When Letterkenny dancer and dance teacher Marian Shiels was first asked to choreograph a Strictly Come Dancing Night, she thought it would be a once-off.
That was three years and nearly 300 dancers ago.
“No way would I have thought that,” Marian said recently.
She accepted that first challenge “because it was dance, and I was up for it -- it was an opportunity,” she said. There were a few that came up at that time, in Glenties, Ardara and Donegal Town.
Marian recently worked with the dancers in the Strictly Come Dancing held in Kilcar and is now working on Strictly Come Dancing events at Rosses Community School in Dungloe, with Glenties GAA and in Ballybofey and Stranorlar, where Finn Valley College, St. Columba’s College and St. Mary’s National School are engaged in a joint effort.
As anyone knows who has attended a Strictly Come Dancing night -- called “Strictlys” by those familiar with them -- there are no professional dancers performing on the night. That’s where Marian and the other dancers and dance teachers who work on the shows come in. It’s their job to choreograph the night and to work with the dancers at rehearsal to prepare them for their performances.
Marian said she believed the fact that the dancers are largely learning as they go is what draws the big crowds on the night. She pointed to the Kilcar Strictly as an example.
“In six weeks they put on a show and they delivered big time,” she said. “They entertained their home crowd and I think people recognised the effort they put in.” It was some crowd, too: Marian figured there were more than 800 people there in the audience.
“It established what could be done,” she said.
Marian had organised different dance events before she begame involved with Strictly Come Dancing -- a charity night for the Down Syndrome Association, to name one, or nights of Samba organised as social evenings. To run dance workshops, Marian had also brought dance teachers to Donegal from around Ireland and from different countries, including England, the United States, Cuba and Brazil.
“I wanted to bring in styles of dance for people who were interested,” she said. The workshops would draw up to 100 people. Marian recently returned from two months in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she studied contemporary tango with a dance company there.
She also offers weekly classes on Wednesday nights at Rosie’s Bar on Lower Main Street in Letterkenny. A beginner class in Latin dance begins at 7 pm, followed by Salsacise at around 8 pm, followed by level 2 Latin dance at about 9 pm.
Marian takes great pleasure in sharing the art form that gives her so much pleasure. “When I’m dancing, I just feel really happy. I just love it so much,” she said.
“It’s as if the world becomes a magical place,” she said, then she frowned briefly. “I know that sounds a bit trite,” she added.
“I just feel, I guess, that with it I’m in my element,” Marian said. “I feel very lucky to be doing what I absolutely love doing.”
Marian has been dancing all her life. She studied Irish dancing as a girl in Letterkenny and took part in school musicals. When she was about 17 she left for England, “and I took every opportunity to train and learn about movement”, she said. “For me it was always about exploring movement and the creative side of movement, the emotional connections with movement.
“I suppose at the end of the day it’s about how you can communicate something that you can’t communicate in any other way,” Marian said.
She puts in two to three months of work before a Strictly. “I have to organise the whole programme, step by step,” she said.
When Marian first meets a group of Strictly dancers, she assigns couples by putting all their names in a hat and drawing out two at a time. A Strictly night includes an opening number and a closing number that features all the dancers, and then each couple does two dances each.
But to think of it as a dance competition is to miss the point. The “winner” on the night is the couple that raises the most money for the chosen cause. Judges are there largely to add sparkle and craic -- “We want good characters,” Marian said.
“It’s a show, not a competition,” she explained. “If you come at it with the right sense of fun or engagement, you’ve ‘won’. That’s winning.”
The dance teacher has been inspired by seeing what people can accomplish in a few weeks of rehearsal, perhaps people who have rarely, if ever, danced before.
“It’s that thing: Anything is possible,” she said.
She also gave great credit to Noel Cunningham of TV3, who has hosted a large number of Strictlys around the county since the phenomenon began.
“We’re very lucky to have someone like him who’s so professional and who gets it,” Marian said. “You’re safe when you know he’s on board because you know it will flow. He adds energy and light.”
For all the Strictlys that Marian has worked on, she has found similarities. On that first night of rehearsal, the dancers are full of trepidation, no matter what age they are, she said. There is the fear of the unknown.
“But I know that in eight weeks they will have been transformed,” she said. “They blossom.” Some dancers Marian worked with in earlier Strictlys are now choreographing Strictlys themselves.
“It’s just phenomenal,” she said.
The dance teacher takes great satisfaction as she sees the fledgling dancers progress through rehearsals.
“Sometimes they can’t see it, but I can see it,” she said, adding that part of her work involves “getting people to see that they can already do an awful lot that they didn’t think they could do.”