'Dancing with the Stars' dances explained and how the judges score them

'Dancing with the Stars' dances explained and how the judges score them

We are heading into the finale of what has been a fantastic series of 'Dancing with the Stars' to date. Those celebs have really shown what they're made of on the dance floor, displaying their new-found skills with everything from the Waltz to the Tango.

In fairness, everything they do looks impressive to us but have you ever wondered just how exactly the judges score all the dances? How do they decide who gets a measly five and who tops the board?

We chatted to judge Brian Redmond recently, who before his time on 'Dancing with the Stars' was a multi-award-winning dance professional. Brian kindly explained not just what exactly each dance entails but also what the judges are looking for when they are scoring.

Describe a Tango.

The Tango is of Argentinean origin. It started becoming popular in Europe in the 1920s and once it became a competition dance, it became more about the performance rather than about the feeling of it. And if you think about Argentine Tango, it's very close and small and very much about how it feels and less about how it looks. Ballroom Tango is a little bit more performance orientated so very sultry, very sexy.

When the judges are scoring it, what are they looking for?

Well, we're looking for definitely that creation of the character. That sort of intense relationship between the two dancers and we're looking for strong, positive, clear, sharp movements. It's nice to get a mix of slightly slower, what we would call 'legato' – softer, continuous, movements as well.

Darren Kennedy and Karen Byrne dance a Tango.

Describe a Waltz

You've got two different types of Waltz, so you've got the Slow Waltz and then you've got the Viennese Waltz. The Viennese Waltz is the older form. It goes back to the likes of Johann Strauss. Obviously originated in Central Europe - Germany, Austria that sort of area. It's still got the same musical tempo – that three beats in a bar - but it's a lot faster than the Slow Waltz. The Slow Waltz only came about 100 years ago - the two dances originally came from the foundation of the Viennese Waltz, and now in the last hundred years people have started dancing the Slow Waltz as well, which is also known as the English Waltz. The main difference between the two really is the pace.

What are the judges looking for?

You’re looking for good flow, strong rotations and quite soft, continuous movements in those dances. So they'll be very sort of flouncy and elegant, in working man's terms.

Clelia Murphy and her partner Vitali Kozmin dance a Waltz to All Kinds of Everything by Dana

Describe a Salsa

Salsa is probably, in my mind, your ultimate party dance. It's got a sexiness to it, it’s fun, it’s fast. In the Salsa, you can do lifts so it makes it more interesting for the viewers at home. You're looking for that soft leg action, a lot of hip action and a good sense of fun to it. It is sexy but in a different way to Tango - it hasn't got the same intensity that the Tango has so it's got the sexiness with a bit of fun added into it as well.

What are the judges looking for?

Because of the pace of it, it’s got to be coordinated. One of the difficulties for the celebrities is literally dealing with the speed of it.

It's the type of dance where often we get differences of opinions between the judges and the public at home, because the public at home sees the fun, see the fancy lifts and think everything’s great. We would pick up more on the technical side of it, so we might criticise a Salsa the public think is brilliant because it’s got the very visual fun and dynamic look to it.

Cliona Hagan and Vitali Kozmin dance a Salsa during the sixth live show of Dancing With The Stars 2019.

Describe a Rumba

Rumba is like the Latin American version of the Tango. It's probably, I think, the most sultry dance out of all of our ballroom and Latin dances because unlike the Tango, which is danced in that closed frame, they can open out and they can dance different positions. It's very, very slow so it's difficult. I think for male celebrities that's probably the hardest one to pull off for sure. It's a challenge as well for the female celebrities but because the girls tend to be a little bit more, if you like, connected to themselves than the boys are. It's a little bit more difficult for male celebrities than it is for the females. Also because the female celebrities are dancing with a male pro, he can sort of force the pace of it a little bit more and help them out.

Is it different from what you're looking for here between males and females?

We're looking for a more masculine approach from the male celebrities and a lot of femininity in what the female celebrities are doing. In terms of the level we are expecting – it’s the same – same level of control, the same level of performance and balance and everything else that goes along with it. They just create those images in different ways.

Johnny Ward and his partner Emily Barker dance a Rumba.

Describe a Charleston

Charleston began in the 1920s and was huge in the States. It was the ‘dance of the day' as it were. It’s a lot of fun, another dance they can do lifts in. It’s similar in ways to other dances of the time. It’s a bit similar to Lindy hop and Quickstep – the one thing about Charleston – it suits comedic elements because it’s the most fun dance in that it’s almost like a caricature of a dance. You can do stuff that may be a little bit left field, a little bit strange maybe, but they look well in the Charleston. Lots of swivels so lots of the intricate foot actions.

What are the judges looking for?

