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The Strictly you DON’T see: It takes an army backstage to bring the show to the screen 

What you see on your TV on Saturday nights – a seamless procession of beautifully dressed and stunningly made-up couples dancing to wonderful backdrops and stunning light shows – is a world away from what’s going on behind the scenes. 

With dozens of dancers to dress between each sequence, it takes an army of frantic make-up artists, costume designers, studio technicians and choreographers to bring the show to the screen each week.

Here, Strictly’s unsung heroes tell Lisa Sewards what their typical week is like, and why they love it…

THE DRESS ADORNED WITH 15,000 CRYSTALS

Strictly Come Dancing’s unsung heroes reveal what their typical week is like in preparation for the Saturday night shows. Pictured: Adam Peaty tries a frock on for size at his first fitting last month

With just a week to go before the launch show, stress levels are high among the 12 costume designers. Finishing touches are being made to sketches and their 20 sewing machines are fully engaged on the creations that will be showcased next week.

Costume designer Vicky Gill has been making sure the celebrities and professionals sparkle every Saturday since 2012. 

‘We’ve met everyone for this series now and we’re starting to construct their frocks,’ she says. ‘The launch show numbers are fabulous.’

From beads and satin to velvet, mesh, lace and feathers, multiple textures and fabrics are flung all over the place in Vicky’s workshop. Contrary to popular belief, not one sequin is used on the show. 

Rhinestones and crystals are the sparkle of choice, with at least 170,000 of them in wardrobe at any one time.

‘It’s all about the layering of textures, not just the beads,’ says Vicky. ‘Plus lots of colour. In the early days people wanted black but now we use lots of colour and prints. Costume designer Vicky Gill revealed they’ve started to construct the frocks for this year’s contestants.

Costume designer Vicky Gill revealed they've started to construct the frocks for this year's contestants. Pictured: early sketches for costumes

A costume under construction

Costume designer Vicky Gill revealed they’ve started to construct the frocks for this year’s contestants. Pictured left: early sketches for costumes, right: a costume under construction 

There are at least 170,000 rhinestones and crystals in wardrobe at any one time. Pictured: Crystals being applied

‘Crystals are still vital though – it’s Strictly. There are 1,144 in each pack and we’ll use at least 1,000 packs a series.’

STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL

The costume team make around 300 outfits every series. Each ballroom dress uses around 8-10m of fabric.

Some five ‘stoners’, as the gem-appliers are known, will work through the night as the competition heats up to sew hundreds of thousands of gems on to the dresses. 

‘Kara Tointon wore a dress in the 2010 final that had 15,000 crystals on it,’ reveals Vicky.

One of her biggest challenges is keeping up with the celebrities’ weight loss (John Sergeant lost about 2st in 2008 and his trousers had to be taken in every week). But this year she thinks things might be different. 

‘All of our gentlemen are in really good shape so they can pretty much wear anything,’ she says. 

‘But most of the competitors do change shape. Last year wardrobe was quite a scary place for Ranvir Singh at first, but by the end of the show she was stepping into a dress that a professional could have worn.’

THE PRO DANCERS ARE THE REAL SUPERHEROES OF THE SHOW 

Janette Manrara, 37, revealed professional dancers work with their celeb partner Monday through to Thursday. Pictured: Pro dancer Janette Manrara is the new co-host of spin-off show It Takes Two

Watching the Strictly 2021 pro dancers film their opening number for the new series was highly emotional for Janette Manrara. The Miami-born dancer was one of them for eight years until she quit her role in June to become Zoe Ball’s replacement on spin-off show It Takes Two. 

She may have landed her dream job, but Janette, 37, who’s married to fellow pro dancer Aljaz Skorjanec, relished her time as a dancer even though it was tough.

‘On Monday through to Thursday you’re working with your celeb partner, then on Friday you’re in the studio all day for rehearsals,’ she says.

‘On Saturday you’re on duty all day doing the show, and on Sunday you choreograph. Then there are the group dances, they film three in a day, from 9am to 9pm. It’s a lot. You’re a dancer, a friend, a creative – it’s a very intense show but the best one.

‘A lot depends on your celebrity. Soap stars don’t have a lot of time because they’re filming, so you just have to be on call. But for example, HRVY, my partner last year, dedicated his whole schedule to Strictly so we did 10am-9pm every day to perfect it.

‘They’re really long hours and you’re on your feet all day. You’re exhausted and your brain is trying to keep up.

Janette is joining co-host Rylan Clark-Neal for It Takes Two on BBC2 on weeknights. Pictured: Janette with her husband, fellow pro Aljaz Skorjanec

‘For the pros it’s about being creative and thinking, “How do I teach?” For the celebrities it’s, “How do I lock in all this information?” It’s also about building muscle memory, which happens with repetitiveness, like when you drive a car. Your body just knows what it needs to do.’

