Strictly 2016's surprises so far - shock exits, unexpected triumphs and the most loved contestant ever

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Never mind how many weeks there are until Christmas, the thing that's really making us feel like 2016 is racing by is realising that we're halfway through this series of Strictly Come Dancing.

It seems like five minutes ago that we were watching 15 nervous celebrities lining up on the launch night red carpet and shuffling their feet in dread at the looming prospect of the first group dance.

Strictly
Strictly's class of 2016 (BBC)

Now, the competition is really hotting up and the glitterball trophy is almost in touching distance as we reach the midway point to see who will be crowned king or queen of the ballroom.

But like any good series of Strictly, this one has been full of surprises already - some sad as we've waved farewell far too soon to promising dancers, some happy as we've watched unlikely contestants blossom, and others inexplicable as we've had our hearts won by someone we thought would be out in week one.

We can't wait to see what the second nail-biting leg of the competition holds for us.

Shock Exits

Strictly Will Young
Will Young quit the show (BBC)

Fans of the show will agree that one of the best parts of the early weeks is picking out who looks like they're going to become the stars of the series that we'll all remember in years to come.

It's fair to say that most of us would have put Tameka Empson and Will Young up there as early contenders for the final, but what did we know?

Shockingly, EastEnders favourite Tameka was the second celebrity to be voted off following a pretty good tango in movie week that just didn't pick up the viewer votes.

Strictly Tameka Empson
Tameka Empson was a surprise exit (BBC)

We were amazed to see her leave so early and after a glimpse at how good she might have been during her brilliant Charleston, we feel we've been cheated out of a Strictly treat.

Hot on her heels was pop star Will, although under very different circumstances - just a couple of days after Tameka's elimination, Will decided to pull out of the programme citing "personal reasons".

Strictly Laura Whitmore
Laura Whitmore left at the weekend (BBC)

It was sad times for Strictly as we lost two of our favourites in such a short space of time, but luckily the standard this year is so high that there is still plenty to look forward to each week.

There have been other surprise eliminations, too - BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty had looked like she was going to be a strong contender, Birds Of A Feather star Lesley Joseph didn't deserve such an early exit, and we expected Strictly superfan Laura Whitmore to stay in a while longer yet.

Surprise Success

Strictly Judge Rinder
Judge Rinder has been a surprise (BBC)

Everyone has worked so hard this year that there have been no true dancefloor disasters, but one name stands out as someone we really didn't expect to have such good moves.

When we heard Judge Rinder had signed up to be spray tanned and sequinned, we really couldn't imagine how that stern, stilted man would fare in routines requiring him to loosen up his hips.

But how wrong we were - Judge Rinder cast off his robes to reveal a tightly toned stomach and a natural rhythm that have made him a highlight of each Saturday night.

Strictly Judge Rinder
Judge Rinder's butterfly costume (BBC)

His partnership with Oksana Platero always brings a smile to our faces and he's among a small minority of people who can really pull off a butterfly-themed outfit.

Ed Balls, The People's Champion

Strictly Ed Balls
Ed has won people's hearts (BBC)

Danny Mac, Ore Oduba, Claudia Fragapane... let's be honest, does it really matter which highly accomplished dancer wins the glitterball this year?

We all know that the nation's winner was chosen a long time ago, from the moment Ed Balls took his first faltering steps on to the dancefloor.

Strictly Ed Balls
Ed and Katya are favourites (BBC)

Whether he's been waltzing, throwing himself into a cowboy-themed Charleston, putting on The Mask for a movie week samba or donning a knight's garb for a dramatic paso doble, Ed has put the fun into every episode so far.

The high point for him had to be his Halloween cha cha, complete with wiggling hips and a body rub that will surely go down in Strictly history as one of the most memorable routines ever.

He may not have the natural talent of some of the other celebrities, but Strictly is about entertainment as much as skill and a contest without Ed doesn't bear thinking about.

We're willing him on to Blackpool and then...who knows how far dark horse Ed could make it?