If anything can restore your joie de vivre, it’s Strictly!

As Annabel Croft takes to the dance floor five months after her husband’s death, her friend VICTORIA HISLOP reveals why the ballroom could be the thing to distract her from devastating heartache

by Victoria Hislop for the Daily Mail

Her grief was all too apparent. ‘It’s been a terrible, terrible time,’ said Annabel Croft recently, reflecting on the five months that have passed since the death of her beloved husband, Mel Coleman, aged 60, just weeks after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.

‘There’s not been a day I haven’t cried.’

Along with mutual friends, I had the pleasure of spending some happy New Year’s Eves with lovely Annabel and Mel. He was wonderful.

So I can absolutely see why Annabel has signed up to compete in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing. Because, while there’s no magic bullet to cure heartache, no secret medicine that erases life’s troubles and restores a lost sense of joie de vivre, Strictly is one thing on the planet that may help distract Annabel from her immeasurable loss.

I discovered this myself when, in 2021, while in painful rehabilitation from breast cancer surgery, I was offered the chance to appear on the Greek version of Strictly, known there as Dancing With The Stars.

When I was asked, at first I hesitated. I was so low, I could barely get out of bed. I had scars from my operation. I ached all over. I felt nearer 90 than 60. But after giving myself a good talking to, I agreed — and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Undoubtedly, there were hard moments — like when I was criticised by the judges and told to be sexier, more ‘out there’. Somehow, I always refrained from yelling back: ‘Hey guys! I’m doing my best. I’m 62 and arthritic! My left arm is restricted because of surgery! Give me a break!’

But I overcame it all. I didn’t just survive on Strictly — I thrived.

So I will be watching dear Annabel and rooting for her. And also for Strictly professional dancer Amy Dowden, who will not be performing this year because she has breast cancer. No doubt she will be missing the intoxication of the dance floor. Indeed, I do myself.

It was at the end of 2020 that I went for my mammogram. Past scans had never shown anything untoward and I was relaxed about it. As the nurse squashed my breasts between the glass-plates, I made a joke about how small my cleavage is.

She took a little longer over the left breast and asked me to wait while the radiographer checked the images. Five minutes later a sweet man called William came out of his office next door. He told me there was something he wanted to take a closer look at.

On screen, was a dark mark on the fuzzy image of breast tissue — my breast tissue. He got me to feel it for myself and I was shocked to feel a distinctive lump. Despite my own (admittedly casual and often too spaced apart) self-examinations in the shower, I’d been completely unaware of it.

He said he would like to do a biopsy there and then. It took just a moment but was like being punched for a fraction of a second. He taped me up and, even before I had left hospital, I was given a date with a breast surgeon to find out the result. Gut instinct told me it was cancer. I had no doubt.

Friends were coming for dinner that night so I went home and made a spectacular fish pie, saying nothing about what had happened.

Before the appointment to receive the diagnosis ten days later, I went for a blow-dry and picked a completely inappropriately glamorous shirt with diamanté buttons from my wardrobe. I suppose I wanted to look like I was in control of the situation, not the nervous wreck I was inside.

The surgeon seemed to be watching me closely as he gave me the test result. ‘It is cancer,’ he said.

He paused, then added: ‘You don’t seem surprised.’

‘I’m not,’ I replied, ‘It’s 2020.’

This was the sting in the tail of a year none of us will ever forget. After all, Covid stole months from our lives and, for many of us, loved ones, too. I had lost my mother at the beginning of the pandemic.

Yet I felt calm. I was in good hands and was offered surgery — a lumpectomy — a few days before Christmas, which seemed ideal as I wanted it to be over with as soon as possible.

I enjoyed so much love and kindness from family and friends over Christmas I was able to put all anxiety out of my head, until the day of the follow-up appointment, halfway through January.

My mother had gone through breast cancer at the same age. Despite more primitive and less successful forms of treatment, she had survived and lived for more than three decades. Like her, I was hoping to be lucky.

And I was. Thanks to the timely mammogram, the cancer had been caught early. There had been no spread into my lymph nodes, nor to any other parts of my body.

The only follow-up treatment was three weeks of daily radiotherapy and then a standard drug taken by many women who have had hormone-receptive breast cancer: Letrozole, which suppresses your hormones. I felt so fortunate. I had got through it all and felt almost on a high.

Only a few months later did I find myself sinking. During treatment there is a sense of purpose, activity — but when that period ends, there’s more time to reflect.

The Letrozole drug I was taking had started to have side-effects, too. My body ached. My concentration was poor. Even if I looked similar on the outside, I had lost my sparkle.

Then, one July afternoon, I got a call from Greek TV producer Fenia Vardanis, one of the original team who created Strictly for the BBC. Fenia had recently moved back to her homeland and was now producing the programme in Athens.

After my first novel, The Island — about a leper colony off the coast of Crete — was published in Greece, it was adapted for Greek television. Over 26 weeks, the streets went silent every Monday night when an episode was aired.

Two more of my novels were subsequently televised. After learning Greek during the first adaptation, I had appeared many times on TV before, in 2020, being awarded honorary citizenship by the President for promoting Greece and its culture around the world. All in all, it was more than enough to qualify me as a ‘celeb’ for their Strictly.

The moment Fenia asked me to take part, I felt light-headed. I needed something to lift my spirits and to get me out of what felt like a ditch. Was this it? I had long been a Strictly fan, inspired by the level of skill amateurs can reach. Happy to dance in private, like most female viewers I had often fantasised about what it would feel like to be held aloft by Johannes Radebe (my all-time favourite) or Giovanni Pernice.

