“Don?t tell me how to cha-cha”

Tony Irving is the twinkle-toed Brit whose quips cut celebrities down to size on the dancefloor. He may have made a name for himself as the sharp-tongued jury chairman on the TV show Let’s Dance, but there’s more to the man than his quick retorts.

Hailing from north-west England, the former pro has been plying his trade here since 1993 as a dancer, teacher and judge.

Is Sweden a hub of dance talent ready to burst at the seams, like a tight pair of Latin pants?

I wouldn’t say Sweden has ever been a great dance nation. But there’s plenty of social dancing and the bug is homegrown here. Ballroom and Latin are not very big and I think the downfall is the word lagom. Swedes want to be ‘lagom’ dancers rather than reach a competitive level and that’s been a general trend here. But now more than ever there’s a shift happening and a lot of the youngsters are very ambitious.

You’ve heard it many times before but please explain – why Sweden?

I was judging the Swedish championship and had been travelling back and forth for a while. It’s like any job; if you get offered a good contract you take it and it was fast becoming bigger than any other job I had. So at that point I decided to base myself here.

Is a dancer’s life different here?

One of the things I first loved about Sweden was that it didn’t matter that I was a dancer – I was treated the same way as anybody else in any other career. In England, I felt dancers weren’t taken seriously. People would say, “Yeah but what do you really do for a living?” Here there was a completely difference acceptance; I was treated like I had a serious career and education.

You have been in Sweden since 1993 – do you consider it your home now?

Sweden is a place where I have made my life; my friends are here and my career is here. When I’m not in Sweden, the strange thing is I can’t wait to get back. Sweden is home for me now but my heart is always where my parents are, and that’s where my roots are. It would be hard for me to leave Sweden but if anything ever happened to my family, I would go back. Not by choice though.

Your Swedish is jättebra! Any embarrassing mistakes?

Thanks! I once went to a lecture and really wanted to ask a question so I put my hand up. But by the time he’d got round to me I’d completely forgotten what I was going to ask. I tried to translate “forget it, it’s gone” and said, “glöm det, det har redan gått för mig” and the whole place started laughing. The lecturer then told me, “You’ve just informed us all that you’ve already come today!”

On the TV show Let’s Dance you were chairman of the jury and notably candid with your comments. What was the reaction on the Swedish streets to straight-talking Tony?

With most people it went down okay but others took the programme so seriously it frightened me. I was once threatened on the underground – a woman started screaming at me because I’d been overly critical to Peppe Eng. And then a guy in ICA grabbed my shirt and told me to watch my mouth. I couldn’t believe that people in a country like Sweden, who didn’t know a thing about a cha-cha five weeks ago, were telling me how to do my job.

You also chaired Pride in Sweden from 1996-99 – is gay rights something you’re passionate about?

For me, working with the Pride event was more about self-help – it helped me to understand myself a lot better. It brings people together from different walks of life, regardless of what they do behind closed doors. I had a great network of people who worked very hard and I’m really proud of the fact that I did it.

Pride has taken off now and has become a calendar event in Sweden. Even though it’s labeled a gay event it’s for everybody and I just want to be treated like anyone else. I want the same rights for my relationship, and to be treated as a man with the same respect. Not ‘there goes that gay guy off the telly’ – it’s only a small part of who I am.

Tony Irving returns to our TV screens for the second series of Let’s Dance early next year. In the meantime, you could always polish up your Paso Doble or fine tune your Foxtrot with his help. More details at the Danceworld website.