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Are Strictly Come Dancing voters racist?

In this week’s print issue of The Stage (and also reproduced online), a writer to the letters page wonders whether racism is a reality in TV talent shows:

I just wanted to get the chance to bring up an issue that has repeatedly come to my attention over the last year observing reality TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, I’d Do Anything, Last Choir Standing and The X-Factor and which I’m sad to say has very much been the case since these programmes began.

In these shows contestants of ethnic minorities are repeatedly voted off by the British public in situations where they are held in better esteem by their fellow contestants/judges/leaderboards than their white rivals indicating the ‘support your own ethnic/class group’ mentality of the British public, which surely makes any of these competitions unfair and must be very dispiriting for an ethnic minority performer in Britain.

Last week, of course, we had a Strictly Come Dancing dance-off between the only two ethnic minority celebrities, actor Don Warrington and singer Heather Small, despite three other couples receiving lower marks from the judges.

So does our letter writer have a point?

Let’s start with Strictly. For this show, above all the other reality shows cited, we have some statistical data. It’s the only show where the judges in the studio award points, and have a direct input into the scores received by contestants.

Last week’s show saw political correspondent John Sergeant, GMTV presenter Andrew Castle and swimmer Mark Foster (along with their respective partners, Kristina Rihanoff, Ola Jordan and Hayley Holt) avoid the dance-off despite receiving fewer than 20 points apiece. Heather and Don, on the other hand, were awarded 23 and 25 points respectively, yet found themselves having to dance again.

When it comes to calculating the final placement each week, though, the judges’ scores are regraded, so that whoever is in last place gets 1 point, the couple with the next highest score gets 2 points, and so on. Viewers’ votes are converted into a similar scale, and the two scores are added together.

This means that although there were a clear six points between Mark and Andrew (17 points each) and Heather, there was a single point difference when the scores were calculated — which effectively means that, while the middle of the judges’ leaderboard may look like a safe position, it’s actually quite a precarious one.

There is plenty of evidence that the public has a tendency to support those couples who find themselves right at the bottom of the list (one may call it the “Garraway Factor”, after last year’s principal beneficiary). That was certainly the case with John Sergeant, even though he tempted fate by acknowledging it on screen. It’s not inconceivable that both Mark and Andrew received some similar support, for whatever reason — the sight of an Olympic swimmer’s pectorals, or the sight of a grown man beating himself up for not doing very well being two possibilities. On various SCD message boards, it’s also become folklore that whenever Craig Revel Horwood, the show’s harshest judge, awards a low mark, the public overcompensates.

With both Heather and Don, it was disappointing to see them in the dance-off — but it was not unexpected (indeed, one of our commenters proved remarkably prescient). So it’s disappointing that the show was forced to lose 50% of its black representatives, but it’s not in itself proof of endemic racism.


The main example our letter writer cited was of I’d Do Anything contestant Keisha Amponsa-Banson, whose departure from the show saw Andrew Lloyd-Webber leave his podium at haste.

Keisha was a veteran of the IDA sing-off, having been placed in the bottom two by the voting public. It was far from her first time in that position, though, and each time she had previously been asked to sing for survival, it was just as believable that she was there for artistic reasons than because of her skin colour.

On the night in question, she gave an improved performance than she had in previous weeks, despite battling with a throat infection. And in the sing-off, I wrote:

I felt Keisha’s presence there was unwarranted this week, and certainly in the sing-off itself she gave a blistering performance. Andrew, never very good at hiding his emotions, proclaimed himself to be very, very angry, but ultimately saved Niamh, leaving Keisha to finally exit the competition after many near misses. Andrew wasted no time in departing his throne either, a walkout that the BBC cameras helpfully recorded for posterity.

As far as I know, Lord Lloyd-Webber has never publicly stated just why he was so angry on that night. From what we’ve seen of the man, though, it would have been down to artistic (and, of course, commercial) reasons and those alone. As I again said at the time:

…if you want 100% control over the casting, the last thing you do is involve the Saturday evening voting public…


I’m not trying to deny anything here. There may be some element of racial profiling going on in some people’s minds when they ring a premium rate phone line to vote. Certainly some clearly vote on entertainment value rather than for technical ability to generate the Garraway Factor. I remain optimistic, though, that a larger portion vote for the person who they think can best fill the role, or the celebrity that is becoming the best dancer.

I actually think that there some issues of race to be explored more fully when it comes to Strictly Come Dancing. Not on the celebrity side — a show where Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson are runners up (in series 2 and 3 respectively), and the show has been won by ethnic minority competitors (Mark Ramprakash and Alesha Dixon) for the last two years has actually shown that ability wins out every time, regardless of skin colour.

