A lot has happened in the past two years, but when Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) returned last week after a 24 month absence, it was refreshingly unchanged. Nicky Byrne and Jennifer Zamparelli were back as presenters. As were judges Lorraine Barry and Brian Redmond. They were joined by new adjudicator, Armenian choreographer, Arthur Gourounlian, who recently swapped London for Kildare where he lives with his husband (and former DWTS contestant) Brian Dowling.
The contestants were the traditional mixed bag too. Champion jockey Nina Carberry set the early pace with her quickstep to the strains of KT Tunstall's Black Horse and the Cherry Tree. Runners and riders also included news reader Gráinne Seoige, performing a waltz and Missy Keating, daughter of Ronan, who twirled her way through an American smooth. Huffing to catch up was cyclist Nicolas Roche whose did not exactly thrive dancing a jive.
The competition is only really starting, however, and Sunday night will see the remaining six celebs enter the fray before eliminations begin in episode three. Here is what you need to know.
Who are the contestants?
Seoige was for years one of Ireland's highest profile news anchors. She later moved into entertainment and, having hosted The All Ireland Talent Show, will know all about the pressures of live television under the spotlights. "I am excited and petrified in equal measure to be joining Dancing with the Stars," she said. "I've always wanted to learn to dance, and now, I'm getting the chance to learn from the very best in the country."
Comedian Delamare will swap witticisms for waltzes as he begins his Dancing With The Stars journey. He's a familiar presence on the airwaves, having graced The Panel, Just for Laughs and Republic of Telly as well as BBC panel show, The Blame Game. He has also presented factual programmes such as The Only Viking In The Village.
“I’m hoping to discover a hitherto entirely absent talent for dancing,” he said. “Some of my friends from the comedy scene have been on the show and raved about how much craic it was, so I can’t wait.”
Sunday World journalist and agony aunt-turned-best-selling novelist, Kelly has already demonstrated she can win the hearts of book readers. Can she similarly dazzle DWTS viewers? According to RTÉ, Kelly "describes herself as an exhibitionist and loves the idea of putting herself out there and learning a new challenge".
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to dance so this is my big chance to do it,” she said.
Rugby Sevens star Conroy comes to DWTS fresh from Ireland's historic Sevens appearance at the Tokyo Olympics. Having taken up the sport at the relatively late age of 18 (he previously played soccer), he has lined out for Ireland since 2016 and, in 2019, was top scorer at the Hong Kong Sevens qualifier tournament. He's looking forward to swapping his rugby boots for dancing shoes. Nor will he be taking prisoners. "I have to say there's a winning mentality and I'm in to win," he said.
The daughter of Ronan Keating and model Yvonne Connolly, Missy is a Malahide-based "model and influencer". She has featured on The Voice UK and has nearly 40,000 Instagram followers. In appearing on Dancing With The Stars she is also following in a family tradition as her father, along with the rest of Boyzone, graced a charity edition of Strictly Come Dancing. She says she is "pinching herself" about DWTS.
“What I’m really most excited about is the glitz and the glam that comes with the show – I’ve seen some of the costumes and they are just insane,” she told RTÉ.
The son of Tour de France winner Stephen, Nicholas has had a successful career as a professional cyclist. He's represented Ireland at four Olympic games and competed seven times at the World Road Championships. He is "scared and thrilled" about exchanging biking for the ballroom.
“The rehearsals so far are going good, it’s hard work, it’s pushing me both in terms of being something completely new, and also in terms of performing and learning to let go.”
Singer and campaigner Cody is a critically acclaimed artist who became a prominent voice for racial equality in Ireland amid 2020's Black Lives Matter protests. She later featured in Irish Women in Harmony's version of Dreams by The Cranberries. She says: "Being in the music industry, it's a constantly evolving and fast-moving pace, so to be given the opportunity to do something brand new and to learn and grow within the dance world... I'm just taking it all in. It's hard work but tonnes of fun. I'm so excited to be a part of it and see where it takes me".
