Down in the photo studio, Aljaz Skorjanec is dancing without socks and shoes. This is not something he would have done before lockdown because, like many dancers, he is self-conscious about his feet. ‘Yuk!’ he cries, although they look neat and strong to me — even his toes are muscled.
They look like the kind of feet that could power a man through a quarter-century of hard-pounding ballroom dancing, through a million heel turns, high kicks and slow, slow, quick, quick, slows.
Which is exactly what they have done, twinkling Aljaz from an aluminium smelting town in the middle of Slovenia into the heart of Strictly Come Dancing, where he has been one of the BBC1 show’s most popular professional dancers for the past seven years.
‘Your feet look fine,’ I tell him in the kindly, motherly tone I like to adopt when confronted with beautiful young men wearing very few clothes. For Aljaz is also shirtless under his tuxedo; and his torso, I can’t help but notice, ripples with apple-sized abs. ‘Put a vest on, you’ll catch your death’ — is exactly what I don’t say.
Aljaz Skorjanec (pictured), from Slovenia, is one of Strictly’s most popular dancers
‘The vibe I am going for,’ he explains, spinning on one foot for the cameras, ‘is very smart, just heading off to the party and having a little boogie in front of a mirror before I go.’
Actually, I was hoping that we might have a little boogie together, for research purposes, you understand. It seems important to relay to readers exactly how it feels to fall into 6ft Aljaz’s powerful embrace and Viennese waltz together until we can waltz no more.
While performing on the new series of Strictly Come Dancing with his celebrity partner, the Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo, Aljaz rather thrillingly shouts secret encouragements to her under cover of the music. ‘Come on, girl! Strong, strong, strong,’ he bellows.
However, the pandemic dashes these dreams, for the Strictly dancers must strictly stay in their social bubbles to preserve the Covid-free integrity of the show.
‘Oh, my lovely!’ he cries, from the safety of the other side of the room. ‘If it was not for Covid we would be twirling around for hours.’
The professional dancer has psoriasis, a condition which causes red and scaly patches to flare up
Would we? Curses. Yet 30-year old Aljaz has even had to isolate from his wife, fellow Strictly professional Janette Manrara, 36. So that the show could go on, the dancers had to form social bubbles with their celebrity partners, meaning he and Janette, who married in 2017, cannot live together for the time being.
Janette, who has been partnered with singer HRVY, said in a TV interview: ‘I miss him terribly, but we’re doing what’s best for the show.’
For his part, Aljaz has undergone a personal epiphany during lockdown. Spending hours alone made him think about a lot of things, and he has decided to focus on what is important in his life and to mentally jettison what is not so essential.
‘My loved ones, my family, my friends and this job that I absolutely love, they are all important to me,’ he says.
And what has to go?
The dancer said that his skin condition made him feel self-conscious and he said it didn’t make working on Strictly easy
‘My obsession with how I look,’ he says, hence the baring of the feet.
Rather more crucially, he has also spoken in public for the first time about his battle with psoriasis, a serious autoimmune skin condition that causes red, scaly patches and can have significant psychological effects.
Aljaz has suffered from psoriasis for a dozen years or so, but has kept it secret until now.
‘I was so self-conscious because of my skin,’ he says. ‘The day would start bad because when I was brushing my teeth, I could see that my cheeks were red and my skin was peeling off. It would drive me mad, which would make it even worse. ‘
His job didn’t help, of course. As Aljaz puts it: ‘No one wants to have a skin problem working on a show watched by millions.’
Did you worry it was going to spread on to your face? ‘It is on my face. It’s just covered up.’
Despite having tried many solutions, Aljaz’s condition never fully clears up
He has tried everything, from homeopathic remedies to dermatologists’ appointments, to myriad lotions and potions.
Yet, while the condition sometimes recedes, it never disappears entirely.
He has learned to avoid triggers, such as red wine; and, unlike many on Strictly, he does not succumb to the weekly spray tan. ‘It irritates my skin massively,’ he says, so has sun-bed treatments, instead.
In 2016, when he was partnered with the model Daisy Lowe, the attacks got so bad he was frequently costumed in polo-necks and other camouflaging outfits.
After all this, what lockdown has taught him is that the best cure is simply not to worry. ‘And my skin has never been better,’ he says.
He watched an ‘amazing little video’ by a monk called Gaur Gopal Das, which seems to have had a profound impact. If you can fix your problem, why worry? If you can’t fix your problem, also why worry? That is about the gist of the monk’s message, which our hero has taken to heart. So now when he looks in the mirror, what does he see?
However, the first lockdown taught him to love his skin and the way he looked rather than try to cover it up. Pictured: Aljaz with his wife Janette Manrara
‘Simply a guy who is lucky, who has been blessed with his life. I don’t see good looks. I’ve never considered myself handsome. I don’t see myself that way because I don’t like seeing that narcissism in other people.’
Oh, how I love the Strictly professional dancers, whose individual journeys to the ballroom of broken dreams tend to be far more interesting and inspiring than the celebrities in whose shadows they gracefully toil.
