Hosts Claudia Winkleman and Tess Daly, acknowledged the "incredible" work of frontline staff during the coronavirus pandemic before the celebrities took to the dancefloor for the first episode of the BBC One show.
“We have invited some very special people to be in our audience tonight. We are delighted to be joined by some of our incredible frontline NHS workers,” Daly said.
“Thank you so much for everything you have done for us and everything you continue to do and we really hope you enjoy tonight,” Winkleman told the NHS workers, who sat at a distance.
It was the first social-distanced series with judges Shirley Ballas, Craig Revel Horwood and Motsi Mabuse seen sitting at a distance from each other.
Made In Chelsea star Jamie Laing was the first to dance live. Laing was invited back for a second year after having to leave the last series when he was injured.
“I’ve been waiting a whole year to do the Strictly training,” he said. “Now I’m here, I’m feeling the pressure.”
Revel Horwood called Laing’s performance “flat-footed, very tight and restricted”,.
He added: “That might have something to do with those lovely trousers you are wearing, don’t leave much to the imagination do they!”
Laing said afterwards he was “nearly physically sick” at the prospect of dancing first, doing the cha cha cha with Karen Hauer.
“I had to go to the bathroom, I thought I was going to throw up, I gagged a little bit but I was fine,” he said.
Actress Caroline Quentin was in tears after performing the American Smooth with her professional partner Johannes Radebe.
Ballas told her she was “graceful, charming, elegant and you have the most exquisite sense of timing… You did yourself so proud today”.
Former home secretary Jacqui Smith and Anton Du Beke took to the dancefloor with top hats, performing the foxtrot.
“This is my chance to show you can have a new adventure even when you’re getting on a bit,” Smith said.
She played on her former career as a politician, with a dance which began with Smith pretending to be a candidate sitting next to a ballot box.
After spelling out his criticisms, Revel Horwood had some good news.
“When you consider Theresa May and her dancing, I think you’re 10 times better than that,” he said.
The pair were awarded a three, five, and five from the judges.
Maisie Smith and Gorka Marquez wowed judges with a samba, scoring 24 points and making them top of the Strictly leaderboard so far.
They won a standing ovation from Ballas and Mabuse, with Smith called an “absolute firecracker”.
Olympic boxer Nicola Adams and Katya Jones danced the quickstep as part of Strictly’s first same-sex couple.
“I’m a dancer, baby!” Adams exclaimed afterwards.
Motsi Mabuse said: “I have to say I was very curious, ‘How is it all going to happen? How is it going to turn out?’ And you haven’t disappointed me… We loved it, keep going.”
Shirley Ballas said Jones was a “genius” for the routine and “this is a partnership I’m going to enjoy watching”.
Craig Revel Horwood said: “It’s absolute dynamite. I absolutely adored the routine.”
The three judges each gave the couple seven points.
Singer HRVY and Janette Manrara closed the show with a jive. Strictly host Tess Daly said “we didn’t see that coming”, to which HRVY replied: “Neither did I.”
Craig Revel Horwood said the “jive was absolutely spectacular”, while Shirley Ballas said: “I still think HRVY is the one to watch. You are absolutely on top of your game.”
Motsi Mabuse said that “for me, this was the best first dance I have ever seen” and the couple were awarded 25 points.
A celebrity will not be voted out until next week.
Additional reporting by PA Media.