That’s all behind her now as she’ll be joining co-host Rylan Clark-Neal for It Takes Two on BBC2 on weeknights. 

‘My goal is to really champion the professional dancers because they’re the superheroes of the show,’ she says.

‘Right now they’re all bubbled up. I’m obviously away from Aljaz, but I still get swept off my feet dancing with him. So I’m very lucky.’

A TOTALLY NEW LOOK IN TWO MINUTES FLAT? IT’S CRAZY!   

Make-up designer Lisa Armstrong and her team begin their week with the ‘concept document’ that kickstarts the ideas. Pictured: Lisa Armstrong (left) with past contestant Lisa Snowdon

Make-up designer Lisa Armstrong and her team have to work wonders in the turnaround between dances on Strictly – sometimes they have as little as two minutes with each dancer. ‘It’s crazy,’ she says.

‘I remember in last year’s final I was in the make-up room with six or seven people working on one of the pro dancers who was literally being sewn into a costume, hairpieces were being taken off, lipstick was being removed, earrings were being put in, shoes were being buttoned up, all at once. 

‘The poor girl. You’ve got one person with their head up your armpit, one person’s arm between your legs, someone squirts you in the eye with hairspray. 

‘We’re trying to create perfect red lips and their head’s being pulled backwards, their knickers are being sewn in… it’s madness.’

STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL  

252 litres of hairspray is used every series – that’s enough to fill six Mini Cooper petrol tanks.

Lisa and her team’s week begins with the ‘concept document’ that kickstarts the ideas. 

‘That tells us who the couple are, what they’re dancing and what kind of style it is. We then look at the staging notes, the lighting, the projections on the floor, where the couple start,’ says Lisa, who is Ant McPartlin’s ex-wife and has been with the show for 13 years. 

‘Then we meet with hair designer Lisa Davey and start pulling images together with the producers and director of choreography Jason Gilkison. We have a WhatsApp group called Slap and Barnet where we share images. 

‘We’re all massively prepared so we can pull it together for the dress run, and then we finalise the looks and perfect them for the live show.’

All the females have to wear false eyelashes for camera impact, but spray tan, glitter and dramatic make-up are par for the course for everyone. 

‘Each girl has a new set of lashes every week so I have boxes of them. We’re never going to run out. And I have tubs and tubs and tubs of biodegradable glitter, body shimmer and body mist.’

Naturally it’s a daunting prospect for many, but one thing is guaranteed: they all become more daring as the weeks go by. 

Louise Redknapp (pictured) just wanted a little watercolour on her eyes, no lashes and a nude tone to her lipstick, however by week three she was rocking big hair and red lips 

‘As soon as you enter Strictly it becomes your world,’ Lisa explains. ‘Take Louise Redknapp. 

‘Although she came from a performing career she just wanted a little watercolour on her eyes, no lashes, a nude tone to her lipstick, her hair just tonged a little. By week three she was rocking a leotard, big hair and red lips doing Flashdance.’

It’s the same story in the tanning booth. Ed Balls was famously horrified at the prospect of turning orange at first. 

‘He didn’t expect he’d ever be walking into a tanning booth, but it’s on tap every week at Strictly. When he saw the results he was first in the queue to strip off when the tanning girls go in on a Friday. But I put my foot down on Halloween week – there are no tans for anyone as we don’t want orange zombies!

‘I definitely think a lot more men are now up for a bit of eyeliner or nail polish. We say, “Guys, go for that really sexy, smouldering look for the Argentine Tango.” They love it!’

THE WOMAN WHO PULLS IT ALL TOGETHER   

Executive producer Sarah James, said decisions for Strictly go right to the top because the show is important to the BBC. Pictured: Dave Arch and the band

Executive producer Sarah James has worked on Big Brother, The X Factor and BGT, but Strictly has been the highlight of her career. ‘I’ve never worked with a team before where everyone cares so much,’ she says.

It all starts with signing up the right mix of celebs. ‘It’s quite organic. Our talent executive Stefania Aleksander brings suggestions and we come up with a wish list of people we’d love,’ explains Sarah.

‘Luckily a lot of those people were up for it this year. If someone’s interested we meet up and talk them through it. Because the show is so important to the BBC the decisions go right to the top. It’s vital that there’s someone for every member of the family to get behind.’

Another major part of Sarah’s job is getting the music right.

‘Our creative team work with the pro dancers and celebs to pick the right style of music to showcase their routine. It’s important to have a balance in terms of high and low tempo, current songs and classics in each show. 

‘Then our music producer liaises with Dave Arch and the band. Incredibly, from that edit Dave will go away and write the music for everyone in the band. It’s a very well-oiled machine.’

It does sometimes break down though. ‘During the Lindy-Hop-A-Thon in 2018 when we had all the dancers on the floor at the same time the technology the judges were using to score them went down live on air,’ recalls Sarah.

‘It didn’t feel funny at the time but I can see the funny side now.’

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