As a lifelong Strictly fan, I approached reviewing Kristina Rihanoff’s autobiography as a challenge. Really, who am I to judge someone’s life story? Of course she’s had a very difficult time from the press, especially in the last twelve months. Rihanoff inspires opinions in people whether they know her or not. I’ve met Rihanoff both as a fan and professionally, I interviewed her at the beginning of 2013 and I found her a lot more closed and reluctant than when I had met her previously as a fan (obvious, I suppose). Having read her autobiography, Dancing out of the Darkness, I have begun to understand why she protects herself in this way by putting up these sort of emotional barriers. You can’t deny she’s had a hard life – end to end, although you may not always agree with the way she’s gone about dealing with these extreme situations but this is her effort to set the record straight and I think, largely, she does this was grace and honesty.
To give Rihanoff credit, I flew through her book in two days. I’m not a natural reader and have a short attention span and expected the early chapters telling the story of her early life in Vladivostok, Russia not to be as page turning as it was. I like that she gives the historical and political context for the environment she grew up in. She talks of portraits of Lenin on the wall and maps of the Soviet Union at school. No other countries were important or mattered until she reached higher years. School was tough and strict, it wasn’t cool to mess around and she talks with great pride of doing well at school and finishing her degree. Her mother and father sound fiercely intelligent too and her upbringing sounds mainly happy until the leadership of Gorbachev where the regime of Perestroika was implemented, a time she’s describes as when “everything seemed to stop working”. Her Dad lost his job and her mother was reduced to working as a cleaner which lead to her battle with alcoholism and a suicide attempt. These bleak chapters starkly demonstrate why Rihanoff has developed such strong coping mechanisms that help her to the present day.
Of course, most who read Dancing out of the Darkness will be doing so as Strictly fans and there is lots of pour over from this side too. It was lovely to read about Rihanoff’s professional career as I never really knew how successful she had been competitively and she talks passionately about her time competing in the American Rhythm category with Brian Jolly who she later went onto marry. (They divorced five years later.) The intensity of her life at this time really comes through but what I admired more than anything was her move to Seattle aged roughly twenty four, when she was unable to speak a word of English! I can’t fathom how terrifying and lonely that must have been, but her love of dancing pulls her through. She talks casually about her marriage to Brian as it was almost a given that a successful dance couple would marry, “We got married in a very small and simple ceremony as we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on it … it was very intense and it wasn’t a happy time in our dancing or relationship.” Her later partnership with superstar Michael Wentink sounded similarly draining, especially when they had such opposing reactions to their competition results – Wentink was disgusted to only make a semi-final, Rihanoff was thrilled.
There are plenty of titbits from her Strictly experiences too. I particularly enjoyed her comments about producer’s requests such as when the dancers are asked to look more happy or more excited when paired with their celebrity in the launch show. There are also plenty of times when she mentions her intention to quit the show between series due to either press intensity of family emergencies but producers have always convinced her to stay.
The chapters detailing Rihanoff’s relationships and the apparent scandal are not actually that interesting(!). She admits her mistakes in her encounter with Vincent Simone and her relationship with Joe Calzaghe sounds pretty solid and uneventful, failing only due to them being at different stages in their lives; Rihanoff is a self-confessed workaholic, Calzaghe had been there and done that and wanted to party. It’s a little disappointing her relationship with Ben Cohen is never brought up. She talks of them getting on well during their time on Strictly, never of any physical attraction, they bonded over their passion for charity work.
I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for Kristina – no one deserves the public mauling she has faced of late but having read her autobiography I now feel I understand her motivations to have done various things a bit more. As a workaholic she will surely never feel she has done enough to allow herself to relax but she should be encouraged by her numerous achievements and maybe give herself a break every now and then – she’s undoubtedly earned it.
A huge thanks to John Blake publishers for sending me a copy of Dancing out of the Darkness book.