Are they or aren’t they? That’s been the question on every Strictly fan’s lips since January when rumours first surfaced that professional dancers Nadiya Bychkova and Kai Widdrington were becoming close.
Nadiya had recently split from her fiancé, Slovenian footballer Matija Skarabot, and Kai had just reached the final in his first year on the show with his partner AJ Odudu. When they both set out on the Strictly Live Tour after Christmas, word soon spread that Kai had been ‘comforting’ Nadiya after her split.
The rumours appeared to have been scotched when Nadiya returned to Slovenia in February, where she was said to have rekindled her romance with Matija, with whom she has a five-year-old daughter, Mila. But since then we’ve seen Kai and Nadiya shopping together in matching leather jackets, walking hand-in-hand through an airport and sharing a kiss at a charity ball.
Yet until now, both have resolutely refused to confirm their romance. However today, in a Weekend exclusive, Ukraine born Nadiya, 32, reveals that she and Kai, 26, are indeed in a relationship.
Nadiya Bychova, 32, (pictured) admits that rumours surrounding her relationship with co-star Kai Widdrington are true
‘We’ve been seeing each other properly for a couple of months now,’ she tells me, deftly side-stepping the exact timescale and those tricky questions about the chronology of when she and Matija actually broke up.
Softly spoken and surprisingly shy, she explains that because English is her fourth language (she also speaks Ukrainian, Slovenian and Russian) she is hesitant about the meanings of certain words and loath to make mistakes, which might help when it comes to questions she’s keen to deflect.
‘It’s early days and we’ve been rehearsing for the Strictly Professionals tour, so there’s been very little free time,’ she continues.
‘But we’re getting to know more and more about each other day by day. He’s kind and compassionate and makes me laugh. I feel very relaxed with him.’
She may not be keen to divulge details of how they got together, but the couple have already become very much part of the show’s extended ‘family’ of professional dancers.
Nadiya, who’s been friends with Aljaz Skorjanec (who recently announced his departure from the BBC show after nine years) since they first met at dance school in Slovenia, aged 12, has also formed a bond with his wife Janette Manrara – and now Kai has been welcomed into the friendship group.
‘Kai and I have seen Aljaz and Janette’s stage show, Remembering The Oscars, in Cambridge,’ says Nadiya. ‘We’ve also had a trip to Belfast together to see Giovanni Pernice’s show This Is Me.’
It’s early days but I feel relaxed with Kai. He’s kind and compassionate and he makes me laugh
Nadiya assures me their shared devotion to dance is a plus. ‘Kai’s a fantastic dancer,’ she says.
‘He’s 6ft 2in and I’m 5ft 8in so we’re very compatible on the dance floor. There aren’t that many tall male dancers.
‘We’re focused on our work – thankfully we both understand this is part of what we do.’
In her first full print interview she also talks about her fears for friends and family living in the Donbas region of Ukraine, now the epicentre of the war where bombs are falling around their homes, and her separation from Matija.
When Nadiya, a two-time world champion Latin and ballroom dancer and the only Strictly professional who’s a mother, joined the show in 2017 the long separations from her fiancé, with whom she lived in Slovenia, took their toll. She tells me they split up early in 2021.
‘You’re apart for so much of your lives and neither of us wanted that. Unfortunately we grew apart.
Nadiya had recently split from her fiancé, Slovenian footballer Matija Skarabot (pictured). The two of them share a five-year-old daughter
‘But we’ll always be connected by Mila, who we love more than anyone, and we’ll do our best to make sure she’s the happiest child. It’s important to Matija and me that we have a good relationship for Mila’s sake.
‘Having a child surpasses everything else. We make sure it all works around her and we both understand our responsibilities.’
When I ask her about that apparent rapprochement between her and Matija – when she returned to Slovenia in February he is said to have thrown a lavish ‘welcome home’ party for her – she scotches any suggestion of a rekindled romance.
‘We always have a lovely family meal that I’ll cook and his parents and my mum will sit at the table with us. That’s all part of our efforts to be one happy family for Mila.’
So it was, according to Nadiya, quite seamless: no messy overlaps or efforts on Matija’s part to win her back. And contrary to media reports, she insists Mila has lived with her in London since she moved here in 2017.
Mum and daughter share their apartment with Nadiya’s mother Larisa, who cares for her only grandchild while Nadiya is working. They were only separated by Covid when, during the 2020 Strictly season, all the professional dancers had to form bubbles with their celebrity partners and were not permitted to see their families during their time on the show.
Her childhood home was in Luhansk in the Donbas region, seized by pro-Russian separatists in the 2014 invasion and now the focus of heavy fighting, and her father and grandparents still live in the town where she spent her early years
‘From September until mid November 2020, Mila couldn’t be with me and there was no point in her being on her own with my mum in our apartment in London. So she and Mum went back to Slovenia and stayed with Matija for a couple of months at our family home.
‘Otherwise she’s been here with me in London. Her dad has visited regularly and we’ve been to see him too.’
Nadiya is tall, lissom, blonde and so dazzling that half the men in the office offer to carry my notebook when I go to interview her. She wears a sweater dress and belted trench coat with the words Let Love Be The Next Pandemic on the back.