We look for that balance - the balance between good dancing and bringing those comedic elements.

Cliona Hagan and her partner Robert Rowinski perform a Charleston to Puppet on a String by Sandy Shaw.

Describe the Paso Doble

A Spanish dance - it tells the story of the bullfight. So what most people get wrong in terms of their understanding is that they can see the imagery that the man is playing the role of the matador but some of them presume that therefore the girl is playing the role of the bull. She’s not – that’s the biggest mistake people make. She's there to represent his cape.

So when they're actually dancing together you'll see lots of movements where they might do a side-closed-side then while in the hold, the guy turns his body and the girl walks past him. That's to represent the idea of him having the cape in front of him, and doing those three side steps as the bull - this mythical bull that doesn't exist on the dance floor – approaches. You get flamenco elements in there as well. Very positive, very strong, very dominant, very powerful in its posture and its movements. And it's actually, I think, one of the dances that if they get the mentality of it right, it’s one of the easiest ones to do because it’s based on a march and a walk.

So unlike Samba, for example, where there are lots of rhythmical body actions to try and work and develop, Paso is one of the dances that if they can stand up straight, look dominant and move in time with the music, they've got a chance with that one. So I think it's a good dance for somebody to get.

What the judges are looking for?

That strong, dominant look, the interaction between two.

Fred Cooke and  Emily Barker danced a Paso Doble in switch-up week.

Describe the Cha-cha-cha.

From Cuba - it's the onomatopoeia of ballroom dances. The name Cha-cha-cha comes from the sounds the feet make on the floor. So the basic structure that we have is a forward step - like a rock forwards and backwards - and it's three steps to the side and in those three steps, the feet should stay in contact with the floor. The word that everybody used to describe a Cha-cha is cheeky. In Cuba, it's danced by everybody from seven and eight-year-old kids up to women and men in their 70s and 80s. It's a great dance.

What are the judges looking for?

We're always talking about straight legs, and without getting too technical about it - if you imagine how you walk, and as you walk forward continuously your knees soften and that allows the body to continue moving forward. But when they're doing this forward and back action in Cha-cha, if they bend their knees it makes them slow, lethargic, heavy, willowy. If they can straighten their legs, it checks their weight and moves them back more sharply. So when we're talking about technical things, we're not talking about in a box-ticking exercise, we’re saying the movement is wrong and here's why it was wrong.

Peter Stringer and Valeria Milova dance a Cha-cha in Switch-Up week.

Describe a Contemporary Dance.

Contemporary is one of the ones I think that does two things for them; It challenges them and I think it gives them a little bit of freedom because Contemporary Dance, as the word suggests, is anything – it’s anything that’s contemporary. It doesn't have to be one of our traditional ballroom dances so what they tend to do is pick a quite emotive piece of music. In terms of how they dance to it - they are not constricted by a particular rhythm or a particular dance style. It's completely up to their own interpretation as to how they want to move to it. The reason I think that makes it difficult for them sometimes is because, normally, after a few weeks of doing ballroom or Latin dance where the pro has been able to describe to them; ‘This is a Cha-cha and this is how you move in a Cha-Cha' and; 'This is the Tango and this is how you move with the Tango' – all of a sudden you’ve got this freedom.

Some of them love it and some of them really blossom on the basis of it. Some of them, who might be the ones who think they would like that structure, go; ‘What do you mean I can do what I want? For 12 weeks now you have been telling me I have to do this and I have to do that and all of a sudden I’ve got this freedom'. It's a real challenge to them - it’s a double-edged sword that way.

And how are you judging it the Contemporary Dance?

Yeah, it's very easy to judge in my opinion and I think this is why everybody at home enjoys judging so much because it's simply an aesthetic. It's totally about A) visually does this please me - I sound like a Roman emperor saying it like that but is it aesthetically pleasing and is it musically connected? Are they connected to the music both structurally and from an emotional perspective?

I mean with all these ‘rules’, they are not necessarily 'rules' as such – just best practice. So when somebody does the wrong footwork it's not that they're breaking a rule as such, they're just not doing what is the best thing to do in order to create the right movement.

So in simple terms, we judge all the dances the same, we look at them aesthetically, we judge them visually and then we connect that to the music. And that's the same as anybody standing at the bar at a wedding saying, “They’re lovely dancers, aren’t they?” They have never been to a dance class themselves but what they're doing is they're looking at the couple moving, they're hearing the music going into their ear and the connection of that visual with what they hear, works, or in some cases not, and that’s how they make those same judgements. The difference between us and everybody else is we've got the words and the understanding and the experience to be able to explain why.

Johnny Ward and Emily Barker perform a Contemporary Dance.

Describe an American Smooth.

