Chapters In My Life: Shirley Ballas

Chapters In My Life: Shirley Ballas

As the new series of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ hits our screens, there’s one name on the judging panel synonymous with perfection and poise. Shirley Ballas – a legend in the world of Latin and ballroom dancing – is back as head judge on this year’s show, and she’s already got her eye on a potential breakout star or two. Here, she tells us more about her illustrious career, personal life and why anyone, of any age, can always find joy in dance.
Photography: BLAKE EZRA

Chapter One: Growing Up On A 1960s Housing Estate

“I was born on 6th September 1960 in Wallasey and was raised by a single mother. I only had a brother, David, so it was just the three of us. My father left the family home before I turned two, so I have no recollection of him in my younger years. He was the ‘come and go’ type, so you might see him for a bit and then not for years after. Even so, family is and was everything to us – especially my brother who was very protective and paternal. He constantly pushed me and really wanted me to make something of myself and get off the housing estate we lived on. We didn’t have much in our flat at 16 Cameron Road and my mother had several jobs to support us, but I never knew any different. The community on the estate was also very tight – if people ran out of money, there was always someone ready to lend you some.”

Chapter Two: Dancing My Way Up & Out

“I was in ballet and tap lessons from about the age of two. I’ve always been a mover, and I loved sports and singing, too. One day, I was at my Guides group in the local church hall and I could hear music coming from another room. When I went to investigate, it was a group of adults having a cha cha lesson. You could say the music found me first, but I never looked back after that and it was pure fate in a way. I asked Vick and May Knox, the teachers, whether they taught children and he said they were starting that Saturday. Initially, they paired me up with another little girl called Irene Hamilton and we won a couple of competitions. I just loved it. 

“My mother saved up to buy my first pair of shoes – which I guarded with my life – and a local lady called Mrs Dewey made my dresses for when we had medal presentations and things like that. I’ve always been competitive on the inside – especially with myself – so it was a case of having to have the best heel turn or rise and fall in the waltz. I had to get the best results I could and I was fearless. Funnily enough, the harder I worked, the better my results.” 

Chapter Three: Leaving Home For London

“When I was 14, I was practising at Margaret Redman’s studio, the Crown building in Crosby. A chap who used to give me lifts to various events (because we didn’t have a car) sat me down and said there was a boy called Nigel Tiffany, a junior ballroom champion, who he thought would make a good partner for me, even though he lived in North Yorkshire. After much persuasion, I made the journey with my parents and he was there with his; after an initial try out, we decided to give it a go, even with all the travelling it would involve for me. 

“I had to go on these long journeys on my own and, after several months, everyone realised it wasn’t really feasible. Instead, it was suggested I moved in with Nigel’s family. I think my mother allowed it, thinking it would be temporary, but I never came back and I ended up moving to London instead. Nigel and I were engaged by this point and we were doing well in the dance world, – making things like the semi-final of the amateur ballroom competition. Eventually, a teacher asked me if I wanted to be a wife or a Latin dance champion and, when I told Nigel about it, he wasn’t happy at and gave me an ultimatum. I took a different gamble: I went for a try out with a guy called Sammy Stopford instead.”

Chapter Four: Becoming The ‘Non-Stop Stopfords’

“Sammy was already a professional dancer and we moved back up to Manchester together. I married him about 18 months after we met and we became known as the ‘non-stop Stopfords’. We shot up the rankings to be one of the top three pairs in the world and won the British Championships by the time I was 19 and, shortly afterwards, we were world champions. I’m someone who’s always lived a little bit in the moment. Sammy and I didn’t really date or have much of a social life even after we got married. I think that was the problem in our marriage. Even though the dancing was going well, there was something wrong in our personal life. But we’re still friends to this day – I speak to him most days and I’m very grateful for our time together. The same goes for Nigel. He’s my financial advisor and we’re still very close.” 

