It says a lot that Katya Jones winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2017 is arguably the least interesting thing to happen to her since joining the show. Along the way, the Russian dancer has faced scandals, divorce and arguments with her partners, while honing a skill for polishing untrained celebrities into dance diamonds. Where certain pros who may now sit on the judging panel would get lumped with a “joke” contestant like, off the top of my head, Ann Widdecombe, and accept that stereotype, giving them unchallenging choreography and even, say, dragging them around the floor (cough, Anton Du Beke, cough), Jones never does. For her, there are no “joke” contestants. Not Ed Balls. Not Tony Adams.
On day one of her first season in 2017, the pro was dropped in at the deep end. Partnered with Balls, a former shadow chancellor famous for, among other things, tweeting the words “Ed Balls” with no explanation, she chose to swim. Instead of whining about baffling song choices when the couple were made to dance a salsa to “Gangnam Style”, Jones choreographed one of the most imaginative dances in Strictly history, turning Balls into, dare I say it, an impressive dancer. Matt Hancock wishes he could look this dignified on reality TV.
In just one season, Jones cemented herself as that pro, unafraid to push her partners to their untapped full potential. The following year, she won with Holby City actor Joe McFadden, despite him not being the best dancer on that series (not to be all “Alexandra Burke woz robbed”, but she was). People liked McFadden and, just as crucially, they liked Jones.
Then in 2018, things came crashing down. Jones was photographed kissing her celebrity partner Seann Walsh (currently befriending Matt Hancock with chilling ease on I’m a Celebrity… ) on his girlfriend Rebecca Humphries’ birthday. Overnight, their lives became tabloid fodder. In an apparent move to preserve the show’s image, the judges put them at the bottom of the leaderboard and the public voted them out. Katya and her husband Neil, also a pro on Strictly, put on a united front for a year, but announced their split the following August after six years of marriage.
“Kissgate” was arguably the biggest scandal in Strictly’s history, no mean feat for a show so associated with cheating allegations it has its own “curse”, which has bewitched everyone from Joe Calzaghe to Stacey Dooley. But it was made all the more infuriating because with Jones, Walsh had begun to look like a good dancer. After a stumbly start, his Matrix-themed paso doble was one of the coolest dances the show had ever seen (and I rarely use the c-word about a show where Corrie stars learn the waltz).
In the years since that kiss, Jones has never had a shot at Strictly glory again. Some fans have even argued she’s partnered with celebs who are clearly never going to win the show as punishment for damaging the show’s reputation. But if that is the case, Jones has never approached it that way. From BBC Breakfast’s Mike Bushell to swimmer Adam Peaty, she’s taken non-dancers and transformed them. Her 2020 appearance in the show’s first competitive same-sex partnership with Nicola Adams could have been her redemption arc, had their time not been cut short by an unfortunate bout of Covid.
Which brings us to this year and Adams. Despite having the least natural dance skill of any of Jones’s partners, our pro has pushed the former footballer with uncompromising routines packed with dance content. In montages of Strictly training footage, you’ll usually spot Jones barking at her partners and cracking the metaphorical whip. She doesn’t see Adams, or any of the celebrities, as a lost cause and knows she can get good dancing out of them.
That’s why the sight of the pair arguing after last week’s shoddy Salsa doesn’t surprise me. Adams had been on the up and had proven that he wasn’t this “joke” after all, so to see him mess up and slip back into that mindset was as disappointing for Jones as it was for the audience. But I don’t think that one dance will necessarily spell the end of their Strictly journey. Both pro and celeb are well-liked by the public and they want to see them return to form. No other pro would have got Adams this far in the competition – which might be a bad thing, depending how you look at it. But Jones is the best thing to happen to Strictly and one that should be more appreciated.
‘Strictly Come Dancing’ continues Saturday 12 November at 6.55pm on BBC One