I was a Dancing with the Stars judge
TV Tonight spends a day on set at Dancing with the Stars, to see how much work goes into making Live television.
For about ten minutes on Sunday afternoon I was a Dancing with the Stars judge.
Arriving on set for a ‘behind the scenes’ story, Freehand Executive in Charge of Production Peter Abbott asked me to join himself and Series Producer Rob Menzies in the judge’s chairs for rehearsal purposes.
A camera had gone down and Floor Manager Serge Adimari wasn’t happy, but determined to get things back on track. Sundays are a well-oiled machine for the seasoned Seven juggernaut, and sticking to schedule is essential.
When it came to scoring my first pair, Johnny Ruffo and Luda Kroiter, I was advised to give them a 10. It seems at rehearsal some stars have become paranoid about low scores, wondering if it is an ominous sign of things to come. Now Producers just give them all 10s rather than deal with the conspiracy theories.
Host Daniel MacPherson strides through the chat-spots sporting a winning grin that seems so effortless. This is now his fifth season as host.
Next up was Danielle Spencer and Damian Whitewood, starting their routine at the judge’s desk. It’s a bit in-your-face, but hey, they dance so well I think they deserve another 10. This judging thing seems pretty easy.
With that task conquered, Abbott (still fondly remembered as the original voice of Big Brother) whisks me off to show me some of the other production departments that make this appear so seamless.
Dancing with the Stars is now in its 12th season, barrelling headlong towards its live-to-air variety spectacle. Sundays begin with the camera crew called at 9am, talent from 10:20am, band from 11:45am. Each couple has 10 minutes to rehearse individually, tempos are checked during band rehearsal, and a full show rehearsal at 1:30pm takes place without costumes.
I meet Costume Designer Valerie Nelson who has worked on every series and whom Abbott credits as one of the key reasons to the show’s ongoing success. Surrounded by sequins and a small work team, she begins work on costumes 2 weeks ahead of time. Having worked with numerous big names, she knows her role often requires skills usually found in celebrity management.
“If one person complains, everyone does. You have to calm them down,” she says.
The Control Room is a busy hive of over 20 people including Director Mark Adamson, Executive Producer Karen Greene, Seven’s Head of Light Entertainment Grant Rule, plus vision switching, lighting, audio and in his own booth, announcer Damian Nicholas. No dramas here, everything is working like clockwork.
Music Director Chong Lim, the other key personnel Abbott acknowledges, spends much of Saturday rehearsing with the band, and still changing tempos through until Saturday night. On a dancing show, tempos can make or break the act. Surrounded by a number of John Farnham’s band, Lim has also worked on every single season.
The production crew is confined to unglamorous ATCO portables at the rear of the studio for the weekend. With nearby offices during the week, it’s easy to transport your desk via a laptop under your arm.
After the rehearsal it’s into the make-up chair from 3:30pm while the dance floor is buffed ready for the big night. By now the judges are also on site for meetings.
Meal break ends at about 5pm as couples appear for stills photography. I’m asked to step out of the room when Mel B has hers snapped. Surrounded by minders and assistants I can only presume she keeps an international lifestyle even at Global Studios in South Melbourne.
Some celebs turn on the poses for the photographer with ease. Brian Mannix strikes a rock dog pose, Vogue Williams turns on a classic Mad Men look, Kerri-Anne oozes class. Jessica Watson seems a little timid before the camera, while Johnny Ruffo openly admits “I’m not a model!”
The audience comprises those from 7 to 70 who begin to gather from around 5pm, with warm-up man Michael Pope beginning his ‘act’ in the foyer. By 6pm most are seated in the studio as the band finishes last-minute rehearsals and Pope coaxes the audience to applaud (there are mandatory levels) and cheer as desired. Standing ovations are warmly encouraged. “If you’re half-thinking about it, just jump up and do it,” he says.
In the audience are family and friends of the celebrities, plus previous dance partner Arsen Kishishian, magazine icon (and Seven Board member) Dulcie Boling, and Brian McFadden (whisked into a front seat at 6:28pm, and whisked out again as soon as Vogue Williams has performed). An exec from BBC Worldwide is also in attendance.
MacPherson and Mel B are also introduced to the audience at 6:28pm. Whilst both follow an agreed autocue script, they are also comfortable enough to veer off-script, which is also embraced as part of a Live show.
As 6:30 rolls around all points have converged towards the show’s opening theme music and the very showy lights add a ‘wow’ factor. It’s Live telly time, and the stars are swanning down the staircase….
During commercial breaks Michael Pope works hard to keep the ball in the air with the audience. He pits sections of the audience against one another in applause-level battles, and encourages swaying with the music. Make up artists check MacPherson and judges. The band play 60 seconds of the upcoming song they must perform.
Before and after each act dances, they are filmed by a one-man crew for web and ‘video packages.’
During the show judge Helen Richey questions whether Russian-born Elena Samodanova is giving Shannon Noll the best routines, and even questions whether her command of English is complicating rehearsals. It was the night’s most controversial moment.
After the show Noll told me, “I think it was a bit rough of the judges attacking her a little bit.”
Samodanova added, “I was a little bit upset but the thing is I got my visa in Australia as an extraordinarily talented person and I did pass an exam in English, so I was approved by the Australian Government as a professional dancer, as an English-speaking person. So I don’t mind. I don’t care. I’m going to do my best and do my job as a dancer.”
The show ended at 8:43pm with Ironman Caine Eckstein eliminated, with media gathering for quotes ahead of post-show drinks.