Chapter Five: Meeting & Marrying Corky Ballas

“While Sammy and I were still married we took a trip to Houston, Texas, to work for a gentleman called Corky Ballas. He was a little bit of dancer back then, but he was also very good looking and utterly charming. At the time, I was very overwhelmed by my professional partnership with Sammy. When I look back, if we’d had more free time – holidays, a break, anything – things might have turned out differently. But our relationship just wasn’t balanced, as everything in our lives revolved around the next show, the next competition, opening our own studio. Then, when we met Corky, and he asked us to go to dinner. Sammy – who wasn’t interested in that kind of thing – told me to go on my own. You could say fate had stepped in again. 

“Once Sammy and I were divorced, Corky and I started a relationship. We’d spent the first few months taking some holidays and going to lots of glamorous parties, but after a while I knew it was only dancing that I wanted to do. Back then, Corky was a chef, so I decided to ask Sammy if we could continue dancing together. He said no and it dawned on me that if I wanted to compete again, I would have to teach Corky from scratch. We came back to the British Championship in 1984 – which I’d won in 1983 with Sammy – and only made the first round. 

Sammy came second with his new partner, which was hard to watch. Everyone told us to call it a day there and then, but we chose to fight instead. Eventually, we made the US Championship final the following year – something just seemed to click for us in America – and soon afterwards we were married, and I also discovered I was pregnant. It wasn’t planned but I was very excited. Our son [Dancing With The Stars alum] Mark Ballas was born on 24th May 1986 – six weeks later I was back on the dancefloor!”

Chapter Six: Winning In Great Britain

“In 1990, Corky and I made the decision we should move back to England to up our chances of making the final in Great Britain. I also had the chance to dance for Great Britain as I still had a UK passport. Mark was only three and half at the time, but we sold up everything we had and moved to a two-up-two-down in Mitcham. That year, Corky and I made our first final in Holland – we came third in a world championship there – and, after that, we didn’t look back. We started to trickle into semi-finals and finals in Great Britain and then, in 1995, we won the Open to the World British Championships, even though no one thought we would. They were telling us to go home, be a family and raise our baby. But we came first (Sammy, my first husband, came second and retired that evening), and then between 1995 and 1996 we won all the major championships together. Corky, to his credit, was so resilient. He got a lot of criticism and had to follow my guidance a lot of the time – which I think was hard for him in the context of our marriage. We were together for 22 years.”

Chapter Seven: Going Our Separate Ways, Together

“The dance scene can easily consume your entire life and that’s what happened to Corky and me. Our relationship was volatile and, in the end, it was better we went our separate ways. We’ve both met wonderful people now and we still chat occasionally. Ultimately, we’re both so grateful for our beautiful son, and we go to all his shows on Broadway and his musical concerts. It’s been very rewarding for us to watch him go into the performing arts. He was a series regular on Dancing With The Stars [the US version of Strictly Come Dancing] but music, not dance, has always been his main passion. That said, he did win the show twice and was in 11 finals! But now it’s all about music – you don’t have to ask Mark to pick up a guitar, he’s been doing that since he was four years old.”

Chapter Eight: Teaching The Next Generation

“It’s a natural progression for ex-professionals to move into teaching and judging. Once Corky and I had stepped back from competition, I got more heavily involved with both and ended up teaching some, now, very big names – people like Julianne and Derek Hough. I originally met them while I was teaching in Salt Lake City and they were part of a school there. Derek was good friends with Mark and he was keen to move to England to train for a life in the professional arts. He spent ten years here attending the Italia Conti school in London, with Mark, and they both ended up doing Dancing With The Stars

“Julianne – who danced with Mark – ended up being the youngest girl to win the Open to the World British Championship junior competition. Derek also came in second the year before with his partner, but basically won everything else. So, I had them in the industry from an early age, they were busy from the get-go and now they all have great careers. As for me, I still teach and judge all over the world. There’s a lot of bullying in this industry – it’s often rooted in jealousy – and to change that, especially as a 57-year-old woman at the time, is what drove me to go for the job on Strictly.”

