Strictly Come Dancing’s Darren Bennett and Lilia Kopylova
Husband and wife Darren Bennett and Lilia Kopylova are Strictly Come Dancing’s golden couple. After meeting on the professional dance circuit, the pair married in Rotherham in 1999. Since then, they’ve become a regular fixture on the show, taking part in it since 2004 when Darren won the competition with his partner Jill Halfpenny. Lillia went on to win the following year with partner Darren Gough, and the pair have been placed highly in the results ever since.
When not competing in one of the world’s most popular shows, the pair are busy promoting their initiative to get more children involved in dance, Essentially Dance, and can also be found hanging out at the family dance studio, City Limits Dance Centre in Hillsborough.
We caught up with the pair to find out how Deepcar born Darren and Moscow native Lilia became partners in both their professional and personal life, and why they want to get the whole country dancing.
Do you still live in Sheffield?
Darren: Unfortunately no – we’re based in London at the moment because of Strictly, and we’re also touring a lot at the moment with our show Latin Fever. We own a house up in Sheffield but unfortunately don’t get back very often. When we do though, particularly to perform, it’s always a huge buzz for us to play in our home county. And it’s always nice to come home and chill out for a bit.
Your show Latin Fever has had rave reviews – how’s it going?
D Latin Fever’s going fantastically well, we’re touring the country with it this year, last year we did five weeks in the West End and then took it to Birmingham. Like I said earlier though, it’s always brilliant to come back and perform in Sheffield. It’s quite daunting because it’s my home crowd and lots of my friends and family will be there, but we’re both really looking forward to it.
Do you find the audience’s reaction at your shows has changed since you’ve been doing Strictly?
D Reception and perception of dance has completely changed; not just ballroom and Latin, but all styles. There’s So You Think You Can Dance, Got To Dance, even Britain’s Got Talent has a huge dance element to it. All the progress that’s been made with dance is due to Strictly making it accessible and taking away the stigma that it’s only for girls. There’s a whole generation of people in the UK taking up dancing, and that’s fantastic.
Darren, your whole family is into dance. Is it always something you wanted to do?
D I suppose in some respects it was something I was born into. From a very young age I was around competitions, my first one was when I was three months old! Not competing, obviously, but I was pushed around in my pram!
How easy was it to compete in professional dance being based in South Yorkshire?
D When we competed we represented Sheffield throughout our career, so even competing for Great Britain we were still known as from Sheffield – you identify yourself as being from there and that was always very nice for us to do that. Growing up wasn’t necessarily the easiest as a ballroom dancer, especially in the 80s and 90s or when you were at school, but it’s just one of those things and I look back now and it was all worth it.
Did you find it difficult to pursue dance because of the stigma around it as a pursuit for boys at the time?
D It’s just naivity, so it wasn’t anything that would ever make me think of giving up. It’s not so much that they don’t like you as a person, it’s just that they don’t understand what it’s about, so that naivity comes across and they use it as a way of picking on kids that are different – whether it’s dance or any other sport that’s not so mainstream.
So Darren, what advice would you give to boys who want to pursue dance, whether as a hobby or career?
D Just keep at it! If it’s what you want to do then you’ll stick to it! You’ll naturally find like-minded people who enjoy it and don’t follow the crowd – that’s very important. Don’t get swayed by what other people see as normal, be unique and express yourself as an individual.
L Coming from Russia, where boys and girls dance all the time and have for years, boys in England seemed to have such a stereotype about dancing, that it was all about sequins. But Strictly’s changed all that, it’s moved on so much and totally changed people’s perspective. We have so many boys and men coming to the dance school now, it’s great to see.
Are the dance facilities in South Yorkshire good?
D Dance in South Yorkshire is very big; City Limits is one of the biggest dance studios in the UK, we have great facilities, licensed bars, six air conditioned studios – it’s a tremendous facility. But there are lots of dance studios around South Yorkshire so you don’t have to travel far. We have some great facilities here, even ice dancing with the big new centre in Sheffield. The facilities are there, it’s up to the people of South Yorkshire to use them!
Lilia, what brought you to South Yorkshire?
L I’ve been dancing since I was four and competing on the international circuit since I was nine, so I’d seen a lot of Darren and his twin brother, Dale. Darren and I danced really well together, so I decided to move to the UK permanently to dance with Darren.
How did Sheffield differ from Moscow?
L To be honest I’ve always been very adaptable. The dancing lifestyle makes you that way because you travel a lot from being very young. Darren and I have also lived in Denmark for a year and a half, and to be honest you don’t really thing about it. I tried to do anything I could to improve my dance career, I was very determined, so living in the same place as Darren was something I really wanted to do.
How quickly did you realise that your relationship was more than just professional?
How did you get involved with Strictly Come Dancing?
D The producers called us and asked us to be part of it, but we were competing in Asia at the time and couldn’t commit. So when the second series came along and we were asked again, our friends and family said really wanted us to do it. We decided to do one series, but enjoyed it so much we agreed to do the second which I won with Jill, and then Lilia won the next one with Darren Gough, and we were part of it! We’ve come second and third since and been on the Strictly tour, and it’s brilliant.
Was there any rivalry between you on the show?
D No not really, as long as Lilia wins it’s all good! At the end of the day it’s always good, we dance together, we’re a couple and we dance with other people as well.
L No, of course not! It’s a very difficult job to do being on Strictly, it’s very stressful and demanding and the first two years we both did really well. It is very demanding but if anything we helped one another, and were happy for each other when we won.
