WITH Strictly Come Dancing back on TV, Peter Barron goes along to a ballroom dancing class at a North-East community centre to assess the show's grass roots impact

IT’S Friday night and Kirsty and Paul Marsay are lining up alongside a dozen or so other excited couples for their weekly fix of “Strictly”.

Kirsty is a science teacher, Paul runs a software company, and this is their chance to spend some quality time together after a stressful week at work.

The venue is the Bowen Road Community Centre, tucked away on a housing estate in Darlington but, for the next hours or so, it might as well be the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. There’s even a glitterball hanging from the ceiling – albeit not as big as the one on Strictly– but it adds a bit of sparkle nevertheless.

For Kirsty and Paul, it all started when they booked some private dance lessons to impress guests with their first dance at their wedding in August last year. They’ve been hooked ever since.

“We enjoyed it so much we just wanted to carry on and now we really look forward to it every Friday,” says Kirsty. “It’s a great way to unwind and sets you up for the weekend.”

Paul nods in agreement, adding: “It started off as a bit of a joke really but now we take it really seriously – we just want to go on getting better.”

Big fans of Strictly, they went to see the live show at Newcastle Arena last year, but they can now watch with the series with a more critical eye.

Instructors Kelly Sloan and Ellen Harrison – business partners in the Kellen Dance Academy – give some final instructions, gently adjust a few starting positions, and then the members are into their first dance of the night – a Foxtrot to the strains of “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

“Don’t mess it up this week,” a not-so-young but very tall male dancer jokes to his wife as they swirl past.

“Oh, shut up,” she laughs.

The couple are too shy to give their names. “Just call us Fred and Ginger,” says the husband, whose footwork is reminiscent of a giraffe on ice.

The Foxtrot is swiftly followed by the Paso Doble, and then the Quickstep – to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” – before Fred needs to sit down.

“It’s brilliant fun, great exercise and really sociable,” he says. “We used to go on holiday cruises and watch other couples having a fantastic time. Up until recently, we could only sit and admire them but now we can join in.”

Fred does, however, foresee a problem: “Quite clearly, I’m by far the better dancer, and my only worry is that I could be promoted to the advanced class and that wouldn’t be good for our relationship,” he quips.

It’s a playful suggestion but neverthlessleads to an elbow in the ribs and a rebuke that’s goes further than the “Shut up” from Ginger earlier. The couple have been married for 35 years but there’s a chance they may not make it to 36 unless things improve.

Ginger and Fred rejoin the class for the Cucaracha and then the Rhumba, but teacher Ellen isn’t overly impressed: “Are you just making it up or are you going to listen to what I tell you?” she asks Fred.

It’s a smiling reprimand but a reminder that Fred’s not quite as ready for the advanced class as he might have thought.

Some couples are more focused than others. Mark Tallon, a local athletics coach, and his Italian dance partner, Lucia Florian, fall into that category.

So do mother-and-daughter partnership Mandy Laing and Kayley Moore. Mandy got involved after watching Kayley attend as a junior member and now the pair sweep round the dance-floor in a way that might have even inspired a compliment or two from Craig Revel Horwood.

On the other hand, Kay and Ellis Baker may not be quite as accomplished, but their non-stop smiles, and frequent giggles, light up the room.

“That’s what it’s all about – having fun, but learning at the same time,” says instructor Kelly as she watches them float past.

Kelly and Ellen have been friends since attending dancing lessons together as children and they launched the Kellen Dance Academy six years ago. Kelly works as a credit control manager for a care home company and Ellen is a deputy head teacher but, away from their day-jobs, dancing is their passion and business is booming on the back of Strictly.

“There’s no doubt the programme has had a big impact and we get lots of enquiries for ballroom and Latin classes whenever it’s on TV,” says Kelly.

“We’ve seen a huge growth in interest over the past few years and it’s nice that more men are willing to give it a go. We had one member who threatened to divorce her husband unless he came along with her, but he ended up loving the experience.”

It’s nearly time the advanced class to arrive but no one’s in any hurry to leave – there’s time for a last waltz under the glitterball.

Even Fred and Ginger look to be back in step…