged for the first time! We wonder how she’ll feel after her Strictly experience: fully recharged or completely exhausted?! Either way, she’s in for a fabulous time – and boy, does she deserve it!
From the battlefield to the Ballroom, Cassidy lives out his dream to dance!
From: Peterborough (born in Canada)
Hero Qualities: Marine Medic who helped other Marines through rehab, despite his own injuries
Dance Partner: Natalie Lowe
Quote: “There’s no success in things that are easy.”
Lance Corporal Cassidy Little is a former Royal Marine medic, who lost his right leg below the knee during a tour of Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. An Improvised Explosive Device was triggered, resulting in three fatalities and five seriously injured Marines including Cassidy. Despite his own horrific injuries, Cassidy selflessly attempted to tend to his colleagues on the ground after the attack.
Following the incident, Cassidy spent a week in an induced coma, and two months in hospital. He then undertook intensive rehabilitation with his fellow injured Marines, who commented that it was Cassidy’s optimism and sense of humour that helped them through an incredibly tough time. Major Steve McCulley, who spent over two years in rehab with Cassidy, stated: “Every single seriously injured service person goes through very dark periods and were it not for Cassidy, those dark periods would have been far longer and far harder for many to deal with, me included.”
And it wasn’t just Cassidy’s upbeat attitude that helped his colleagues – but his love of dance too! Previously an avid dancer – and with a degree in music and dance – Cassidy taught fellow Marine JJ Chalmers how to Waltz while out in Afghanistan, so JJ could impress his fiancée at their first dance for their wedding. When Cassidy was being airlifted to Camp Bastian following the incident, JJ said Cassidy joked: “there go my dancing days!” – But how wrong he was!
Though Cassidy’s days of dancing at university may be over, it’s the Strictly ballroom that’s calling him now – and his fellow Marines can’t wait to see him. As Major Steve McCulley reveals: “no one will admit to it, but Marines all have a soft spot for a bit of Strictly!”
Those are our 6 fab-u-lous couples. We can’t wait to watch this series and will be tweeting and watching throughout! We hope you can join us as help relieve your Strictly Blues.
Pics and Bios Credit to BBC Media Centre