‘Strictly’ Speaking: The Classical Art of the Prime Time Talent Show

ImageSad grown-ups like me that find themselves stuck at home on a Saturday night will find their televisions awash with talent shows. Depending on the time of year, they’ll have the dizzying choice between ‘X-Factor’, ‘Dancing On Ice’, ‘America’s Got Talent’, ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, ‘The Voice’, as well as countless imitations. The clear winner in my household is the BBC’s long running ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ – the equivalent of ABC’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in the States. I admit it. I find myself glued to ‘Strictly’ – as it is affectionately known by its legion of fans – each and every week.

But, personally, I don’t just watch Strictly Come Dancing for the glitter and the sequins – I’m just as interested in the language of its commentators. Because, as I hope I can show, Strictly firmly follows a linguistic tradition which is more than 2000 years old. Let me explain.

All of these talent shows rely on their, hand-picked panels of expert ‘judges’ – their Simon Cowells, Piers Morgans and Sharon Osbournes. With Strictly, it’s a well turned out quartet of former professional dancers and choreographers: Len Goodman, Darcey Bussell, Bruno Tonioli, and Craig Revel-Horwood. As in all of these shows, the judges are there to pass comment on the relative performances, for better or worse, of the contestants.

But Goodman et al are not just there for their in depth knowledge of the cha-cha-cha. They are there to entertain – and a key part of that is the language that they use. I want to convince you that, when it comes to the ancient art of public speaking (oratory), Strictly’s panel of judges are right up there with the Greeks and Romans.

For the citizens of 5th Century Athens, the art of public speaking and the ability to persuade others with words (rhetoric) were critical skills to have (Leith, 2011). As a result, large numbers of tutors-for-hire – the sophists – made a handsome living teaching young men how to argue taxation policy in the General Assembly and defend themselves in the Courts. These sophists knew the power of a well formed sentence or a carefully placed word. As one of the first teachers of rhetoric, Gorgias, put it: ‘The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies.’ Later, the Romans carried on the teaching tradition. The politician Cicero wrote at length on the subject of oratorical style.

Generations of these sophists (and, later on, their Roman cousins) spent many a happy hour carefully categorizing and cataloguing the various figures that could be used by the canny orator to decorate their speech. A ‘figure’ is basically any striking or unusual arrangement of words (Lanham, 1991): they are perhaps best thought of as any combination of words employed as linguistic ‘ornament’ to raise a sentence or passage above the dry and the literal.

There are hundreds of these ‘figures pedantical’, as Shakespeare once called them, with their often beguiling Greek and Latin names: auxesis, asyndeton, chiasmus, hyperbole, and so on. The Bard himself would have spent a good deal of his Grammar school education in Stratford-Upon-Avon having such terms drilled into him.

And, we still all learn a few of them in poetry class: metaphor, simile and alliteration, anyone? As for the rest, the best place to find them is in scholarly tomes like ‘A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms’ (Lanham, 1991), or in one of the various repositories on the web.

In ancient Greece and Rome (in the absence of Saturday night TV) speeches were often given, simply, to entertain. People would happily listen for hours to toga’d speakers, down at the Arena, waxing lyrical about – for example – how beautiful Helen of Troy was. So, for these Saturday night entertainers of the classical world, knowing when and how to use these figures was an important skill in moving, persuading, and entertaining their listeners…

2000 years on, the art of oratory is alive and well. Listen to the judges of Strictly, on any given Saturday, and you’ll hear them use many of these figures.

To illustrate my point, here are just a few examples of the various rhetorical figures I picked out from the shows’ two opening episodes of 2013. I hope they show that, when it comes to the classical art of oratory, not just their dancing skills, Goodman and Tonioli are up there with Cicero and Gorgias.

Metaphor (Changing a word from its literal meaning to one not properly applicable but analogous to it)

That was chicken soup to the eyes. It was tasty, satisfying, and did me the world of good.’ – Len Goodman
Through the darkest clouds, a ray of sunshine appears!’ – Len Goodman

Simile (Making an explicit comparison)

I thought it was going to be like a sneeze. You know it’s coming, but there’s nothing you can do about it.’ – Len Goodman
It was a bit like a ride on a budget airline…’ – Len Goodman
I thought you were wriggling like a slug in salt.’ – Craig Revel Horwood
It was like watching the leaning tower of Pisa.’ – Craig Revel Horwood
You were like stonehenge: you look magnificent, but you don’t move much.’ – Len Goodman

Tricolon (Use of a three-unit pattern, common in many prose styles)

But, nice. I enjoyed it. Well done.’ – Len Goodman
You had the fire. You had the flair. You had the attack.’ – Bruno Tonioli
Yes, it’s earthy. It’s strong. It’s masculine.’ – Darcey Bussell
You’re connected. You’re involved. You feel the music.’ – Bruno Tonioli
You came out. You gave it your best shot. You did it with conviction.’ – Len Goodman

Alliteration (Recurrence of an initial consonant sound, and sometimes a vowel sound)

Serious, sexual, sensuous, and lyrical at the same time.’ – Bruno Tonioli
[Your Charleston] was limp, lame and lacklustre.’ – Craig Revel Horwood

Consonance (Resemblance of stressed consonant sounds where the associated vowels differ)

The cheeky cha-cha-cha, they say.’ – Len Goodman
There was lots of sugar, and not a lot of spice.’ – Darcey Bussell

Assonance (Resemblance of internal vowel sounds in neighbouring words)

Don’t lose it, Ben. Use it!’ – Len Goodman
You were as sharp as a lemon tart.’ – Len Goodman
There is plenty to fancy, Miss Clancy!’ – Bruno Tonioli
I thought it was loud and proud.’ – Len Goodman

Anaphora (Repetition of the same word, in a different or contrary sense, at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences)

Two dances down. So far, so fabulous!’ – Len Goodman

Antistrophe (Repetition of a word or words at the end of several clauses, sentences or verses)

Read all about it! This girl can shake it!’ – Bruno Tonioli

Hyperbole (Exaggerated of extravagant terms used for emphasis, but not literally)

Breathtaking!’ – Craig Revel Horwood

Palilogia (Repetition for vehemence or fullness)

I was, darling. I was moved.’ – Craig Revel Horwood
You’re a good dancer, Abby. You are.’ – Len Goodman
Do it right! Do it right!’ – Bruno Tonioli

Paranomasia (Punning, or generally playing on the sound or meaning of words)

More stagger than “Jagger”!’ – Len Goodman
You put the “go” in “tango”!’ – Len Goodman
Dragon versus drag-meat, darling!’ – Craig Revel Horwood
You put the “oo” in “smooth”.’ – Len Goodman

Ploce (Repetition of a word with new significance after the intervention of another word or words)

Talk about cooking up a storm: you were cooking up a stink!’ – Bruno Tonioli

Auxesis or Amplificatio (Generally cranking things up, linguistically)

Read all about it! This girl can shake it!’ – Len Goodman

[And, finally, just to show that even the presenters of the show are at it too…]

Epizeuxis (Repetition of a word with no other words in between)

Wow, wow, wow!’ – Tess Daly

Chiasmus (Inverting the order of repeated words or phrases)

Nice to see you, to see you nice!’ – Bruce Forsyth


Lanham, R. A. (1991) A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Leith, S. (2011) You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. London: Profile Books.


10 thoughts on “‘Strictly’ Speaking: The Classical Art of the Prime Time Talent Show

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