NOT so long ago in Ireland, most waltzing was performed in dance halls under the disapproving gaze of a stern-looking parish priest.
Today, images of sequin-clad footballers beaming into our sitting rooms each Sunday show how far we have come.
RTÉ enjoyed its highest Sunday night ratings in more than 12 months as Dancing with the Stars got underway a few weeks ago.
A total of 646,100 viewers tuned in to watch traveller and former Big Brother contestant Hughie Maughan become the first eliminated contestant on Ireland’s answer to Strictly Come Dancing.
For mere mortals, behind the scenes of Dancing with the Stars can only be described as like the first day of a tropical holiday, when it seems everyone is golden but you.
However, rather than anticipating sunshine, you feel like any minute now it might rain glitter. The air is so thick with artificial tan and hairspray, it’s a wonder contestants aren’t fighting off the dizziness to stand, never mind attempt a quick step.
Meanwhile, skin-tight shirts struggle to contain bulging chests. Abs oiled enough to grease a dozen woks are on proud display. Some even boast their own Facebook pages.
An unfazed hairdresser stands amid the hive of glittering activity.
“This week alone we went through six bottles of hairspray,” Carolann McGuirk confessed.
Just minutes to go before the big dress rehearsal, celebrities are exchanging nervous glances. Carolann admits the nail-biting experience is equally as daunting for her.
“Every Sunday night, I feel like I might need a triple bypass. Any mishap has to happen in rehearsals; as something as minor as a headpiece coming loose could cost a contestant their dance.”
The stylist to the stars admits she has to “beg, borrow and steal” to ensure every look is just right.
“Female dancers have hundreds of euro in their hair each week, between hair pieces and extensions. For one particular show, I fitted Red Rock star Denise McCormack with a wig. It couldn’t have been just any wig, so I sourced it from a friend of mine at the Abbey Theatre. After that, I added separate hairpieces. Each individual strand had to be secured with around seven clips.”
Working on the show came as a welcome change for Carolann.
“The last few years, I was a hair stylist on the Voice of Ireland, but this show offers a lot more creative freedom. Hair styles range from classic to contemporary, whereas the Voice almost always required a modern look. Many of the contestants on this programme are older and more accustomed to being in the spotlight, which means they don’t worry so much about little things like having their ears showing.”
Bright lights from the staging area slice through the black curtains indicating the start of rehearsals. Crew members take their seats in eager anticipation. The audience is dotted with familiar faces, including that of Blizzards star Niall Breslin, aka Bressie. The singer’s presence fuels speculation he might be breaking in his dancing shoes for next year.
However, series producer Larry Bass, who previously worked with Bressie on the Voice of Ireland, is quick to dismiss any rumours.
“For the last five years, Niall’s Sundays were spent with us, so he was really looking forward to coming back and seeing the team again. People on every corner assume he’s come along to prepare himself for next year. Unfortunately, he has actually already turned down my offer. Despite being a talented rugby player and musician, Niall insists he can’t dance and won’t even try.
“However, we have a whole year to work on him, so hopefully, this will change.”
Bressie isn’t the only celebrity on Larry’s wish list.
“It’s impossible to get current sports stars unless they’re out of season. I don’t want to wish the end of a career,” he joked, “but to have a Munster legend like Peter Stringer would be something else. Donncha O’Callaghan is also a terribly engaging guy, who I think audiences would respond well to. We would love a politician, but unless Ireland has an election with a conclusive outcome it could affect the outcome of a race.”
He warned that a stint on the programme may change the country’s political landscape.
“In the past, we’ve produced Charity You’re a Star, which saw Billy Kelleher participate. He has since become a junior minister. The same could be said for Finian McGrath, who is also now a junior minister. Success on Dancing with the Stars could potentially result in one of the Healy-Raes becoming taoiseach,” he added with a look of mock horror.
A hush descends on the audience as professional dancers gather on stage for a collaborative performance. Cameras surreptitiously protrude like pistol barrels from every corner as they dance.
The dancers’ grace and flexibility are impressive.
Dancing with the stars choreographer Lilia Kopylova, who also achieved fame as a pro on the British version of the show, is watching on proudly.
“The whole series has been like one never-ending week, as we’ve had so little time between rehearsals,” she explained. “The main highlight for me so far has been ‘movie week’, where professionals performed a dance inspired by Irish movie The Commitments. Summing up such an intricate story in just three-and-a-half minutes was hugely challenging, but the feedback has been great.”
Green room antics show no sign of wavering, as celebrities indulge in some last-minute preparations before the show goes live at 6.30pm.
Despite the trail of glitter, it’s Aoibhín Garrihy who illuminates the room. The former Fair City star turns heads as she wafts around in a figure-hugging number.
“You can pretty much just fall out of bed and roll in here,” she says. “Everyone is so talented, from the make-up artist to the hairdresser. It has to be said that the food is great, too.”
Teeth white as untrodden snow light up against her gilded complexion when she speaks.
“I feel so lucky to have the chance to learn a new art form. Every so often, my agent will call me and ask if I can do something completely random such as horse riding. Dancing is one that comes up a lot. Now I can say I can cha cha cha and rumba, something I could never claim before. The experience has been so wonderful. My only hope is that when I die I come back as a ballroom dancer.”
Reactions to the programme are making their way into her personal life.
“People at toll bridges are shouting ‘good luck tonight, Aoibhín’, which of course is a huge compliment. I’ve tried my best not to get overly stressed and don’t really look at this as a competition. Once I’ve put in the best performance I can give, everything else is a bonus.”