A new batch of celebrities is limbering up to face the music and the judges, as Paul Little reports

The glamour! The sequins! The laughing at famous people falling on their bottoms! Dancing with the Stars is returning after a three-year absence.

You remember how it works: Eight celebrities are paired with an accomplished ballroom dancer and each pair have a week to learn minute-and-a-half-long dance routines, performed live in front of expert judges who give scores which are then supplemented by paid-for phone votes, some of the proceeds of which go to a charity nominated by the celebrity, one of whom is eliminated each week. Plus Carl Doy. Couldn't be simpler.

Like all good reality shows there is a cast of essential characters. and these include, someone looking to reboot their career, a national treasure, an A-list sports person, a broadcaster, and a politician, because that's just going to be funny no matter what.

And there are some givens to how the plot will unfold. For instance, the worst dancer will never be voted off first because he or she provides too much entertainment. Likewise, the best celebrity dancer is unlikely to win because being able to dance is seen as an unfair advantage in a show about dancing.

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THE HOST

Dancing with the Stars host Jason Gunn with his co-host Candy Lane in 2005. Photo / Chris Skelton
Dancing with the Stars host Jason Gunn with his co-host Candy Lane in 2005. Photo / Chris Skelton

Having hosted more episodes than anyone, Jason Gunn is keenly aware of just how the wheels and levers of the show work. He believes a large reason for the fascination, as with any good story, is seeing the characters develop.

"You've got these famous people and they change," says Gunn.

"They're used to being famous for doing something they have mastered, then all of a sudden, on live TV — and 'live' is the key word — they could see their entire career and brand reduced to being known for that ridiculous fall. Look at Rodney Hide."

The former Act Party leader dropped partner Krystal Stuart in the cha cha. Although some of the rules of ballroom dance are quite subtle, dropping your partner is an absolute no no (in both ballroom and Latin) and the couple scored one meagre point each from the judges after that effort.

At the time of the first series, ballroom dancing had been offscreen for some years. When Gunn got the invitation to host it, "My career light was flashing and I was thinking, 'Is this the way it ends?'" Obviously not, and looking back Gunn sums up his experience. "I loved every minute of hosting it, but never ever would I contemplate being on it."

THE CELEBRITY

One contestant who did go on it and survived was Gunn's soon-to-be radio show co-host Jay Jay Feeney (eliminated seventh, series six).

"It was definitely not something I was comfortable doing or had any confidence about," says Feeney. "You feel exposed and vulnerable. You're frightened people will laugh at you and you'll stuff it up and look like an idiot."

Which, she knows, is one of the main reasons people watch. "A downside would be the time I did the snake manoeuvre and fell flat on the floor and that got repeated multiple times."

She has already been approached by several of 2018's potential celebrity contestants for advice on whether or not they should take part.

"I told them all they should do it," says Feeney. "But they have to go in with the mindset that it's really fun and not take it seriously. You'll be fine if you don't think of it as a competition but realise you're there to entertain people."

THE JUDGE

Breeze announcer Alison Leonard told dancers what they were doing wrong during five seasons. Following many years as a competitive dancer, it was her first outing as a judge. "If you don't know about dancing by the time you've danced as long as I had, there's something wrong," says Leonard, who has a keen eye for the basics.

"The first person who's out of time goes to the bottom of the page — that's not dancing that's walking funny." Not that anyone was going to come away upskilled as a dancer. "I always used to say: Don't think that you will learn how to dance. Think of it as doing a play and being handed a script."

Leonard was keenly aware that the big egos on the show could also be fragile ones.

"I never wanted to hurt anyone's feelings. I always remember the look on Tim Shadbolt's face when I told him what I thought of his foxtrot in the first series. He looked as though I'd punched him and I felt a bit sick in my stomach."

Leonard was also aware she was being judged herself — by the dance fraternity watching at home.

"I had to be honest commenting on the dancing, because if I said, 'You were fabulous, darling,' and they were poop, after the show I'd find half a dozen or more missed phone calls going: 'What are you talking about?'"

THE DANCER

Aaron Gilmore flips Greer Robson around with ease on Dancing with the Stars. Photo / Neil Mackenzie
Aaron Gilmore flips Greer Robson around with ease on Dancing with the Stars. Photo / Neil Mackenzie

Aaron Gilmore, who runs Auckland's Phoenix Dance Studios, had one main job. "You've got to figure out how to make someone look good really fast," he says.

Add to that the roles of image guardian — some contestants were concerned certain moves might be too racy or unflattering — and motivational coach.

"If a judge wants to be sensationalist in their comments, you can feel your person sinking. Then you have to keep their energy going. And you have to allow for their fitness level because the show is really hard work. It's not really a dance show — it's dance entertainment."

Gilmore, who partnered Lorraine Downes to a series win and danced with Greer Robson, Tina Cross and Rebecca Hobbs, had not only to help the celebs nail their moves, he had to devise them.

"In some other countries they use choreographers, but we have to come up with routines ourselves. It's a challenge because you're only guaranteed your first couple of dances will be performed. After that, people get eliminated and start going home."

*Dancing With the Stars NZ starts next Sunday, April 29 at 7pm on Three.