But there was a huge list of ‘cons’, so I asked for a week to think it over. For the following days, my stomach lurched when I pictured myself on stage, performing live.

I would have to be away from London for months. My Greek might not be good enough to understand when I was being berated for sloppy footwork. My bunions would never squeeze into dancing shoes.

Would the backless or possibly semi-frontless costumes suit me? What if I was the Greek Ann Widdecombe, there for comedy value? While I usually have to be dragged off the dance floor at parties, could I strut my stuff on television?

Would a Pilates class twice a week for the past decade and the odd game of tennis have made me fit enough? And, of course, there was the biggest reason to say ‘No’ — I had just had cancer.

However, Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway has always been my favourite self-help book. In its spirit, I told myself: ‘Let’s make the biggest reason for saying ‘No’, the best reason for saying ‘Yes!’ ‘

I called Fenia to accept. A full medical followed and a few days later, on paper at least, I was declared fit. Then began a journey, an odyssey in every way.

My professional dance partner was called Tilemachos (named after the son of Odysseus). He was blond, slim, olive-skinned, with perfect cheekbones.

The other professionals and their plus-ones, all Greek, were much younger than me: Olympic athletes (one a gymnast), a recent Eurovision entrant, Greece’s Top Model, a recent winner of Master Chef, a famous actor, popular musicians, gorgeous TV presenters, a well-known rapper, a blogger and an influencer among them.

A happy group, we were encouraging rather than competitive.

Yet I soon realised my plan to dance in the day and write in the evening was a fantasy. I had just a few weeks to perfect the English Waltz for my first ‘live’ dance. So as well as practising all day, I relentlessly practised steps at home, spinning between hall, kitchen and living room in my small flat, videoing it all on my phone, which I balanced on the radiator.

Every week one of my many friends in Athens would come to the live recording, or a friend or family member would fly out from London, but apart from that my only companions were the other dancers. But the isolation allowed me to focus.

And every day I got better. I sensed real pride (and surprise, perhaps) in the reactions of friends and family back in London.

Week after week, I was zipped, hooked (and sometimes sewn) into the most glamorous dresses.

Many are seen on the UK Strictly as the wardrobe itself tours the world. My first costume, a golden ballgown, had already been worn by Amy Dowden in London.

And the pampering! My body was spray-tanned, my face contoured, lashes extended, nails shellac-ed. It made me feel a billion dollars. Added to this, the sense of achievement and joy of new friendships formed the ultimate recipe for recovery from the darkness I’d felt.

There were challenges: the Waltz needed a strict ‘pose’, a tilt of the head that seemed unnatural to me. I ended up with such a stiff neck I was sent twice a week for physiotherapy. Yet deep tissue massage, neck-cracking, even reiki did nothing to shift my agony.

As well as my neck, my whole body ached and my feet swelled like rugby balls. The small discomforts of cancer surgery were nothing compared with this.

But I pushed through, and in the evenings sat with my feet in a bucket of frozen peas then lay in a hot bath for an hour. I only got through performances with unhealthy quantities of painkillers, ibuprofen gel and scorchingly hot heat patches on my back.

Alcohol wasn’t allowed before performing, so I resorted to the calming Bach’s Natural Remedy with its flower extracts and grape spirit, spraying it discreetly into my mouth in the Green Room.

Our move to Latin dances saw sparks begin to fly — not with passion! — between handsome Tilemachos and me. He expected me to make very fast progress and one day told me to do the splits.

‘Hold on,’ I shrieked. ‘The splits? Can your mother do the splits?’

‘Oxi. No,’ he replied sheepishly.

‘Well, neither can I!’

His mother was a few years younger than me, I reminded him.

Quite often, I left rehearsals to sob quietly, and found someone else in the Ladies doing the same.

Dancing brings everything to the surface. The combination of tiredness and stress is intense. And it’s emotion that makes a great performance, even if there are tears and tantrums, too.

I’m sure Annabel will be able to channel all her emotions into brilliance on the dance floor.

Indeed, the night I danced the Salsa (without doing the splits) and ended up near the top of the leaderboard, I was on the ceiling.

My satin Latin shoes, very high and spindly-heeled, were open and strappy, and unexpectedly accommodating for my H-width feet and I wore a short, pink, froth of a dress. When I look back at the footage, I can’t believe it was me.

At the end of my dance, I did something like a twerk, knowing the camera was focused on my backside, having sussed correctly this would get me high points.

In the following weeks, I became addicted to the energy and joy of the Jive, Cha Cha and the Quickstep. It was the ecstasy of it all that had the healing power.

Halfway through the contest, in mid-December, we were voted off — exactly 12 months to the day since my mammogram.

I had to hold back the tears. The demands dancing makes on you ensures that at the right moments you forget everything but the music and the rhythm. It takes hold of your body and soul. It made me regain the sense of self I’d lost in those months after diagnosis.

Today, I’m a show-off at any party where there’s a chance to dance, and I’ve embraced a new fitness regime which includes boxing. It demands the greater level of fitness I managed to achieve and the footwork is reminiscent of dancing.

So again, Annabel, I wish you the best of luck. And know this: even when you are having a quiet sob in a corner, you’ll soon find yourself being whirled and twirled — and feeling the power of the dance.