Flavia Cacace, the sultry, Italian-born ballroom dancer and notorious thief of hearts on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing pads into a rehearsal room in west London on her lunch break, all pert and petite and light on her feet. There's no sign of spangles or sequins today – she's in rehearsal-room black sweats, but that pinned-on dancefloor smile is fixed in place. Just outside, a pianist can be heard running off a pacey jazz riff, and dancers wearing Lycra and lipstick stretch out in the corridors.
This is the incubating space for Flavia and her dance partner Vincent Simone's new stage show Dance til Dawn. And in the centre is the diminutive lady herself, arguably the UK's most famous ballroom dancer.
Strictly made her name, but this is a return to form for Flavia. For one thing, "There's no celebrities to have to look after," she points out.
As one of the professional dancers in the BBC primetime dance show, Flavia provided many of the programme's crucial ingredients; the moves (naturally) but also the intrigue and the drama. Among all of the Strictly professionals, Flavia stood out by delighting the audience with the parallel narratives of her onscreen dancing and her complicated off-screen love life, which has included two Strictly romances, one leading to marriage.
A quick recap; when she joined the show, she was in a long-term romantic relationship with partner Simone. He was the tall, dark, Latin-lover type with a fondness for satin-shirts, she the lithe, raven-haired seductress. As characters, they could have been written by Baz Luhrman. Together, they were the perfect ballroom couple, until the gods of reality telly decided to mess with their fate, splitting them up and pouring fresh celebrity blood into the mix.
We all watched agog as new romantic bonds began to take hold. Before long, Flavia and Vincent were finished. Soon after, Flavia had fallen for her new partner, EastEnders actor Matt Di Angelo, (who was just 19 at the time). When their romance fizzled out three years later, Flavia promptly moved on to her new celebrity partner, Jimi Mistry (another actor) and the pair wed in London this year.
But now after seven years of the Strictly circus, Flavia and Vincent, who still remain dance partners despite the turbulence of their personal relationship, have turned on their heels and left. These days, she's back to being simply a professional dancer and choreographer, and has vowed her personal life is strictly (ha!) off limits.
Was all the media scrutiny, I ask her, the reason for leaving the show? "After seven years, that all just becomes part of the parcel," she says. "It becomes pretty normal. I wouldn't say it was really anything to make our mind up ... It's just weird, but it was not really something I was ever interested in. But it's part of the show. If you really can't deal with it, then it's really hard. But if you can kind of form some kind of happy medium, then it's fine."
She insists that she and Vincent didn't decide to step away from the show in a bid for a quieter life. "No, that never crossed our minds, because to be honest, if we'd wanted that we would have left a long time ago – not done it for seven years."
Indeed, leaving was "very very hard ... " Flavia says. "We thought about it for a long while." But Flavia believes in fate and destiny and she knew that the time was right. "Because of the success of Midnight Tango, it just introduced us to a whole new world of being able to perform and have your own show. So we kind of got a real bug for theatre."
In truth, she and Vincent have been focusing their attention on other projects for some time. Three years ago, capitalising on their Strictly fame, they launched hit stage show Midnight Tango. Conceived and choreographed by them; it took them back to their roots as Latin and ballroom dancers. Thanks to its success, they were offered a chance to follow up with a new show. They decided on a comedy this time, a more structured story with "murder, crime, gangsters, police ... As much as it's going to be told through our dancing, there are moments of narration too". And the dance style takes on a new twist as well. "It's a fusion of ballroom and Latin, and West End musical style stage dancing. It's really the two worlds coming together," she says.
Flavia was born in Naples, Italy, the youngest of six children. When she was four, her family moved to the deep suburbia of Guildford. When her mother insisted that all the children take up an activity, she and her sister chose dancing.
By the time Flavia was 12, she was ready to compete, and so began looking for a partner. She met Vincent when she was in her late teens – recently arrived from southern Italy, he was to be her third partner. For Vincent and Flavia, they'd found a partnership that would endure through love, war and reality TV. They make every decision jointly, and neither would have dreamed of leaving Strictly if it wasn't mutually agreed. It must be odd, I say, to have one's future career so inextricably entwined with someone else. But Flavia just shrugs. "Ballroom and Latin are partner dancing," she says. "We don't dance individually, we never have."
So it's partners for life? "Yeah. You find a partner, you compete with that partner. There are no competitions in ballroom and Latin for single people."
Even despite their complicated romantic past, she insists dancing always comes first. "We're very professional. We so love what we do that we literally just get on with the job."
But what happens if they have a fight? It must be hard to tango with someone if you are inwardly seething. "We don't really fight," she says, "because we have to get the job done. So if you fight, you're going to waste a day, or half a day. We don't have that luxury. We do get huffy and puffy," she admits.
And one can sympathise, the pressures of doing a stage show are vastly different to the pressures of Strictly, but rigorous just the same. "We've got 28 numbers to do in 20 days. So that kind of puts it in perspective. Strictly, you have four days so you do the best you can in four days.
"This is a long-term show. Strictly is about doing the best you can in the time that you have, whilst this is just pushing the boundaries. So with a show like this you have to go full out."
Dance til Dawn runs at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from March 4 to 8. Tickets from €18 on sale now, for more information log on to www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie