Strictly Come Dancing’s Aliona Vilani knows what it is like to experience the highs and lows of life on the smash hit show. Having guided her celebrity, McFly’s Harry Judd to superb glitter ball glory in 2011, they then swept all before them during the spectacular live arena tour at the beginning of the following year, racking up a staggering 30 wins. Aliona and Harry even had the honour of carrying the Olympic Torch to Blackpool Ballroom and performed an unforgettable dance with it. But a few weeks is an eternity in showbusiness and Strictly Come Dancing 2012 was a very different experience for the reigning champion. Her celebrity partner Johnny Ball was first to depart after just two weeks and she barely featured on our screens. Aliona was an innocent bystander powerless to influence events as after only one week of rehearsals, what appeared to be an innocuous trip resulted in a fractured ankle.

The best available treatment and intensive physio followed and that Aliona returned to the show only six weeks later was remarkable, although all too late to affect Johnny Ball’s SCD fate. “It was a great shame for him. He might have been the oldest ever competitor but we started working for five hours a day and Johnny insisted on increasing that to eight and he stillhad energy to burn.

I had to insist on a few breaks otherwise he’d have just kept going! Iveta stood in for me at the last minute but she had no connection with the viewing audience or history with the show so it was going to be difficult. Johnny had so much enthusiasm and potential I know he’d have gone on to show wonderful improvement but it just wasn’t to be.” And then came this year’s series.

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Paired with Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace she found herself with a very popular TV personality but a man with very limited dancing ability. Despite much hard work and fun performances the voting audience decided Gregg would be the first to depart. Aliona’s approach to this, like so much else is refreshingly relaxed and phlegmatic–characteristics that have served her well over the years.

In situations that would reduce others to anxiety, frustration, despair or anger – particularly in the pressured world of TV and high profile media – she meets adversity with a shrug of the shoulders, a positive glint in the eye and an innate ability to keep moving forwards.

Aliona possesses a steely determination and resolve underneath her genuinely relaxed and thoroughly affable exterior. Her many achievements in a relatively short space of time prove as much. The girl from Kazakhstan showed dance promise from a very early age. She moved to Kaliningrad in Russia at the age of 7 and by 13 was living in the USA having been invited to join the Kaiser Dance Company in New York to represent America in World Championships.

At 16 she became US National Champion in Ballroom and Latin (youth category) and started teaching adults and children in group classes and private lessons all over the US. Teaching all levels and styles, word spread rapidly about the teenager and very quickly she was fronting regular classes of up to 100 people. In 2001 she won the Amateur Ballroom category for the USA against the World Teams and then turned professional, becoming America’s youngest pro’ dancer that decade.

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Aliona finished High School with a four year Excellence Diploma in Visual Arts&Fashion Design and won a highly prized place at New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. However, she chose to put all her energies into her dance career. A big decision that has paid off handsomely. But she has certainly not lost her fashion and design abilities, regularly creating and making her own workout and dancewear. “It is a passionate hobby at the moment but I’d be interested in pursuing it further in the future.”

“Aliona still practices her fashion design skills and creates a lot of her own workout wear and dance rehearsal clothing”

At the same time as becoming the topworking teacher at New York’s Starlight Dance Centre, she continued to compete in Latin and Ballroom competitions pulling in many more major honours. A move to LA led to a starring part in the ‘Dancing With The Stars’ Arena Tour. She also made guest appearances on the TV show. As a direct result of this she was spotted by the BBC and invited to join its flagship programme ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.

“It was all quite amazing. I went from involvement with a big TV show in LA to suddenly being picked by the world’s most famous broadcasting service for its biggest current TV series. One minute I was a little girl in Kazakhstan and seemingly the next moment I was living all kinds of dreams.” Aliona found her feet quickly. During her first SCD season she was asked to choreograph 12 professional dances – more than anybody else had done in all previous series combined.

In her second series she took TV presenter Matt Baker to the final and the runner-up spot and they won the 2010 Live Tour. Last year with Harry Judd she achieved the show’s ultimate accolade. The drummer was so good by the end many people assumed he must have been born with immense natural talent, but Aliona knows differently.

“He definitely was not a natural dancer. We won because of application, very hard work and his ability to apply what he was being taught on the big occasions. We worked for 9-12 hours a day, seven days a week for five months. We were the only couple not to take a day off. I was operating on little more than three hours sleep so I could also develop the choreography as we went along.

