Not only was he training anywhere between six and 10 hours a day, but he was also juggling it with his other TV commitments and rounds on the wards of the hospital where he works.
Recalling one particular training session, he tells HuffPost UK: “I remember the first rehearsal for our Jive on the Monday, I’d just done a night shift on the Sunday and gone straight into rehearsal.”
It was that kind of commitment and dedication from the beloved TV medic that saw him through to week seven of the competition in 2018 when his Samba failed to impress the judges.
Despite admitting to being “knackered” during what ultimately turned out to be his last week of training, Ranj properly caught the Strictly bug and is still dancing to this day after it helped him through lockdown.
“Now I get to dance for fun rather than having that stress of learning this routine and performing it at the end of the week and getting judged,” he laughs. “Now I can go into a class, have a laugh, have a great time and come out looking fantastic!”
In the third instalment of our Back To The Ballroom series, Ranj tells of his enduring friendship with dance partner Janette Manrara, opens up about how he learned to cope with Strictly’s mental challenges and reveals why he believes Jenny from The Chase would be the perfect contestant.
I used to think I was quite physically active before Strictly. But I had no idea…
The Strictly regime threw me into a whole new category. When you’re training for six to 10 hours a day dancing, when it finishes, your body does this weird things where it craves it, so I still dance. I wouldn’t say it is the same amount of activity because I don’t have time to do all those hours of training a day, but my experience on the show helped because I got fitter.
My body has definitely changed since Strictly, I don’t know what’s happened, but I’m able to do a lot more than I was able to before.
One thing viewers never get to see is…
What goes on in wardrobe. On Friday, when we go into the studio to do the rehearsals, you try on your outfit and we’d all be in there together, boys on one side, girls on the other side. It’s the first time you get to see the other contestants all week and it’s a really lovely moment.
This one time when I went in to try on my outfit and I had music on my phone – it was Part Of That World from The Little Mermaid – and me and Faye (Tozer, from Steps) had a little moment on the other side of the curtain where we were singing it together. It was brilliant. If only people knew that’s what we did.
The other thing a lot of people don’t get to see is that on the Friday night, lots of us would get together and have dinner, which was really nice because it got you in the mood for the weekend. You’d have a catch up from the week and you’d get to spend a bit of time just away from the cameras.
The most surprising thing about the show was…
That I got really bad anxiety, which I hadn’t really experienced like that before. Through work, I talk about anxiety and help people a lot and manage their anxiety, but I’d never really experienced the full brunt of it myself until I did Strictly. I really had to try and get out of my own head because it’s really easy to get all worked up and you almost lose the fun of what you are doing.
The great thing was I learned a bit more about myself and that it can happen and what I need to manage that. A chat with Janette usually calmed me down. She knew exactly when I was in my head and would stop me and we’d have a break.
Weirdly, and I never thought I’d say this, I went to hospital to do my shift to have a break! Just to get a bit of normality and put myself back in my comfort zone by going to work, which became my coping mechanism, which is so strange.
One thing I’d change about my Strictly experience would be…
Being able to do Couple’s Choice. We could have had so much fun. Janette wanted to do musical theatre but I wanted to do something a bit more extreme and have a bit of fun with it.
And I was gutted that I didn’t get to dance at Blackpool. In my head, I’d always said that if I get to Blackpool, that’s fine by me. I’m not going to win this competition, but to say I’ve been there and danced there.
I did get to go and watch it in Blackpool, though. I said to the guys, ‘regardless, I’m coming and I’m going to sit and watch the show’. I sat with Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe, who are two ex pros, and we had such a good time. I got to see Gloria Estefan perform live – she was right in front of me and turned around and pointed and I literally just lost it.
If I could have danced with anybody else, it would have been…
I would have loved to have danced with another guy. I really wanted them to pair me with another guy but it wasn’t quite the done thing then. I’m so glad it is now and I think that is amazing.
I’d love to dance with Gorka – he’s a cracking dancer and is the same height. Or Aljaz – he’s just so much fun and is the other half of Janette. In rehearsals, especially during ballroom rehearsals, I used to get tips from him and he used to show me. I really struggled with ballroom and Aljaz is the ballroom king, so I did kind of get to dance with him a little bit when I was trying to learn. But it would have been amazing to dance together.
I always start to dance as if I’m on Strictly when I’m out now…
It’s so cringe. My friends always make fun of me. I start throwing people around, spinning them and doing all sorts. Even I had to have a word with myself because that is not the way normal people dance. I am really starting to annoy myself. But I can’t help it, it’s sort of in the muscle memory.
I’m still friends with loads of people from the show…
Socially, we end up sometimes dancing and trying to reenact those golden days, shall we say. At my 40th birthday, me and Janette did my Fireball routine and I fell over, which was very funny. I’m blaming the floor because it was slippy.
I also did my own West End show in the summer and Janette and I did a little routine there just for fun – we just can’t help it! Every time we’re together, we have a laugh and I’ll try and lift her and probably drop her.
I’m not surprised stuff happens between people on Strictly…
Dancing is very emotive and intimate and you surrender to your partner because they are your mentor and your master. They become your friend and confidant. I think stuff is bound to happen because you’re thrown into this really intense melting pot together of emotion and physicality and it’s making you feel great.
I would always say don’t do Strictly if your relationship is on rocky ground. You go in there knowing exactly where you stand.
I wouldn’t call it a curse, to be honest. I call it a blessing – I got a really good friend out of it – that was my Strictly Blessing.
My favourite Strictly routine ever is…
Janette and HRVY’s dance to Chorus Line – that was incredible. Just spectacular. It’s one of her favourite musicals as well. And she got to do it in the final.
One of my favourite pairings was Oti and Bill Bailey. It was a random pairing that just worked really well. That woman turned him into a dancer and no-one expected that. I was so pleased when he won because he really deserved it.
My dream Strictly celeb is…
Jenny from The Chase and Reverend Kate Bottley. Both of them would be great, for very different reasons, but they’d both be awesome. Kate has got a wicked sense of humour, she’s hilarious and she’s game for anything. I think she’d have a great time.
Jenny would really show a side of her that people don’t see. She gets characterised as this person from The Chase, but she is an awesome person – she’s really musical and really talented.
My advice for this year’s celebs is…
I wish I’d told myself this, and Shirley kind of did tell me, and said, ‘Look, you’re not going to become a professional dancer in this length of time – it’s impossible. So maybe just concentrate on having fun and getting that across.’ That really does count for a lot. Don’t stress about the technicalities – try your best, obviously – but don’t stress about getting it perfect, show you’re having fun.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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