Friday 20 September 2019

'I'd shoot out of bed and start practising my steps' - Daniel O'Donnell on how Strictly took over his life

Daniel O'Donnell was partnered with Kristina Rihanoff last year on the BBC version of 'Strictly Come Dancing'
Daniel O'Donnell was partnered with Kristina Rihanoff last year on the BBC version of 'Strictly Come Dancing'
Eddie Rowley

Eddie Rowley

GOING back, when the email arrived from the BBC’s Strictly team inviting me to be a contestant, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

I was a huge fan of the show and had often fantasised about dancing on it. As the saying goes, ‘be careful what you wish for’. That was certainly true in my case.

The invitation came at the right time in my life, as it was during a period when I had taken a career break from touring. In the previous decades it would have been impossible for me to take up the offer due to my commitments to live shows in Branson, Missouri, at that time of the year.

I was relaxing at our home in Tenerife when the email came through, and I was instantly excited. It was my golden opportunity to shine on Strictly as a dancer, or so I imagined.

One of the greatest joys in life for me is dancing. I’ve always loved jiving and waltzing on the social dancing scene in Ireland. I just never realised how far removed it was from the dance moves I would have to master on Strictly.

If somebody had asked me before I did Strictly, ‘can you dance?’, I would have said ‘yes’ without any hesitation.

Daniel O'Donnell and his dance partner Kristina Rihanoff in action on Strictly Come Dancing
Daniel O'Donnell and his dance partner Kristina Rihanoff in action on Strictly Come Dancing

Now I know that what I do at a social event is nothing like real dancing. When it was first announced that I was one of the Strictly contestants, a friend of mine sent me a text saying ‘pretend you’re in the Irish Club.’ That’s where we went dancing back in the early 1980s and it was a really fun time in my young life. However, I would soon learn that strutting my stuff in the Irish Club in Dublin was no advantage to me whatsoever on Strictly.

I do like a challenge, and I felt that Strictly was a great challenge at my time of life. After all, I was 54 years old! It demands so much of your brain and your body. When I signed up to Strictly I was particularly excited about learning new dance routines. I was hoping to stay in the contest for a good while, or until the end, because it was a great opportunity to get one-on-one coaching from a professional dancer who is among the best in the world. It is in the interests of the professional to bring out the best in you, because if you are voted out of the contest they go too. That’s what makes Strictly so competitive and so exciting.

So I knew I was going to be taught by an expert who wanted to win, and you couldn’t buy that kind of training.

My first week on Strictly started on a Tuesday in early September 2015 with rehearsals for the grand opening showpiece, where all the contestants performed with the professionals.

Until our first get-together in the Strictly studio to practise for that event, it all felt like a dream to me.

The moment I walked into the studio and saw the stairs where everybody walks down and climbs back up after the performance, the reality hit me.

I saw the band and the area where the judges sit, and all around me it seemed there were hundreds of people working on the production. That made me instantly aware of the fact that I was now involved in the biggest show in Britain.

Of all the TV shows I’d done in the world, I’d never experienced an operation like this one. It was overwhelming, but so exciting at the same time.

Kristina Rihanoff and her dance partner Daniel O'Donnell during a dress rehearsal. Photo: Guy Levy/BBC/PA Wire
Kristina Rihanoff and her dance partner Daniel O'Donnell during a dress rehearsal. Photo: Guy Levy/BBC/PA Wire

Everything goes so fast in training that it’s hard to keep up. When you master the smallest thing there’s a great sense of achievement, but you don’t have time to shout ‘yeesss!’ because you’ll have missed the next bit.

The depth of my partner Kristina’s patience was bottomless. She has a wonderful ability to teach. I really don’t know how any of the professionals have the patience to train up contestants from scratch in such a short time for a major TV show. I’d look at Kristina demonstrating a move and it would be so graceful and effortless. Then I’d try it and I would be just plain awkward.

It was so daunting, but Kristina never let it overpower me. If there was something beating me, she would strip it back and make it simpler until I could understand it. And then she’d build it up to where it needed to be. I would constantly hear her say, ‘That was good!’, even though it probably wasn’t good at all. But she was working on my confidence as well as my dancing. And I would discover that so much of how you perform is to do with confidence.

Kristina remained very calm all through the process. At no point did she ever say, ‘that was wrong!’ Instead, she would pick me up and say, ‘just try and do it this way.’ She never seemed to get frustrated with me, and I would say I put her as far out to the limit as she’s ever been. Her early background as a dance teacher really shone through.

I think the problem with me, as with a lot of people, is that we slump into our bodies. Although I was as fit as a fiddle, I had to work on what they called my core strength, so I was sent off to a gym twice a week to build that up and straighten my physique. I reckoned I was going to be a couple of inches taller by the end of it.

My whole world was consumed with mastering my dance routine. My mind never took a break from it, even when I went to sleep. I’d suddenly open my eyes at three or four in the morning and the dance would be swirling around in my brain. Then I’d turn on the light, shoot out of bed and begin practising my steps over and over.

In the daytime, as I strutted along London streets; I’d often be in my own world of dance. Suddenly my arms would go up and I’d do a few steps. I was totally oblivious to everyone around me as I waltzed along the city. I’m sure many people who saw me going through those motions must have assumed it was some kind of candid camera scene. I was so engaged with the dance that I didn’t care who saw me.

This is an extract from Daniel's new book, 'Living The Dream'

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