I'm Strictly's Creative Director – Here's What It Takes To Put On TV's Biggest Show

"It feels like a really flowy, creative process with all of us on the team," Jason Gilkison tells us in the first instalment of our new Backstage At The Ballroom series.

Putting on a full-scale production that is as elaborate as Strictly Come Dancing is no mean feat. Each week, there are hundreds of moving parts to co-ordinate in order to bring the show to our screens on a Saturday night. And none of it would happen without the dedicated production team, who work round the clock behind the scenes of the show.

They say it takes an army, and on Strictly it really does – there are choreographers, wardrobe, hair and make-up, musicians, bookers, runners, camera operators, producers and even a whole fake tan department.

That’s why this year, HuffPost UK is taking our readers Backstage At The Ballroom in our new interview series, as we speak to some of the names behind the cameras to shine a light on the less glittery parts of the nation’s favourite show.

First up is the show’s creative director Jason Gilkison.

Jason’s career with Strictly began back in the early 2010s, when he was invited to choreograph a group number, having already earned a name for himself on international versions of the show. During a return visit two years later, Jason was asked if he’d like to make his involvement more of a permanent thing and work on the whole series.

For the Australian-born choreographer, it was an easy decision to pack his life up in the US and hop across the pond.

“It was like planets aligning,” he says. “My husband’s a Scouser, so he said it’d be a great chance to be nearer to home. It was the perfect job for me, so I was there in a heartbeat and I’ve never really looked back…”

I have worked on four different versions of Strictly…

South Africa, Australia, America and this one – and there’s something about the UK version that is so different. I don’t know whether it’s the history of ballroom dancing in this country, but there’s something really warm and fuzzy about the whole team. And a lot of the team have been there right from the beginning, and that’s always a good sign.

I usually start work on a new series of Strictly in May/June time…

I try and get started quite early in the year. So, for instance, if we have to get more ideas about what we’re going to do differently, I’ll start early and then have a month off and come back to it, but it means the ball can start rolling on things as the team starts building – particularly on the group dances and things like that, because they’re ridiculously complex to get in place and they’ve become such a major part of the show. There’s only a very small skeleton team of us and we decide, “OK, we’re going to do this themed week, these are our new pros, this is what we’re going to change this year”.

Coming up with the dances and concepts is a collaborative process…

Sometimes, a pro might have an idea, and the production team always comes with loads of things. We put them all on the wall and see what sticks, and say “ooh, that would be really topical this year to do something in that direction…” My favourite day is when we have to pitch it to all the pros about the group numbers we’re going to do, and their faces get so excited. It feels like a really flowy, creative process with all of us on the team. That’s the one thing I do love about weekly, event TV – you actually get to roll these things out each week. Some are better than others, but it’s all a learning curve.

I don’t feel the pressure to top the previous year – I come with excitement…

I think there are lots of people who go “oh my god, last year was such a vintage year, what are we going to do this year?”, but I don’t feel the pressure. I actually feel the excitement of “what CAN we do this year?”. There’s always a different direction. I have one of the choreographers who works on the show who says: “Well you can always find a new pair of shoes, can’t you?” There’s so much beautiful music around, that’s the thing. We’re also very influenced by things that happen socially in the year.

Once the show starts, Strictly becomes my life for 13 weeks…

When Strictly starts, I say: “See you on 18 December!” Even though we try and do a six day week, normally we all are on call because something dramatic usually happens on the Sunday – somebody’s sick or can’t do the dance they’re doing, or has to be talked off the edge because they hate what they’re doing.

A normal week on Strictly for me looks like…

On Monday, usually everyone has teething problems with their new dances and are easing themselves into it. Someone can be quite sensitive if they’ve been in the bottom two. Normally, we try and be on hand for anyone who is feeling, “oh God, last week didn’t go so well.” But also, we’re rehearing the new music acts.

As early as Tuesday, we’re getting the director’s tapes in from the couples that week. I’ve got a team of two other choreographers, and we try and get to all of the couples during the week. As you can imagine, when there are 15 of them and they’re all over the country, it gets easier as they go on.

Wednesday, more of the same. Thursday, there’s a huge production meeting about what’s going to happen with the roll-out [of that week], and then in the coming weeks, if there’s a theme week coming up. Friday, we’re camera blocking, so we’re there really early, and then the cameras start rehearsing. We start talking with each pro about what they are doing the following week. Ready to make props for what is coming up next. So it is a well-oiled machine.