Chapter Nine: Joining Strictly And Dealing With Fame

"Prior to any discussion about me being a judge on the show, I’d been helping to scout various pros and couples on all the franchises around the world. My job was very global and, one day, when we were chatting about AJ [Pritchard], talk of the job came up. They asked me to go in and audition, but I was highly aware I had no television experience. The first round was dreadful, the second one was great and then they offered me the job. They gave me some training to be in front of the camera and now, for six months of the year, I get to do this job I absolutely love. It was a little daunting at first – not the judging because I know the subject inside out – but the backstage antics and remembering to press the right buttons and looking into the right camera when; it was a lot to process. Over the years, I’ve got better at it, but it’s still a work in progress. 

“The mainstream fame which is handed to you by shows like Strictly has been quite hard to deal with. You have to be resilient when people start writing unkind articles or saying things about you in the press – in fact, some of it was such a shock that, when the producers asked me back for a second go, I asked my mother whether she thought it was a good idea. It is invasive on your private life but, eventually, we decided it would be okay to do it again. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you have to have a great team behind you, including a manager, publicist, hair and make-up artists – I’ve always used the same people and feel very safe in their hands. The other judges have also been supportive. I’ve known Bruno for almost 15 years because he was also on Dancing With The Stars, Len was a teacher of mine, Craig I met when I first went for the audition, Motsi I’ve known for more than 20 years – including her whole family – and Anton Du Beke I’ve known his whole competitive career. I didn’t know Darcy Bussell at all, but she was very gracious and kind in giving me some tips. I’ve always felt as though I’ve been among friends on the show.”


Chapter Ten: This Year’s Show

“We didn’t really know until the last minute whether the show would go ahead last year. I’d say the restrictions and regulations are actually tighter this year but, back then, the virus was still relatively new and we didn’t know much about it. That said, our showrunner Sarah James did the most amazing job in keeping everything up and running for the whole nine weeks we were on air – and it brought so much joy to people. We’ve just filmed this year’s launch show and there’s a lot of talent: the co-ordination on display, the postural lines, well turned-out feet – it’s all there for 2021. CBBC presenter Rhys Stephenson caught my eye almost immediately, as did TV presenter AJ Odudu. Breakfast TV’s Dan Walker looks really organised and the actor Greg Wise was utterly charming. GBBO winner John Waite is off the chart, and as for Judi Love, well, talk about rhythm and personality. Sarah Davies from Dragons’ Den is on a mission, I can tell you that. They are all good and they are all in it to win it. There’s so much optimism this year.

“We don’t have a Blackpool week this year, but we’ve still got Halloween, movie week…the usual favourites. If I could tell the contestants anything it would be to come out fighting. The public must fall in love with you from the very beginning because they’re a big part of the vote. There are some great dancers who don’t get it right one week and suddenly they’re gone. 

“If you watch this series and feel inspired to get out there and dance, do it. Find your local dance school and I can promise there will be classes for beginners, intermediates and advanced. Don’t be intimidated – look at how the people on Strictly learn. You’ll also be mixing with the community, meeting lots of new people, you can take your partner or family along, and it’s a great social activity. Have a go. I’ve met so many fans of the show who never though they’d put one foot in front of the other and they’re flourishing now. 

Strictly has completely transformed my life. It’s such an emotional world, and I feel truly blessed to be a part of it. I am privileged to meet some incredible people and go on this very real journey with them for the last couple of months of every year. When I die, my epitaph will read: ‘I was truly grateful to be a part of Strictly Come Dancing’.”


Strictly Come Dancing’ is on weekly on Saturdays at 7:45pm. Follow @BBCStrictly and @ShirleyBallas on Instagram. ‘Behind The Sequins’ by Shirley Ballas is available to purchase in all good bookstores now.

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