Dancing is a very intimate activity, is it difficult to watch each other with different partners?
D No not at all, it’s a professional job and it’s what we do. It’s like acting, we’re performing a role, it’s what we do. We’ve both been dancing since a very young age and it just comes with the territory.
L Not at all! Performance is a big part of the dance; you have technique and then you have performance and it can win or lose you the dance. It’s incredibly important and we always try and teach our partners the performance side of things, which can be harder than technique but if you get it spot on the whole thing comes together.
Lillia, you enjoy dress design, do you design and make all your own costumes?
L Yes, I’ve always enjoyed design since I was young. You get to know your body and what you like and don’t like, and you can always trust yourself to get it right! I’ve always designed my costumes but right now I have really good team of dress makers, and specialist costume designers Dancia International sponsor us so I work closely with them to create our costumes.
You launched Essentially Dance in 2009 to encourage more children to use dance as a fitness activity. How’s it going?
D It’s going very well at the moment. There are over 100,000 kids involved already and hundreds of schools, and later this year we’re launching Sports Leaders in connection with Essentially Dance. Sports Leaders provides nationally recognised leadership qualifications and awards that help people develop essential life skills such as organisation, motivation, communication and working with others. All of the qualifications and awards are practical – candidates learn by doing rather than through written work. And, we don’t do exams – assessment is made upon a candidate’s ability to lead and demonstrate their leadership skills for a certain period of time, within a specific setting. So Essentially Dance will work with Sports Leaders to deliver dance-based certificates. We’re getting great feedback from teachers and kids, there are massive clusters of schools involved, particularly in Barnsley and Rotherham where they’ve really taken it on board, and it’s going from strength to strength.
L Yes, it’s fantastic. We wanted to make dance available to as many children as possible in the UK, and maybe children who wouldn’t have a chance to try out dancing if it wasn’t available in school. The feedback we’ve had and the schools we’ve visited prove that the children who take part are having such a brilliant time. They’re enjoying themselves, learning skills, becoming more interactive, boys are interacting with girls. It’s incredibly satisfying, and the teachers who are taking on the project are loving it as much as the children. Dancing should be as much a part of the curriculum as netball, football and cricket. It creates diversity, and it’s nice for children to have a choice.
What was the reason behind Essentially Dance?
D We wanted to give every child the opportunity to learn to dance, as it’s a social skill that you carry with you through life, whether at a wedding or a prom or any social event. We were getting asked all the time where can kids go to try dancing, so we decided to make it official and get to a reasonably competent level at school and then possibly take it further.
What sort of a reaction have you had from teachers and children?
D Fantastic. We’ve had great feedback, and one of most positive things is that the kids that have proved fantastic have been the ones that haven’t necessarily engaged themselves within mainstream sport. We’re getting a whole different group of kids involved in dancing that might not have been forthcoming with things like football, which is fantastic because the aim wasn’t to replace anything, but add more to the sports side of things and give people more choice. Hopefully it will go some way to helping to ease the obesity crisis.
How closely are you involved in the running and the practical side of it?
D Lillia and I go and see the schools as often as we can, and my brother is very involved in the day to day training of teachers. Sue Cooper is the national coordinator, Lorraine Drolet, a former world champion is also involved with training, and Rod Aldridge, who is the head of the Adridge foundation which was set up to help raise aspirations of young people, is also closely involved.
How important is it to you to get children active from a young age?
D Children should be active from when they can walk. I’m not talking massive amounts of physical activity, but there should definitely be some form of coordinated learning aboiut how to gain mobility through your bodies, things like that. Children at dance school can start as young as three and learn about movement.
What skills do you need to be a professional dancer?
D You have to be very disciplined, very fit and have a great passion for what you do as a dancer. It’s like anything you want to be good at, particularly other sports – it’s hard work and you have to be committed. If you have that mentality, then you can carry it through to anything in your life.
Is there a maximum age you can be to still consider being a professional dancer?
D If you wanted to be a top level top line professional a lot of grounding work is done under the age of 12, but lots of great dancers started in their teens. The great thing about dance though is you can take part at any level or any age, keep it social or take it to competitive level.
What advice would you give to children who are considering it as a career?
D I’d say it was just as important to advise parents as well as children. Find a good teacher, practice makes perfect, and you have to be disciplined with your practice and training. But above all, enjoy it – you don’t want it to be a grind. But to take it to a professional level you have to put the hours in, just as with any disciplined sport. I’d say you should be aiming for around three or four hours practice a day, because anything you do at a good level takes lots of practice. When you watch TV it looks easy, but that’s only because the dancers have invested so much time into training.
L You have to be strong, there are times when it will get tough. You’re not always at the top of your game, you get good results and bad results. But be strong, stick at it, practice, but most importantly enjoy it! Dancing makes everyone happy.
What would you say to people who’ve never tried it and think it’s too late to learn?
D At city limits we have lots of social classes every day of the week and we have people aged from three to 93. It’s never too late, and what’s best about dance is you can do it as a couple. You’re not alone pounding the treadmill, it’s a social activity.
L Yes. Dancing is such a diverse thing, you can do it at any age, or any level, you don’t have to be a competitor, but above all it’s fun!
So, what does the future hold?
D If someone said five years ago you’d be on the biggest TV show in the world, playing Sheffield Arena, the 02 Arena… We’d have said, yeah, whatever. So we just let it take us wherever it goes, and enjoy every second.