Strictly Come Dancing front-runner Natalie Gumede staked her claim as potential 2013 champion as the series kicked off on Friday night.

The former Coronation Street star wowed the judges – and won a big response from the audience – as she and Artem Chigvintsev made their dancefloor debut with a sassy Russian-themed cha cha.

And she even managed to impress the notoriously hard to please Craig Revel Horwood, who told her: “You’re a brilliant dancer and so far our front-runner.”

Len Goodman, meanwhile, told the actress: “It was clean and precise. You need a little more rhythm but that was brilliant.”

Natalie – who scored 31 points to finish top of the judges’ scoreboard – admitted beforehand that the nerves had been taking their toll.

“Live performance is nothing like working in telly,” she admitted. “There’s no take two. I’m terrified but I can’t wait to get out there.”

The 29-year-old – who played evil Kirsty Soames in the ITV soap – was one of six celebrities to take to the floor on Friday night.

While Natalie’s performance came as no surprise given her status as the current favourite, it was a different story for actor Mark Benton.

The Waterloo Road star proved to be one of the sensations of the night, making his debut with a tango with partner Iveta Lukosiute that may not have been technically perfect but was hugely entertaining.

“The Tango should be sharp, it should have intent and purpose – that is what you had,” Craig said, adding: “Hands need some administration but you danced it rather well,”

Darcey, meanwhile, summed up the feelings of many when she called the performance “brilliantly played”, saying: “You’re going to be the most brilliant entertainer for us.”

Others faring well on the night included Hollyoaks star Ashley Taylor Dawson and pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor – while BBC Breakfast’s Susanna Reid also won praise for her debut jive with Kevin Clifton.

As far as I’m concerned that was chicken soup to the eyes. You did it terrifically,” Len said of her spirited performance, while Bruno called her “fantastic”.

However it wasn’t such good news for golfer Tony Jacklin, who struggled his way through a waltz with partner Aliona Vilani.

“When you finally got in hold you became the hunchback of Notre Dame. It was littered with faults and mistakes,” Craig complained, but Len leapt to the sports star’s defence.

“You Tony are the spirit of this show,” he said. You have no dance experience and you came out and had a go. I say well done!”

The nine remaining star dancers will make their debut on Saturday’s Strictly, which kicks off at the earlier time of 7pm.