Dancing With The Stars (RTÉ One, Sunday, 6.30pm) returns amid rumours that this is to be its final twirl. The speculation is that RTÉ is to scrap the Sunday night juggernaut because its huge budget is no longer sustainable. The broadcaster is neither confirming nor denying. But the suspicion that 2023 might be the last dance brings an extra charge to opening night.
Budget cuts have already led the broadcaster to trim the running time from 12 weeks to 11 – meaning the show is already down one celeb and pro dancer.
The other big change is the departure of cohost Nicky Byrne, who has returned to the Westlife motherlode. He is replaced by 2FM’s Doireann Garrihy, who is chatty and at ease on her first night, alongside returning presenter Jennifer Zamparelli.
In contrast to its UK big brother, Strictly Come Dancing, the celeb-dancer pairings have been announced in advance. The evening is kicked off by soccer star Stephanie Roche and pro-partner Ervinas Merfeldas. Together they do a cha cha to Crazy What Love Can Do by David Guetta, scoring 13. “You need to trust your dance partner more,” says judge Loraine Barry. “I don’t think it was a winning start,” agrees Brian Redmond.
Then it’s blogger and influencer Suzanne Jackson, who receives 23 points for her samba. She is accompanied by pro-partner Michael Danilczuk, their performance soundtracked by Dojo Cat’s Woman. “Suzanne Jackson, what a start! Oh la la,” gushes Arthur Gourounlian.
Comedian Kevin McGahern follows. He dances a Viennese Waltz with pro Laura Nolan – to the not-very-Viennese strains of You Know Me By Robbie Williams. It’s an autumnal turn, heavy on melancholy and framed by a tree with burnished orange leaves.
“The first of the ballroom boys,” says Brian Redmond. “Timing immaculate. Toes – would have benefited from a bit more power. Topline – pretty good ... Overall a decent standard.”
“Swirling, flowing is what you need ... and that’s what I just saw,” nods Barry.
“I’ve changed by entire lifestyle ... instead of drinking a pint of beer in the evening I drink a pint of wine,” reveals a sweaty McGahern, who received a not-too-shabby 19.
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Footballer Paul Brogan is next. He and Salome Chachua do an American smooth to Come Fly with Me by Michael Bublé (“don’t ask me what’s involved with that,” says Brogan in his introductory video). “He’s like a Terminator. He’ll spend seven hours doing just one step,” says Chachua.
“Smooth-ish American smooth ... those lifts, oh my god! You look like a workout DVD,” says Gourounlian.
“Could you have gotten trousers any tighter than that? I’m sure it’s trending on Twitter,” agrees Brian Redmond. He receives a score of 15.
Then it’s Derry Girls star Leah O’Rourke, with John Nolan. Their sassy paso doble is soundtracked by School’s Out, as covered by the cast of Glee. It starts with O’Rourke scraping chalk across a blackboard. “My dancing experience is not great,” says O’Rourke. “On Derry Girls, I had a character to hide behind.”
“Raw ... saucy ... the way you ripped off that scrunchy ... I love it,” says Arthur Gourounlian. “Next TV, more theatre,” says Brian Redmond.
“I hear you’re loving all this experience ... except for the dancing,” says Garrihy. “I should have applied for Walking With The Stars,” agrees O’Rourke. She receives 14.
Next, murder on the dance floor. Former State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy, joined by pro Stephen Vincent, does a jive to Love Really Hurts Without You by Billie Ocean. “The pathologist swapping the scalpel for the sequins,” notes Zamparelli. “To get an opportunity to do something like this is really amazing,” enthuses Cassidy before her performance.
“An odd moment here and there where you feet get a little skittish – but it’s only week one,” says Redmond,
“A lot of people free surprised when you were taking part,” says Garrihy. “ I was surprised as well,” she agrees before receiving a score of 15.
Cassidy is followed by Damian McGinty, the Irish star of Glee!, and Kylee Vincent. They dance an appropriately tingling tango to Shivers by Ed Sheeran.
“We know you can act, we know you can sing, can you dance?” Asks Vincent. “No,” McGinty. “I’m actually terrified.” Still, he is praised by the judges – “an excellent tango,” says Loraine Barry – and scores 19.
After the break, Eurovision singer Brooke Scullion and Maurizio Benenato do a salsa to Let Them Know by Mabel.
“Magnificent!” says Arthur, as Scullion wipes away tears. “I can’t take my eyes off you.”
“I bet Maruizio thinks he’s the luckiest boy in Ireland – the big smiley head on him,” says Brian Redmond. Brooke receives a score of knockout score of 25 – including a “nine” from Arthur Gourounlian. It’s the highest first dance score on DWTS. “Brooke just saved the entire series,” says Twitter.
Then it’s 2FM’s Carl Mullan and Emily Barker, who foxtrots to Daydream Believer by The Monkees. He starts with a misstep but then corrects course, grinning all the way.
“Your eyebrows seem to be connected to your feet: get rid of the goofy faces and might be a little better,” says Brian Redmond. “There’s potential there – you held your own,” says Loraine Barry. He receives 16.
On his heels comes a charging turn by ex-rugby international Shane Byrne – “the man who put the mullet into Irish rugby,” says Zamparelli. He dances with Karen Byrne, doing a quickstep to Help! by the Beatles. “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,” he admits. “I didn’t know he was a hooker!” says “coach Karen”. “I’m slightly shocked,” says Redmond ... “really strong.” “The mullet has never looked better,” says Garrihy. He receives a score of 17.
After that, the series welcomes drag queen Panti Bliss and Denys Samson. They trot their way through a cha cha cha to I Wanna Dance with Somebody by Whitney Houston.
“In lots of ways the show is going to be made for a drag queen,” says Panti, who, in rehearsal inhabits the alter-ego of Rory O’Neill.
“Wow ... wow ... wow,” says Arthur. “The first drag queen on Dancing With The Stars Ireland. You gave it your all.” “As a straight man sitting here, I really enjoyed that – technically it was good,” says Brian Redmond. The performance receives a score of 23. “When I was a 15-year-old gay boy in Mayo, if I had turned on RTÉ and seen a same-sex couple dancing it would have meant the world to me,” says Panti.
But will future 15-year-olds have that opportunity? Montrose is unable to compete with international rivals. And so, like a financially challenged crab, it has retreated back to the comforting shell of property porn and dating TV. The era of big song and dance telly may be at an end.
It is fair to say life would carry on were RTÉ to pull the plug on Dancing with the Stars. But it is a well-loved show and for many, Sunday nights would be poorer without it. If this truly is the beginning of the end, it may well be perceived as further proof of the broadcaster’s twirl into irrelevance.