No, the real kicker for me is that in all six series of the show, every single one of the professional dancers taking part has been white. If you really want to talk about race in Strictly, that’s where you ought to start.

9 Comments

I must admit the race of the pro dancers had never occurred to me, and is a fair point. You've listed the successful dancers that prove it isn't governing the vote on SCD. Nobody voted Don or Heather off, and if it was a negative vote, I doubt they would have been the 2. I do think race is one of many factors, sadly, but not the most important thing affecting votes.

But I do think a percentage of the British public is unimaginative when casting - as the very vocal objections to Nancy being not white in the recent BBC Oliver Twist showed. They insist on seeing that sort of casting as 'PC', as if there weren't any non-white people in Britain in Dickens' time. I think it probably was a factor in 'I'd Do Anything'.

It didn't occur to me that there was any racial issue in voting on SCD. I think, for the reasons the author of the blog has stated, people like to cheer on the underdog, will happily pay for a fit body to stay another week (thanks Mark Foster!), and then ultimately vote for who is best. Heather's dance just didn't do it for me, but it wasn't because she was black, just 'cause her dancing didn't capture my imagination. Even if John Sergeant was worse in the judges' estimation, he gave good entertainment value despite that, (the 'Garraway factor').

I think there were issues around Oliver and also Merlin because the legends and stories are so ingrained. And people can argue that's because a white patriarchy instilled these stories, but it's undeniably part of the mish mash of UK heritage. Just like it was travesty against Celtic culture when the southern home counties pouty Keira Knightly portrayed a woad version of Guinevere that was absolutely laughable, it was also deemed inappropriate in a recent report for ethnic minorities to be featured in shows where they would not naturally be placed just to "tick boxes". Guinevere, in any stretch of the imagination, was never mixed race or black or ethnic minority. On I'd Do Anything the panel found it a stretch, and it was embarrassing, to see them reach for "proof" that Irish immigrants could have been around in the time and setting of Dickens' Oliver, in order to excuse the poor accent attempts by one of the leading Irish contestants so she could keep her native accent in the role. It was always expected that she would be a Cockney lass, so making excuses just to make the key fit wouldn't, and didn't, work.

I would never vote out someone just 'cause of their ethnicity full stop. Just look at the X Factor, there are many contestants of different origin who are there because they are talented.

What I have a problem with is over representation where it isn't true and honest.

Although there is perhaps some truth in this, don't forget Leona Lewis (and Big Brother winner Brian Belo).

I don't agree with your assessment that on the celebrity side of Strictly Come Dancing there is no bias as a result of racism.

It is true that Mark Ramprakash won series 4 and while he is half asian his skin was much lighter than both Spoony and Ray Fearon who were also good male dancers. Spoony was voted out on his second dance(week 3) and I think Ray went out on his fifth(week 4). Both Mark and Alesha Dixon(series5) are extremely good looking and were excellent dancers which obviously helped them to overcome the handicap. There was however one racist comment on a forum(later removed) calling Mark a Paki .

Colin Jackson made it to the final of Strictly & Alesha won.
John Barnes was kept in by voting on some of the weeks when his dancing was poor.

I think personailty has a lot to do with it & how well the celebrity was known before they appear on Strictly.

Performance isn't just about how good the dancing is. John Seargent is not a good dancer but his performances are fun to watch. Other people just make us laugh with how they're able to talk back to the judges.

People don't vote to get people out but to keep others in. There are lots of factors in making people to decide to spend their money on a phone call - dancing, personaility, sympathy etc.

I don't agree with these racism on reality shows comments at all. Leona Lewis won X factor and she has mixed race parentage. Lemar came 2nd in Fame Academy and has gone on to enjoy a successful career and Alesh Dixon won Strictly last year.

I don't agree with the racism comments in reality tv. Leona Lewis won xfactor and she has mixed race parentage, Lemar came 2nd in Fame Academy and has gone on to enjoy a successful career and Alesha Dixon won strictly last year due to her being a beautiful and fantastic dancer. I think it's about talent not race.

I think it's sad that racism has to be mentioned at all, can't we have one show where we don't have to feel guilty about "upsetting" someone? The contestants are all adults, and if they can't take the rejection, then they shouldn't be in showbusiness.

As someone has already said on this site, both Colin Jackson and Alesha Dixon did very well on Strictly due mainly to the fact that they were both fantastic dancers and not due to the colour of their skins.

Come on, let's all move on from this subject and enjoy the show for the great dancing and not bring politics into everything.

Sadly we still always need a 'great white hope'..

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