You have to hand it to Strictly Come Dancing professionals Neil and Katya Jones, they’re resilient.
Just a few months ago the married couple were caught up in a media storm after Katya was snapped kissing her celebrity partner Seann Walsh on a night out.
Weeks of headlines and online debate about the transgression followed. The story, and the scrutiny of the Jones’ relationship, just wouldn’t go away.
But for Neil and Katya it was, at least in public, a case of keeping calm and carrying on.
Katya continued dancing with Walsh until they were voted off three weeks later. Neil, who wasn’t partnered up, saw the series through to the end.
And now they’re preparing another show of unity by staging Somnium: A Dancer’s Dream, telling the story of how they met, fought to become World Latin champions – and fell in love.
With London’s prestigious Sadler’s Wells as the venue, the dance production at the end of June looks set to attract attention. Add to that the publicity’s promise of “explosive” drama, and you’ve got bums on seats.
But before your mind starts racing, Somnium is a Strictly-free zone.
Neil who, as a seasoned choreographer, brought the show to life says “it’s all separate, it’s all completely different”.
“For me, it was like something’s happened, that’s in the past. This is what we do. This is our career. We’re dancers. And this is what I do, I create shows. So I’m not going to add something which isn’t there.”
“It was important for us to set that aside,” confirms Katya. “We wanted to tell a celebration of our career together, which is getting to 11 years now. Everything that happened before is what got us into Strictly: hard work, being competitive. Surviving.”
Survive is what they appear to have done.
Despite recent testing times, the Strictly couple, who’ve been married for six years, come across as relaxed, happy and excited about what lies ahead.
They laugh, poke fun at and interrupt each other as they recount their partnership – one, they explain, which happened by chance.
Katya (full name Ekaterina Andreevna Sokolova) was born in St Petersburg, the daughter of a wealthy Russian energy executive and his ethnic Korean wife Tatiana.
Neil grew up in a British Army camp in Munster, West Germany, where his father was stationed.
Both started dancing very young but Neil was higher in the Latin rankings than Katya when they met.
They were brought together in 2008 at a contest in Blackpool by their shared coach Richard Porter, played in Somnium by Casualty actor and former Strictly contestant Charles Venn, who also narrates the show.
And, as Katya remembers, if they hit it off, they were going to be an odd match – in more ways than one.
“Neil was already a star, almost a semi-finalist, and they’re invincible,” she says. “I was no one, just the girl from Russia who had to really fight to get through to the next round.
“My mum (who had gone with her to Blackpool) said, ‘So which one is he?’ So we looked at all the English guys and there was this ginger one. Mum said, ‘Oh maybe it’s not him’. And then it was! But I was just like, ‘If this guy wants to dance with me, it’s an amazing opportunity’.”
Neil, who says he “likes to create comedies” has made his hair colour the butt of a few jokes in Somnium.
But in his early career, it wasn’t always a laughing matter. As a Latino dancer he was expected to sport a defined Mediterranean look. He would usually tan up, then bowing to pressure, he dyed his hair – but only once.
“I just looked awful. I went straight back to being natural. And on Strictly, I won’t even tan. I’m pale and I’m happy,” he laughs.
“We used to teach in China and some kids dyed their hair red and said their English name was Neil, so I hope I’ve added a little bit of diversity.”
There was no Cupid’s arrow moment for the couple. Instead they fell in love gradually because, as Porter had predicted, they were “both as crazy as each other,” says Katya.
But the pressure of competition took its toll. Hence the drama alluded to in the publicity shots.
“Out of desperation to win, you to try to be like everyone else,” says Katya. “That’s when things can start to go downhill. You forget to be individual, and about what is really important.”
It’s this attitude which has got them through what could have been a make or break few months, they say.
“We had each other and Strictly were fantastic,” says Neil. “And for me it was so small.”
“I had to carry on and focus on work,” adds Katya. “The one thing on my mind was that I had to deliver the good professional work. It was really important to me, because I love this job.
“I’d be lying if I said all the negativity didn’t affect me. And I thought I was a strong Russsian woman.
“I thought they can say whatever they want but they don’t know me. Then after a few weeks, Neil said to stop looking at it, stop reading. I just had to put the phone away.”
Neil’s attitude to all the attention Strictly attracts is measured, even philosophical. After more than 20 years in the business, he is, he says, able to put things in perspective.
“It’s just one of those things. It’s a massive show, watched by millions of people. But even within the smaller world of dance, it’s the same for us so we’re used to it.
“If we go to a competition in Blackpool, we can’t walk anywhere without people stopping us and it was the same before we started Strictly.”
Inevitably all roads lead back to Strictly so, even though the new series is still a way off, will Neil finally be getting his own celebrity partner? Since joining the show in 2016 he’s always been one of the group dancers while Katya has had a celebrity pairing.
“It would be great if it happens but I won’t find out until maybe a couple of weeks before. That’s when we all get told,” says Neil.
“It has a lot to do with matching, such as height and personality.
“But I’ve been able to see all areas of the show in an artistic way, as a choreographer, assistant and a dancer. And I’ve had time to write Somnium. So whichever part I get, I don’t mind.”
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