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A study by Goldsmiths Professor Keon West has found that ethnic minorities are unfairly assigned to the dance off in popular television programme Strictly Come Dancing.
Strictly Come Dancing is a staple in the TV calendar and one of the UK’s most popular, and most diverse, shows. Yet its role has sparked fierce public debate.
Professor Keon West's research found that the voting audience of the popular BBC show regularly gives lower votes to pairs made up of BAME participants than the programme’s professional judges do.
The paper analysed data from nine series of the show (2012-2021) and found that the contestants most likely to be assigned to repeated dance-offs were racial minority celebrities who were paired with racial minority professional dancers and achieved high scores from the judges.
The data analysis of nine series of the show reveals that despite achieving the judge's approval, BAME contestants invariably have to fight for survival in more bottom two dance-off contests than their non-BAME competitors.
Professor West quantitatively analysed data from Seasons 10 (the one in which the dance-off was reinstated) to Season 19 of Strictly Come Dancing. The analyses looked at all the couples’ appearances in the dance-off (the awful fate befalling the two least popular dancers) while taking into account their ethnicities and the scores they received from the judges.
The results were clear. Professor West found that “the contestants who were most frequently assigned to the dance-off were racial minority celebrities coupled with racial minority professional dancers who obtained relatively high scores from the judges”.
Professor West found that professional dancers and celebrity contestants were penalised for their ethnic minority status, and this penalty was worse, not better if they danced well. The viewing public simply appeared to be less willing to vote for ethnic minorities.
Despite acknowledging that “the diversity on Strictly Come Dancing is a good thing”, Professor West also cautioned that “diversity alone is not sufficient”, and warned that “viewers who regularly see racial minorities excluded or rejected, even despite evidence of superior skill in a relevant domain, may come to see this treatment of racial minorities as normal or acceptable.”
‘Being asked to dance: Evidence of racial bias in audience voting behaviour on the television show Strictly Come Dancing’ was published in the Psychology of Popular Media Journal on 27 November 2023.