Dancing with the Stars returns to RTÉ, meaner and leaner than BBC’s Strictly

TV review: Jockey Nina Carberry’s natural athleticism carries the day in Episode 1

It's two years since Dancing with the Stars (RTÉ One, 6.30pm) staged a hasty retreat from the schedules as the Covid crisis went from bad dream to living nightmare. But now it's back, with 12 new celebrities, five new pro dancers and one new judge.

But despite the fresh faces the show remains as reliably frilly and frolicking as before. And with six of the dozen celebs making their dance floor debuts on opening night, the series is quick out of the traps (eliminations by public vote will not commence until week three).

Bragging rights on the evening go to jockey Nina Carberry, a former Irish Grand National winner who succeeds at a canter as she dances the quickstep with pro partner Pasquale La Rocca to the strains of KT Tunstall's Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.

Carberry had admitted to nerves before taking to the dance floor. Yet her natural athleticism carries the day and she scores 19 points from judges Loraine Barry, Brian Redmond and instantly-likeable newcomer to the panel Arthur Gourounlian (replacing Julian Benson).

“Nina, you are definitely the dark horse of the night, that was beautiful. You said you are not girly? I completely disagree. The only thing I will say, work on your upper body...relax more, enjoy,” enthuses the amiable Gourounlian.

The Armenian is an experienced choreographer who has worked with Kylie Minogue and Beyoncé and is husband of former DWTS contestant Brian Dowling.

Second place goes to comedian Neil Delamare, channelling the Desperado within as he performs a paso doble with Kylee Vincent to the Darkness's I Believe in the Thing Called Love. "There's a lot of power here and a lot of strength. First dance out, at the beginning of the season, I'm very impressed," says Loraine Barry.

Delamare seems impressed too – and also astonished he's still standing at the conclusion of his routine. "It's the opposite of everything you've ever grown up with," says the Edenderry, Co Offaly native. "You have to convince yourself you're some kind of Spanish matador."

Opening night is usually a story of first-timer jitters and lumbering footwork. But if Carberry and Delamare are clearly head-and-shoulders above the competition, the rest of the field acquit themselves adequately too – with one possible exception.

There's a solid 16 for influencer Missy Keating – cheered on my her dad Ronan – and pro Ervinas Merfeldas, as they dance the American smooth to Baby Love. And author Cathy Kelly and pro dancer Maurizio Benenato earn 14 for their Cha Cha Cha to Whitney Houston's How Will I Know. That score places them neck-and-neck with newsreader Gráinne Seoige. Dancing with partner John Nolan, she performs a waltz and is rewarded with a Grace Kelly comparison from Gourounlian.

Sadly the wheels come off slightly for cyclist Nicolas Roche, whose cyberpunk jive with Karen Byrne is a bit too stiff to impress.

“When you are out on the bike at your own, you can pedal at your own pace, when you are on a tandem, if you are out of sync, you are going nowhere,” says Redmond. “A lot of work to do technically in terms to trying to improve that dancing.” Roche places last with 11.

Dancing with the Stars is franchised from the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. Yet it is in some ways meaner and leaner. The painful Strictly scenes in which the celeb pretends to be delighted with their new dancing partner are dialled down extensively.

And, returning after 24 months away, hosts Nicky Byrne and Jennifer Zamparelli share an easy, relaxed chemistry (Byrne has ditched the dad jokes though anyone who has listened to the new Westlife album will tell you he hasn't lost his sense of humour).

The broadcast even begins with that rarest of sightings: an amusing RTÉ sketch. The gag is Byrne and Zamparelli are looking for the keys to get back inside the DWTS studio when who should appear but Father Ray Kelly, the charming but infamously two-footed star of the 2020 season. He sheds some divine light on the situation. But when he wonders if he can return this season, Zamparelli calls security.

Next week see debuts from the remaining six celebs. They are Aslan guitarist Billy McGuinness, Paralympic gold medallist Ellen Keane, news reader Aengus Mac Grianna, singer Erica-Cody, Love Islander Matthew MacNab and rugby sevens star Jordan Conroy.

With half the field yet to compete, it’s of course too early to predict potential winners. But for now – and with the starter pistol having only just fired – Nina Carberry is the obvious front-runner.

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