Jason with former pro Aljaz Skorjanec, 2016 winner Ore Oduba, and pro dancer Graziano Di Prima in 2020
Jason with former pro Aljaz Skorjanec, 2016 winner Ore Oduba, and pro dancer Graziano Di Prima in 2020
David M. Benett via Getty Images

When we first start, we’ve tried to map out the show until week four…

We have to watch that we don’t have all the couples clashing with the same dance on the same week, so we want to make sure that everyone has an entirely different journey to each other. And we also want to make sure that if someone has ballroom one week, then they have Latin the next, and maybe Charleston the week after.

Once we’ve got to week four, we then map it out right the way to Blackpool, and we can start to see what might possibly be our Blackpool episode.

We might have a really great idea for somebody and then what happens if they go home?

We just have to let those go and in one of the years to come, we’ll dig those out again. We do have things where we go, ‘well last year we never got to do that, that would have been great,’ so we dust them off.

Neil Jones is the naughtiest pro in rehearsals…

The boys are pretty naughty. I mean Neil... Giovanni [Pernice]... Aljaz [Skorjanec] used to be so naughty. Neil’s got a very quick, witty sense of humour and sometimes when I’m trying to get stuff done, I’m like “Neil!” but I love it.

It’s funny because the girls are quite straight down the line, organised, there on time, but we’re always chasing the boys. Carlos [Gu] and Vito [Coppola] are the new ones, and they are quite good boys, but in a couple of years, they will end up like the rest I’m sure.

This year's line-up of professional dancers
This year's line-up of professional dancers
BBC/Guy Levy

I never feel limited creatively…

One thing I love is that if there’s something you’re passionate about or want to do a same-sex tango or an interpretation of a Rumba, I can go to the team. I don’t think they’ve ever said “no”. We always want to find a way to make it Strictly, but we’re very lucky to have this platform to push and introduce our viewers to new things. So I never really get bored or feel trapped artistically. It’s a nice job to be on for that reason.

I’ve had friends tell me they were wrong to doubt the same-sex partnerships…

It’s really exciting that we can show anybody that’s sceptial how beautiful any combination of pairing is when they dance together, and that’s what’s really important to us – to make sure we’re not just box-ticking. In our world, we’re so used to a couple with the same sex, because that is what we do, especially when we’re coming through as kids. It’s important for us to show different variations of couples.

I’ve had friends who’ve said, “I’m not sure about same-sex dancing”, and I’ve had the same friends ring me up and tell me they were wrong, which is lovely. I think John and Johannes last year were really groundbreaking – people really got on board and connected to them as well.

John Whaite and Johannes Radebe during last year's Strictly Come Dancing
John Whaite and Johannes Radebe during last year's Strictly Come Dancing
Guy Levy via PA Media

When judges swapped over the past few years, I saw my name mentioned on a couple of lists to replace them…

But it’s weird because I’ve done the Head Judge in South Africa and Australia and I kind of like where my role is here. I wouldn’t get to do the artistic side that I really get to exercise with incredible pros. I do believe this version of the show has the best pros of any other market.

When I’m not on Strictly, I bounce between a musical or two…

Sometimes I’m on another version of the show. I’ve just finished a musical with Craig Revel Horwood. I’ve just finished Strictly Ballroom with Kevin Clifton and I usually bounce between a musical or two, or something on the telly in a different market. I try to get back to Australia, where I’m from, but that window is getting smaller and smaller because of the Strictly tours, which I also do.

Jason with former pro Kevin Clifton, ex-contestant Maisie Smith and judge Craig Revel Horwood at the Strictly Ballroom afterparty earlier this
Jason with former pro Kevin Clifton, ex-contestant Maisie Smith and judge Craig Revel Horwood at the Strictly Ballroom afterparty earlier this
Dave J Hogan via Getty Images

Some of my favourite moments from the show are…

Rose [Ayling-Ellis] and Gio’s Couple’s Choice has to be one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. Rose is one of my favourite people who’s ever done Strictly. Just to see her become one of the most musical dancers we’ve ever had on the show, was just awe-inspiring.

Then, if you go back to my very first episode of Strictly, there was Aljaz and Abbey Clancy dancing to Kissing You. I’m a sucker for those slow, beautiful ones. All the magic comes together.

I think my favourite contestant, or one of them, was Rob Rinder, because he just loved it so much and he committed. I think of Jay McGuiness, Kellie Bright… Kellie is an EastEnders actress and then all of a sudden, you’re talking to her like a dancer. She was just nailing every performance.

AJ [Odudu] was such a shock last year because I remember the dance test, she was a little bit ungainly and lanky and was like, “I don’t know if I can do this”, but oh my God, she took to it like a duck to water – her Showdance was spectacular too. We’d all seen it on the Monday so we knew what was coming, but she never got to do it [AJ had to withdraw from the final after injuring her ankle], so that was sad.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Strictly Come Dancing airs Saturdays and Sundays on BBC One.


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