This is a special year for the Aslan guitarist, whose band celebrates its 40th anniversary. They've had six Irish number one albums and, prior to Covid, were continuing to play to packed rooms. Fans will hope to see him doing the paso doble to the strains of their hit Crazy World. "For the last 40 years, my head has been in the world of music," he said. "Now I'm dipping my toe into the world of dance and I'm so excited. It's a whole new challenge and I'm loving it."
Paralympic swimmer Keane won gold at Tokyo 2020 on the back of a bronze at the Rio Olympics. She said: "I am such a competitor, so I'm in it to win it, but I'm really looking forward to having a good time, learning new skills and making new friends".
Champion jockey Carberry comes to DWTS after 17 years in the saddle. The daughter of jockey Tommy Carberry, she created history when riding the winner at the 2011 Irish Grand National. She has also racked up seven winners at Cheltenham. This isn't her first RTÉ rodeo: in 2020, Carberry, husband Ted Walsh (brother of jockey Ruby) and their two children placed first in a charity edition of Ireland's Fittest Family. "Although this is something new to me, I'm relishing the challenge," she said.
Love Island star MacNabb became known for his dry humour on the ITV dating show – before ending his relationship with fellow Islander Kaz with a terse "we're done". When not breaking reality TV hearts, he's a keen footballer with Russell Gaelic Union Downpatrick. "I'm really excited to join the show, I love an adventure and when the opportunity to learn to dance came along it seemed like a great challenge to start off the New Year."
Aengus Mac Grianna
An RTÉ news anchor for more than 30 years, Mac Grianna departed the airwaves in 2018. Now he's back and will hope to go one better than his appearance on Celebrity MasterChef, where he was runner-up.
“I love a challenge that pushes me way out of my comfort zone,” he said. “Dancing with the Stars is high energy showbusiness and is definitely the most physically demanding challenge I have ever undertaken. Given that I don’t dance I am both excited and terrified about the weeks ahead.”
What can we expect?
Gráinne Seoige is partnered with John Nolan, Neil Delamare with Kylee Vincent (whose husband Stephen also features this year), Cathy Kelly with Maurizio Benenato, Jordan Conroy with Salome Chachua, Missy Keating with Ervinas Merfeldas, Nicholas Roche with Karen Byrne, Erica Cody with Denys Samson, Billy McGuinness with Hannah Kelly, Ellen Keane with Stephen Vincent, Nina Carberry with Pasquale La Rocca, Matthew MacNabb with Laura Nolan and Aengus Mac Grianna with Emily Barker.
There are five new professional dancers. One notable absence is DWTS stalwart Kai Widdrington, who reached the 2021 final of Strictly Come Dancing in the UK. Alas he had to cry off when his celeb partner, AJ Odudu, injured her foot ahead of the decider.
Last season’s Strictly created history with the first official same-sex pairing. But RTÉ says it won’t be following suite on DWTS (although it did feature a one-off same sex dance between Brian Dowling and Kai Widdrington in 2020). Nor will there be the traditional celebrity group dance during this year’s opener.
When can you catch it?
The series continues on RTÉ One Sunday night at 6.30pm and runs until 8.30pm. But there will be no eliminations – the knock-outs don’t begin until week three.
What to watch for
In the UK, Strictly has soared to record ratings as audiences have sought a feel good factor amid the never-ending pandemic. The most recent season of Dancing With The Stars Ireland shuddered to a premature end, with the final bumped forward just as the country was starting to shut down amid the first wave of Covid. So it will be interesting to see if, in difficult times, DWTS can shine a little joy upon our winter of discontent.
Who’s going to win?
Predictions are always tricky when it comes to DWTS. Professional athletes are often the early pace-setters as they are familiar with performing under pressure. But with eliminations by public vote, a big regional following can help too. With her name recognition Gráinne Seoige has was pegged as a favourite by bookies, who rated her odds at 4/1, followed by Ellen Keane at 5/1 and Missy Keating and Neil Delamare at 6/1. However, after part one, Nina Carberry roared to the top of the leaderboard and is now installed as 15/8 favourite.
Of course, the competition has not even started in earnest. So who is to say which dark horse will be revealed to have feet of flame?