Ready for the big final? We go behind the scenes on Dancing with Stars

It’s Dancing with the Stars finale weekend. Esther McCarthy goes behind the scenes to meet the backstage team

Ready for the big final? We go behind the scenes on Dancing with Stars

It’s Dancing with the Stars finale weekend. Esther McCarthy goes behind the scenes to meet the backstage team

It’s almost showtime at the semi-finals of Dancing With the Stars and the Ardmore Film Factory in Bray, Co Wicklow is awash with glitter, chiffon and sequins.

There’s a sense of anticipation in the air — already heavy with the waft of hairspray and fake tan — as one of RTÉ’s biggest and most-ambitious shows prepares to air its penultimate episode of the series.

Behind the scenes, almost 140 people are doing their bit to create live TV magic as the remaining celebrity finalists aim to shimmy and sashay their way to victory.

It’s not just the dancers who have to be ready to rumba — successfully delivering a show of this scale takes organisation and graft from the production team at Shinawil.

Series producers Eugenia Cooney and Ailbhe Maher
Series producers Eugenia Cooney and Ailbhe Maher

Just hours before the live show that has become RTÉ’s peak Sunday night viewing is beamed to hundreds of thousands of homes, a full dress rehearsal of the entire show takes place to ensure there are no last-minute glitches.

In an innocuous-looking truck to the rear of the studios, series co-producers Ailbhe Maher and Eugenia Cooney are making final plans in the production hub. “It’s huge. Probably the biggest production myself and Ailbhe have ever worked on,” says Cooney. “We would have come from doing You’re a Star and the Voice of Ireland. This trumps all of those 10 times over because it is a logistical nightmare but in a wonderful way.

There’s a huge staff and such a large creative team as well. Normally on these kind of productions you wouldn’t have the amount of numbers in terms of dealing with the celebrities and the dancers and everything that goes with it — the lighting, the dress, the costume.

There is a team who work throughout the series, but that swells hugely every weekend as the build-up to the live show draws nearer. There’s a core office team that work all during the week and everybody then feeds into that getting to the weekend,” says Maher. “It’s almost like a village at the weekend where everybody comes back and it all comes together.” Their workplace is the centre of industriousness just hours before the semi-final goes live to air, but nothing is left to chance. Staff still remember what is described on set as “the great blackout” in January, when a lengthy cut in power meant the show was off air and plunged into darkness.

“The electricity went and the screens went down and none of us knew what was going on,” says Cooney. “You just have to stay calm and take deep breaths. We were talking about what was going to happen if we came back on air, what we could do. How we could get to the end of the show, were we going to be able to do the end of the show or were we going to have to do it next week. All of those things are going through your head as you’re trying to scramble and sort a running order and make sure that if we get back on air we can deliver what we need to deliver.”

Both women worked their way up through the ranks in TV production. Maher worked as a researcher and then producer in mainly history and politics programmes before turning to entertainment with The Voice series 2, while Cooney is steeped in entertainment. She has 16 years’ experience in the medium, ever since starting as a runner on the first series of You’re a Star.

The buzz of live TV never becomes routine, they agree. “It’s that amazing thing of no matter how many times you’ve done it, the fear never leaves you,” says Cooney. “Every week as we hear Joanne say: ’20 seconds to air’ you take a deep breath. Here we go. And that’s what’s kind of exciting. You do the best you can in that two hours and then it’s gone.”

Elsewhere costume supervisor Niamh O’Connor is making last-minute adjustments to Johnny Ward’s matador-style sequinned jacket and Fred Cooke’s fun frilled sleeves. For all departments, but particularly costume, the dress rehearsal is crucial as a barometer of what’s needed for the live show.

“All weekend we’re working to amend the costumes,” she says.

Niamh O’Connor works on the costumes.
Niamh O’Connor works on the costumes.

“It’s (about) costumes and choreography and the dancers because they don’t get into costume until Saturday. All week they’re rehearsing in the rehearsal gear and then they go into wearing a big huge circular skirt that they wouldn’t have worn all week. So obviously the dance is going to feel different, the lifts, there’s this big mass of material in between them and their partners so it does take a long time to get used to it.”

DWTS has upped the ante on the glamour front each year, and O’Connor loves the colour and variety the show brings. “There a lot of Lycra. All the girls’ costumes are based on a body suit. It’s like a swimsuit underneath in lycra and everything is built on that. A lot of sequins, crystals and chiffon, satins, beaded fringe, sequinned fringe. There is a beautiful array of fabrics we get to work with.”

Does she have any favourites this year? “I love Movie Week of course. We get to really push the boundaries and do a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t be able to do on a weekly show. We had a beautiful Batman for Johnny Ward created from scratch with an Irish sculptor who works on film and sets. But I also love the fun costumes — Fred is fantastic, he won’t say no to anything. He’s ready to embrace everything. So was Darren Kennedy — I loved himself and Karen on Movie Week when they did Jungle Book.”

FredCookeDancingWithTheStars100119_large.jpg
FredCookeDancingWithTheStars100119_large.jpg

Costume would traditionally work closely with hair and make-up in working to a themed brief on a given week and ensure their crafts compliment each other.

On a night when the contestants have two different dances, you get to really get creative, says hair stylist Carol-Ann McGuirk.

“We have to do something very quick that goes from up to down. It has to be done first for rehearsals. We have to make sure people like it, it works for the dancers, works for the dresses. That’s why we do rehearsals. And then we have to get them ready again and have them ready for this evening.

To be asked to do this was a dream come true. If you come to work and enjoy your work, it’s the best job in the world. I go home and watch the show again. Then I watch other shows and I compare my hair to theirs as well. You have to be prepped.

Head of make-up Mary Drummond adds to the glamour by planning throughout the week, working off a look book and mood board from the show’s artistic director. “I’d get that on a Wednesday. I have a look, make sure I have everything I need on Sunday and I would start at about quarter past eight on Sunday morning,” she tells me.

Make up artist Mary Drummond with Cliona Hagan
Make up artist Mary Drummond with Cliona Hagan

“The mood board is just a theme, an idea, and then you would adapt it to each performer because not everything suits everybody and it’s in your interests to have the girls and the guys looking as best as possible going out on stage. I would do their makeup in the morning and they go put their costume on and it could be an incredibly bright, strong colour. So I would adjust the make-up to compliment that. We’d make sure the colour is correct for the skin tone with regard to their body tan. So a lot of considerations to do and really it’s just to make sure that they are looking their absolute best.”

She loves getting to do unique projects, such as Peter Stringer’s skull make-up, inspired by Mexico’s The Day of the Dead. “Peter really got into the whole skull on his head. That was great fun to do. It is fantastic. You get to play with glitter. You never really use glitter on people in your normal day-to-day make-up. Maybe Christmas time. That’s about it.

“You’re using big lashes. You can sometimes have face jewellery. “I’m so lucky to do this job as every week is different.”

More in this section

Puzzles logo
IE-logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

great irish summer

From walking and hiking, to day trips and camping, your guide to holidays at home in 2021

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up