American Smooth - we've got a number of different American Smooth rhythms that people could choose – you’ll get American Smooth Foxtrots and American Smooth Waltzes. What they have done is they've taken the traditional Foxtrot or the traditional Waltz and made it more – so it allows them to open out positions, to do lifts and to break away from that very structured approach that those dances would have had originally.

And when you're scoring it then, is it difficult to score considering there are so many different elements brought in?

That's an interesting question because every week we have such a range of dances. What we're not doing is we're not really scoring one celebrity against another, because it's not really fair to compare a male celebrity trying to do the Rumba to a female celebrity doing a Salsa, because they are two totally different things. In my mindset, I have the perfect 10 down to the absolute terrible - fell over, didn’t do a step in time - zero. So I think, right, where does this performance sit on that scale? I don't score one against the other, I score against this perfect scale that I have in my mind and it's exactly the same with the American Smooth.

Peter Stringer and his partner Ksenia Zsikhotska dance an American Smooth to Frank Sinatra ‘New York, New York’.

And then a Quickstep?

So again it's from that 1920s Charleston era and it's a sort of derivative of Foxtrot. Foxtrot and Quickstep are very, very similar. One of them is a lot slower, so the Foxtrot is very slow quite controlled, quite classical. Quickstep is a lot faster and came a little bit later.

It developed at the same time the Charleston was around so you get Charleston-esque elements in it. It’s one of the closed toe dances and we’re looking for as judges; A) Good powerful movement around the floor. B) Being organised and being able to deal with the speed of all those steps. And contrast – so at some point, we like to see hoppy stuff, jumpy stuff, travelling stuff and swinging movements as well. And sometimes what we get is that maybe a celebrity feels like they are better at one of those styles than the other so they completely load the Quickstep with that one style but from our point of view, that’s sort of cheating if you like, they're not really doing all the different elements.

Fred Cooke and partner Giulia Dotta dance a Quickstep. .

Describe a Jive.

A Jive is probably the most open-ended of all our ballroom dance. Everything from the G.I. Jive, which is the most structured form which is what the guys would generally dance to - has elements of East Coast and West Coast Swing, Lindy Hop - they're all that Jive family of dances. Really, really popular during the Second World War, it's G.I.s coming over to Europe that really brought it here. All these young American guys getting off ships and planes after months at sea, out into the local towns,  very fit, loads of energy to burn and wanting to dance with the local girls. So very popular with very high energy, lots of kicks and flicks and a good fun dance as well.

What are you looking for as a judge?

For me, sort of everything all at the same time.

The ultimate for me is if somebody can take me out of the situation that I’m in - sitting in a judge's seat - and almost transport me to a situation where I'm sitting home with everybody else - that's a pretty good sign that they're gonna be a 10 from me. So if ever you see me flustered, scribbling notes furiously for the last 5 or 10 seconds of a dance, that’s probably a good sign!

Mairéad Ronan and partner John Nolan dance a jive in the Dancing with the Stars semi-final 2019.

What about a Foxtrot?

Foxtrot is my favourite dance. It's described often as being very, very technical because of the fact that it's got this difficult balance to achieve with very powerful movements that have to be done quite slowly. I describe it as like a 20-year relationship where it hasn't quite got that first couple of weeks of everything is passionate blah blah blah. It's 20, 25 years later. Everything is cool, everything is calm, you know what I’m about, I know what you’re about and we're just having that relaxed strolls through the park. So very continuous, very flowy, but quite relaxed and slow and quite suave. It screams of the Rat Pack era for me. When you think of the likes of the Dean Martins, the Frank Sinatras, the Sammy Davis Jrs - that imagery is what I see and feel when I'm thinking about Foxtrot.

What are the judges looking for?

I'm looking for that powerful movement, that sense of ease while creating power. That's the sort of imagery that I get when I think, in particular of Frank Sinatra. Obviously, I don't know who the man was connected to but he had a sense of power about him. He always came across as being suave and relaxed and calm. But you have that sense of don’t mess with him as well and that’s what a Foxtrot is for me.

Demi Isaac Oviawe and partner Kai Widdrington dance a Foxtrot.

Finally Brian, there's been a little bit of backlash from people on Twitter and the like about the judges scoring of Johnny in the past, what are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, but the backlash is great. It’s just brilliant. You will have fans of, not just Johnny, but anybody who doesn't agree with the scores that you've got who will blindly say in week one they should be getting nines and tens. They shouldn’t be. None of them has ever been that good in week one where they would deserve nine or ten.

But the backlash is great because it shows that everybody has an opinion and everybody's into it.


Catch the 'Dancing with the Stars' final on Sunday at 6.30pm on RTÉ One.