Twirling through heartbreak to love again

Pic: © BBC Pictures

Strictly Come Dancing’s Shirley Ballas hides some tragedy beneath her smile – but could the new year usher in a new chapter of happiness in her life?

If the predictions are right, then 2022 is going to be a big year for dancing queen Shirley Ballas, who at a sprightly 61 is a shining fitness example to us all.

Pic: © Assembly Hall Theatre

She is currently starring as a brilliant Wicked Queen in Snow White at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, and has just completed the latest glittering series of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, where she is Head Judge. She can also be seen on iPlayer as one of six famous females in the BBC series Womanhood, which tackled some of the most hotly contested issues over what it is to be a woman at home, at work and in love. 

But her next big role could be preparing for marriage. Again.

Twice divorced, Shirley met actor Danny Taylor, 48, when both appeared in pantomime at the Liverpool Empire in 2018 in Jack and the Beanstalk. It was perhaps fitting they should meet in the city in which she grew up.

“He’s very different to anyone I’ve been with before,” she says of her beau. “He’s very kind and caring and is always there for me. We have a very 50/50 relationship so there’s real equality there.”

If reports are to be believed, he bought an engagement ring in December, fuelling speculation of a New Year proposal.

She jokes that if she was to take his surname, the comparisons with film star Elizabeth Taylor, who had a string of husbands, may be too obvious: “She had eight marriages, I think,” she says, before quipping, “that’s not for me. I’ll just stick with Danny.”

Shirley certainly deserves happiness. Despite her remarkable success as a dancer – winning her the nickname ‘The Queen of Latin’ – she has known more than her fair share of heartbreak.Her family splintered when she was a child, her brother died at the age of just 44, and she suffered a relationship which shattered her self-confidence.

Yet dance has so often been her salvation – a show of poise and self-control she often felt lacking in her life.

Shirley was born in 1960 on the Wirral in Merseyside, and her father left the family when she was just two. It was also the age at which she first started ballet dancing.

“My father wasn’t in my life very long and I was raised by a single mother, so I owe her everything,” she says. “But dancing was in my bones.”

She adds: “I’ve always faced a lot of bullying and sarcasm in my life, so I built a wall to protect myself. When the girls at school were talking about boys and bullying others, I would have people lined up in the playground, teaching them the cha cha cha. 

Pic: © BBC/Ray Burmiston

“From a very young age I was the judge and they were the competitors. I knew that if I didn’t do that, I would just be bullied more. That’s how I came to be like I am.” 

Her mother, who raised both Shirley and her brother David on her own, went out of her way to help her daughter’s dance ambition, taking her to classes and paying the travel costs so she could compete.

By the time she was 15, Shirley moved to North Yorkshire to team up with British Ballroom Champion Nigel Tiffany. The pair moved to London before she broke off the partnership to team up instead with Sammy Stopford. It would be a significant move; the pair married when she was 18.

However, the union was shortlived and they had split five years later.

She then teamed up with the American Corky Ballas – and the dance partners soon fell in love. By 1985 they, too, were wed.

They moved to Texas to compete, and as a dance team enjoyed a string of remarkable successes at home and abroad. But it was not a marriage always rooted in happiness.

She explained: “He’d say things to me like I was too fat, that my nose was crooked, that I needed plastic surgery on it.

“I had breast implants done to try to save my marriage. It was the sorriest day of my life. I’d given up my life for that man.”

The happiest point was the birth of their son – Mark – in 1986.

He has grown up to follow in his mother’s successful shoes. He is a professional dancer competing in Dancing With the Stars on US TV, and has also enjoyed plaudits for his choreography.

His parents were together for 22 years before finally divorcing in 2007. Shirley has since had the breast implants removed.

“Maybe it’s a psychological thing,” she reflects, “but I feel I don’t have this foreign body in my chest any more. I feel much better without them.”

She goes on to explain: “I have struggled with my self-esteem all my life. I’ve done all sorts to try to make myself feel more confident: I had my teeth straightened and fat drained out of my arms and legs; I thought doing my boobs would make my husband at the time like me more, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons.

“You have to love yourself first. That’s my message to every woman.”

Despite the collapse of her marriages, Shirley’s biggest emotional scars came 18 years ago.

Her brother David – her first memory, she says, was dancing in front of him when she was aged around three or four – tragically committed suicide in 2003. He was just 44.

She has said in the past that her most treasured possession is the urn in which his ashes are kept. She often sits with them while meditating.

“I didn’t have the right emotional tools and I didn’t ask the right questions,” she says of that dark time in her life. 

“I didn’t go to see him because I didn’t realise how depressed he was. I should have stopped everything I was doing. When he died it was such a terrible shock.

“I am always nervous that something will happen to those closest to me. 

“If I could change anything, I would be much more available for my brother when
he was not well and try to understand more about mental health, which I didn’t know anything about at the time.”

After hanging up her dancing shoes in 1996, Shirley became a dance coach and a judge in Latin dance contests.

But when Dancing With the Stars launched in the US, she found herself becoming involved in the show. It was a profile which would lead to her being named Head Judge on the BBC’s Strictly – replacing the much-loved Len Goodman, who had announced he was stepping down from the role. 

It catapulted her into the limelight and made her, almost overnight, a household name.

But it also sparked a health scare last year when viewers spotted what they thought was a lump under her arm and urged her to get it checked out.

The judge heeded their advice and sought medical assistance.

Although there was nothing to be found, further tests revealed her doctor found ‘the highest testosterone levels she’s ever seen in a woman’, according to the star, prompting further tests.

She told worried fans: “To all women out there please keep checking yourselves and to those people that were concerned enough to message me that they saw lumps and bumps, I’m very grateful.”

As prepares to take a well-deserved break from her panto and Strictly runs, the big question is will she be having her first dance with her new husband in 2022?