There are some things you can depend on happening every Christmas.
Mariah Carey on the radio. The Queen’s speech on the TV. A chocolate orange in your stocking.
And, like clockwork, a Strictly contestant being accused of having too much dance experience.
But this year, the celebrity in the firing line arguably has a more notable dance background than any before her.
Singer Ashley Roberts is paired with Strictly pro Pasha Kovalev, but many viewers say she might as well be one of the show’s professionals herself.
“There were a lot of raised eyebrows when Ashley was announced as part of this year’s line-up,” TV critic Emma Bullimore tells BBC News.
“Unlike most contestants with dance experience, Ashley actually worked as a judge on another dance programme, and her role in the Pussycat Dolls was to dance more than it was to sing.”
It’s true that the 37-year-old has previously been a judge on ITV’s Dancing On Ice.
It’s true that The Pussycat Dolls were used to performing complex dance routines while Nicole Scherzinger took care of the lead vocals.
But, some have argued, it doesn’t necessarily follow that she would have an advantage on Strictly.
“I’m sure Ashley’s never done the Viennese waltz in her career with The Pussycat Dolls,” said host Tess Daly last week, an argument anyone who’s seen the video for Buttons could confirm.
“I think cut her a little slack… she hasn’t necessarily danced in ballroom before.”
Speaking to BBC News in September, Ashley herself argued Latin and ballroom was “just so foreign to what my body has done”.
But, she acknowledged: “I do have rhythm so it might be a little bit easier for me to possibly pick up a step, but it is still a new skill that I don’t know that I am going to have to learn.”
Nonetheless, Ashley and Pasha’s quickstep last weekend saw her end up in the bottom two (again) despite receiving high scores from the judges (again).
It was the second time in as many weeks the star had found herself in the dance-off.
Given the algorithm Strictly uses to calculate the bottom two, with judges’ scores balanced against the public, it’s fair to assume Ashley is receiving very few viewer votes indeed.
“It’s perhaps a sign that the public feel that she may be too good and has slightly lost interest in her,” suggested Ben Dowell in The Radio Times.
“It’s important to have good dancers in the early stages of each series so there’s something nice to watch while everyone’s finding their dancing feet. But I would be quite pleased if she didn’t win.”
Viewers seem to agree. Throughout the series, complaints and jokes about Ashley’s involvement have become commonplace on social media.
After professional dancer, Ashley Roberts, nails yet another performance on Strictly Come Dancing, Marco Pierre White considers taking part in Celebrity Masterchef.
— Jayne Sharp (@Jaynesharp) October 6, 2018
There’s little doubt that, if Strictly was judged solely on dancing, Ashley would be very likely to win this year.
“She’s one of the best dancers I think we’ve ever seen on the show,” admitted judge Craig Revel Horwood last month, a point which could be made on either side of the argument.
Ashley was the first contestant to get a perfect score of 40, during the Blackpool special, with a jive that Bruno Tonioli said would go down in the show’s history.
But Strictly has never really been about that.
Far more important is the “journey”.
Take a look at some of the show’s previous winners, like Ore Oduba, Joe McFadden, Abbey Clancey or Louis Smith.
They are celebrities from a wide range of backgrounds who had a much lower skill level on which to improve when their respective series started.
Viewers, therefore, felt they had grown with the contestants. Seen them work hard at a new discipline, and improve dramatically.
One contestant who has made it to the final five this year, Paralympian Lauren Steadman, is perhaps one of 2018’s most improved celebrities.
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“People want to see someone who’s not brilliant to start with, and then has a bit of a breakthrough moment and gets better and better,” says Bullimore.
“Lauren is inspiring a lot of people with disabilities, and without disabilities, and you forget AJ has had to adapt the choreography, because he’s used to having someone with two arms.
“So it’s pretty amazing to watch, and what they’ve achieved is incredible.”
Ashley isn’t the first contestant to find herself the subject of the “professional” criticism.
Denise Van Outen and Alexandra Burke have faced similar accusations in the past on account of their West End experience, while another of this year’s contestants, Danny John Jules, has been dancing professionally since the 1990s.
“You’d be very, very hard pushed to find anybody who has no dance experience [to take part in Strictly],” pointed out Steps singer Claire Richards when she defended the casting of her bandmate Faye Tozer in this year’s series.
Bullimore says she’s “sympathetic” to viewers who object to Ashley’s casting, but adds: “I don’t get too het up about it because nobody with previous dance experience ever goes on to win.
“I don’t think there are that many people who are furious that Ashley was booked for the show. But do I think there are a lot of people who don’t want her to win? Yes.”
Aside from dance experience, another reason Ashley would be unlikely to lift the glitterball trophy is that Strictly has never been won by a non-British contestant.
But, like Alexandra before her, she’s made it this far thanks to the judges repeatedly saving her in the dance-off – as they are obliged to vote for the stronger dance on a technical level.
“You have to watch each dance and comment on what you see, I can’t have a personal vendetta against somebody,” Bruno told Steve Wright on Thursday.
“Most people in the entertainment industry have had some sort of training, we’ve had it before, we can only guide the audience and then it’s up to them.”
Whether Ashley makes it through this weekend or not, there’s no doubt next week’s final is going to be close.
As this year’s series reaches its climax, there’s only one thing we can be truly certain of – having this debate all over again about a different celebrity next year.
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