Many come from hardscrabble backgrounds in Eastern Europe, Russia or Bolton. All have spent their formative years training harder than athletes. They are as fit as Olympians, but must somehow be artists, too, performing their chosen discipline while never missing a beat and holding a thousand memorised dance steps in their heads.
‘I would say that celebrities going out of their comfort zones in front of millions is so admirable, their courage is incredible,’ says Aljaz. ‘But for us, the professional dancers, to even have a job on Strictly? The sacrifices we had to make to get there, to be the best we could be, were huge.’
Of his own volition, Aljaz began dance training when he was five years old and didn’t stop until he was 18. ‘I had no childhood,’ he says, with a shrug.
His home town of Slovenska Bistrica ‘only has two traffic lights’, and most of his classmates ended up working in the aluminium factory. He danced his way out, winning so many competitions along the way that it was almost embarrassing. That trophy shelf must have been groaning!
Aljaz used to cover his skin up at one point with polo shirts and other camoflageing clothing
‘Not to brag, but it wasn’t a shelf, it was a whole wall,’ he says.
His father is a carpenter and built the wooden house in which the family still live. His mother worked as a legal clerk in the town hall.
It’s like a fairy-tale, one in which their devotion to their son’s dancing career was total. They would drive him to and from training every day, 90 minutes each way. They paid for expensive private lessons and thought nothing of getting in the family Volvo and driving from Slovenia to Denmark for a dance contest.
‘How they afforded it, I don’t know. But without them I wouldn’t be here,’ he says. Yet, at the age of 18 — interestingly when his psoriasis first flared up — he appears to have had some kind of breakdown; or at least a personal reckoning , an existential crisis. He stopped dancing for a year and sat around ‘eating hamburgers instead’. Why?
‘I felt guilty about what I was putting my parents through. I realised for the first time what money was and how much they were spending on me. I won trophies, not any cash. The competitions were gruelling, emotionally and physically.
‘I felt guilty about getting so much more attention than my little sister. And all of this made me sad and lonely. I was a lost soul with an empty hole in my life. I didn’t know who I was any more.’
To be good enough to perform on Strictly, Aljaz had to practise his dancing from the age of five all the way to the age of 18 and he said he had no childhood because of this
This changed in 2011 when he tried for a part in a theatre show called Burn The Floor — and met his future wife at the auditions in London.
‘I could see for the first time that I could make a living from dancing. And it was fun! In theatre, people come to enjoy your performance; in a competition, the only people who enjoy your performance are your mum and dad. Everyone else is pretty much against you because they want their own kid to win.’ Two years later, Strictly got in touch (‘It was the phone call that changed my life’) and remarkably he won his first series in 2013, lifting the glitterball trophy with Abbey Clancy.
‘It was a complete fluke! I had no idea what to do, I was struggling so much. It was so hard to learn how to choreograph for the camera.
‘And doing interviews? My English wasn’t good, and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. Backstage there would be more people than I would see in a day in my home town.’
Yet he — and Janette — prevailed and triumphed. The couple have now been married for three years and recently talked about how much they want to start a family, but have had to put their baby plans on hold because of work.
Dancers are like footballers: the window of opportunity to profit from their talent is ever shrinking. ‘I love kids, and we’re still talking about starting a family,’ says Aljaz. ‘We have never been so focused on our careers as we are now.’
When his skin first flared up as a child, Aljaz had a one year break from dancing and started to have a crisis over the stress has had been putting on his parents
In addition to their work on Strictly, the couple have toured the country with their own dance shows, but their most recent tour had to be cancelled because of Covid.
‘We have lost money this year, like so many other people,’ says Aljaz. ‘The last paycheck I got was the Stricly one last Christmas. I have been good with my savings in the past few years. Good enough to get through, but it is a worry.
‘Our home, a car, so many responsibilities. I haven’t had to live off my savings in a long time. It doesn’t feel good.’
He is also beginning to feel the onslaught of the years. After each Strictly show, his recovery time is getting longer. And although he is a germaphobe who is afraid of baths — even his own bath — he has taken to long soaks with Epsom Salts like a retired colonel.
He never watches replays of the show (‘I am really self-conscious about watching myself dance and hearing myself talk. That’s horrendous’). Instead, he binges on true crime documentaries and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
Aljaz and his wife Janette (both pictured) are both dancers on Strictly and have had to live off of their savings during the pandemic
He never eats breakfast, has only one big meal a day and just a cup of black coffee before the show.
On days off, it is a different story. ‘I eat about a million times what a normal person would eat. For example, if I order a Nando’s, I would have the chicken butterfly dish, plus four boneless chicken thighs, two sides, some olives and a little hummus.’
No wonder he put on a little weight during lockdown. But, with his new, contemplative state of mind, he is not too worried. ‘I don’t have to be perfect. I am not asking 180 per cent of myself any more,’ he says, heading out to demolish a chicken or two for lunch. ‘I am only asking 120 per cent.’
Aljaz is wearing his own clothes now. His twinkle toes are tucked away inside a pair of Chelsea boots, his apple abs caged behind a sensible sweater, his legs hidden inside a pair of jeans that are ‘slightly too tight, but everything is slim-fit on me because of the size of my calves’.
Whimper. Is he absolutely sure we can’t have a little dance together? Yes, I am afraid he is.