Last year she partnered married BBC Breakfast host Dan Walker (who is soon to depart for Channel 5) on Strictly and they confounded expectations by reaching week 11. The chemistry crackled between them and there were rumours of a romance, which she’s quick to dispel.
‘I can’t really do much about them,’ she shrugs. ‘I’m not the sort of person to scream, “This isn’t true.”
‘You have a blonde Ukrainian dancer with a good-looking celebrity partner and everyone assumes, “This is it.” But I’m just a professional dancer doing the best job I can.
‘You have to have a thick skin in this business and I’ve learnt not to react. My friends and family know who I am.
‘The rumours made me sad but all I can do is keep doing my job well and being a good mum.’
My grandmother’s house in Ukraine was bombed and my family can hear explosions now from their homes
But the gossip persisted, one report even suggesting they’d shared a kiss backstage, which Nadiya adamantly refutes. ‘There was never a kiss,’ she cries. ‘One million per cent!’
Then there was the fevered speculation about why Dan, who’s been married to wife Sarah for 21 years (they have three children together), opted out of the Strictly tour with Nadiya.
‘He was just way too busy,’ she says. ‘He expected to be out of the show in week three and had so many other jobs booked that he couldn’t cancel.’
She assures me she’s met Dan’s wife and kids and they even intend to see her in her upcoming stage show Here Come The Boys. And Dan did teach her a valuable lesson: to have more confidence speaking English.
‘He said, “If you try, people don’t mind if you get the wrong word,”’ she smiles. ‘And I really enjoyed teaching him dancing because he’d never danced before, and his focus and commitment were incredible.
‘I helped him not to be embarrassed about getting the steps wrong and he taught me not to worry about saying the wrong words!’
For all her charm and sweetness, Nadiya has developed a carapace of toughness. Her father and two surviving grandparents, Vanya and Nadiya, after whom she was named, still live in Ukraine.
Kai and Nadiya performing together on The One Show. When Nadiya, a two-time world champion Latin and ballroom dancer and the only Strictly professional who’s a mother, joined the show in 2017 the long separations from her fiancé, with whom she lived in Slovenia, took their toll
Her childhood home was in Luhansk in the Donbas region, seized by pro-Russian separatists in the 2014 invasion and now the focus of heavy fighting, and her father and grandparents still live in the town where she spent her early years.
‘My dad isn’t allowed to leave Ukraine because he’s under 55 and might be conscripted. I always worry about him.
‘My family can hear explosions from their homes. They got used to that eight years ago too.
‘In 2014 Mum escaped on the last train out before the railways were destroyed.
‘For three months there was no mobile phone signal. It was horrible as Dad and my grandparents were still there and I didn’t know if they were alive.
‘I saw a video on social media of my grandmother’s house destroyed by a bomb. It was terrifying.
‘I had no way of knowing if she’d survived, but she was hiding in the basement with neighbours.
‘We’ve just finished fixing her house and now she lives in fear it’ll be bombed again. You never know what will happen tomorrow.
‘But she doesn’t want to leave because it’s her home. Anyway, it’s too dangerous for her to travel now.
‘Mum went back to visit Granny and left at the end of January, just in time. Now Dad’s keeping an eye on both my grandparents – his father Vanya and Mum’s mum.’
Nadiya says: ‘Kai’s a fantastic dancer. He’s 6ft 2in and I’m 5ft 8in so we’re very compatible on the dance floor’
Nadiya was ten when she and her mother left Luhansk so she could pursue dancing.
‘We kept moving to bigger cities with bigger dance schools, living in tiny rented rooms, sometimes sleeping on chairs in airports as we’d run out of money. We moved to Slovenia when I was 12.
‘Mum did so much for me. Dad came to see us at weekends but he had his work in Ukraine so he couldn’t live with us.
‘Financially it was very hard. Dance lessons were expensive – once Mum was left with five euros for us to live on for two weeks.
‘Her sacrifice was everything. And I knew I wanted to be a world champion dancer, it was the only thing in my head.’
She remembers watching the first Strictly season 18 years ago when she came to England to compete in a dance competition at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom. ‘I was just a child.
‘It didn’t cross my mind then that I’d ever be on the show but Mum remembers when we went on a tour of London I said to her, “One day I will live here.” And now I am, and I love it!’
But the life of a professional dancer is not for the faint-hearted. Nadiya tells me about the levels of energy needed to perform Here Come The Boys.
It’s a dance extravaganza in which she’ll join three of her fellow Strictly professionals – Nikita Kuzmin, Graziano Di Prima and Pasha Kovalev – plus 2019 Strictly runner-up Karim Zeroual, on a UK tour.
‘It’s full-on,’ she says. ‘During one section I dance continually for 12 minutes – Charleston, quickstep, jive.
‘I’m the only lead woman on the show. The boys come and go but I just keep going. At the end I’m sweating.
‘You have to be an athlete,’ she says, chomping through her third chocolate biscuit. ‘I love to eat and I can enjoy it as much as I want – I never count calories because I’m so physically active.’
So if anyone thought the world of high-level dance is all spangles, sequins and fake tan, Nadiya is here to disabuse us.
‘I’ve made huge sacrifices but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s all been worth it,’ she says. ‘It formed my character. It made me what I am today.’
- For tour dates and tickets for Here Come The Boys, visit herecometheboysshow.com.