That was the level of work required to turn Harry into the dancer he became.” This perfectly illustrates the level of time and physical and mental commitment faced by the show’s dancers. To train and compete daily for several months and then go on an Arena tour performing to up to 12,000 people eight times a week.

“Our conditioning is critical. People see a 90 second performance on a Saturday night but dozens of hours of physical input lie behind that routine. As professionals we don’t know whether we are going to be on the show for a couple of weeks or five months, but we plan to go all the way because we have to be at our physical peak to give our best to our partner and the viewing audience.

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“A strong core is the platform from which everything else is based. Without it the whole structure is weaker and dance performance is seriously compromised”

And when we do leave the show it’s no time to sit on the sofa and eat cake! As pro’s we perform professional group dances throughout the series which are fantastic fun to do, intricate and an opportunity to get together and showcase our trained abilities.” All the dancers keep themselves in prime dance conditioning and go about it in different ways.

Some make regular trips to PT’s and take all manner of natural supplements and utilize the latest training theories and techniques. Aliona’s approach is very different – it doesn’t involve any PT’s, supplements, vitamins, gym apparatus or a complex diet. But it does involve great discipline and detailed understanding of physical training for elite dances fitness. She knows how to get the best out of her body, how to keep it in high performance condition and adheres to a sensible eating plan.

“Whilst I don’t deny myself anything particular I eat healthily and with common sense, I avoid foods that obviously fatten and deplete energy and place an emphasis on energy giving, health enhancing natural foods as often as possible. Leading up to the show and during the series a typical day’s eating might be: breakfast – porridge with honey and raisons or eggs (poached, scrambled, omelette) and smoked salmon. Lunch – chicken & vegetable soup, sea bass or steak and potatoes and vegetables.

Dinner – chicken liver pate, chicken or tuna, vegetables and salad or seafood pasta. Yoghurt is a regular feature, “And sushi is always good!”Aliona explained,“As a professional dancer and one involved in such a relentless and intense environment as Strictly Come Dancing we have to have a very high level of all round fitness. We’re like the decathletes of the dance world! Stamina, speed, strength, flexibility, agility and mobility are all absolutely key.

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Our bodies are working through every plain of motion, quickly with power and control or slowly with grace and poise. There are some serious stresses and strains being exerted but we have to maintain precision at all times and make even the most frantic dance look supremely controlled. Everything must work together – strength with suppleness, explosive speed with elegant sophistication, power with poise.”

Aliona’s background not only includes ballroom and Latin dance but everything from ballet to jazz to hip-hop as well as gymnastics. She has blended elements of all of these disciplines and experience of what they require to develop her own exercise routine which she rigidly adheres to. “I turn up 60-90 minutes before the other dancers and go through my routine which incorporates a lot of stretching and body weight work.

It is entirely based on maintaining and enhancing the kind of all-round fitness we need and for that I draw on my experiences across all dance disciplines. We have to explode in all directions for some dances, other times we have to glide elegantly. Sometimes it’s staccato bursts of energy and motion, then it might be a smooth sweeping motion. Core strength is a common necessity to everything. A strong coreis the platform from which everything else is based. Without it the whole structure is weaker and dance performance is seriously compromised.”

Aliona methodically works through many leg raise and oblique exercises, employing core and leg raises with twists, plank, Swiss ball work, body weight exercises, some resistance band work, all topped off with cardio on a treadmill, bike or crosstrainer. “It is mostly stuff I can do anywhere regardless of available space and most of it does not rely on specialist equipment. And she ensures that she keeps dancing in some way, shape or form.

“Some things cannot be entirely replicated in a gym or workout environment. We can definitely add valuable elements to our conditioning in these places but nothing prepares the body for dancing quite like dancing!” Millions of people have been disappointed not to see Aliona unable to defend her Strictly Come Dancing crown and perform beyond the early stages of the last two series.

But the same quiet determination and discipline that has seen her scale the highest peaks of international dance will do doubt see her burn brightly on the dance floor for many years to come. Aliona is available for appearances, demonstrations, private lessons and dance performances.

Photography: Andres Lesauvage
www.lesauvage.tv & www.poutstudios.com & www.poutclips.com

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