BEIRUT: Eleven Lebanese stars – sultry pop divas, gray-haired comedians, bombshell models, seasoned actors and former Miss and Mr. Lebanon winners – have more in common than an affinity for the limelight: They’re all learning to dance.
The reality TV series “Dancing with the Stars” has launched its first Arab edition on MTV. The series stars local celebrities paired with trainers in a professional-level dance competition that will run for 12 to 13 weeks, said Sandy Salem, communications officer at MTV.
Celebrities – from rising Arabic-music star Naya to beloved comedian Michel Abou Sleiman and former Fatafeat director and heartthrob Nicolas Mouawad – will compete live each Sunday beginning Dec. 16 at 8:45 p.m., after the MTV news, Salem said.
Other regional reality TV series like “Arabs Got Talent” have showcased dance numbers to a limited extent. But that show and other competitive series broadcast for Arab audiences have focused primarily on vocal talent, making MTV’s “Dancing with the Stars” a new concept for local reality television.
The U.S. show and U.K. version “Strictly Come Dancing” have for the past eight years attracted enormous prime-time audiences, as well as spinoffs in other countries and regular tabloid coverage for those following the show’s contestants, which include actors, political names and Olympic athletes.
Past Western competitors include Joey Fatonefrom ’N Sync, Mel B from The Spice Girls and former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol.
MTV producers said they are expecting a similar caliber show to the U.S. and U.K. versions as veterans from the U.K. show and dancers have come from England to help with the Lebanese series.
Besides the lineup of homegrown celebrities, MTV “Dancing with the Stars” producers have given the show a uniquely Lebanese feel with a mixture of Arabic, French and other Western music. About half of each show will feature Arabic songs, said Janane Mallet, supervising producer for the show.
“Dancing with the Stars” will be aired each week from its Forum de Beyrouth stage, in front of a live audience of fans alongside the celebrities’ friends and family and members of the press.
And the celebrities are really something to see, Mallet said.
“They’re all funny and have great charisma,” she said. Producers of the show faced a task in finding local celebrities who could devote the time and patience to train for the series.
“You want people who want to have fun and who are really team players,” she said.
At the end of MTV’s search, producers came up with 11 celebrities of varying ages, talents and fame.
The show features a number of aspiring Arabic-music singers, including actress May Hariri; pop-singer Naya, who is known for her single “Ghira;” as well as musician and songwriter Rabih Baroud, who has worked with pop-Arabic music stars like Joe Achkar and Elissa.
The show’s actors include ubiquitous Lebanese-series presence Walid al-Alayli; Nada Bou Farhat, winner of Best Actress awards at a number of international film festivals for her role in “Under the Bombs” (2007); TV host and director Nicolas Mouawad; and comedian Michel Abou Sleiman.
Another contestant, Haifa Haddad, was the host of a seaside workout show.
Former Miss Lebanon Rosarita Tawil and Mr. Lebanon Wissam Hana join French-Lebanese model Mirva Kadi in a competition that will require more from them than just their signature good looks.
Co-hosting the show will be Wissam Breidi and Carla Haddad.
The actors have a grueling holiday season ahead of them with rehearsals scheduled four hours a day, five days a week.
Only a few of the celebrities have formal dance training, most of that in their youth, while others like Haddad and Kadi have an athletic background.
But overwhelmingly the crew are coming as blank slates and will have to put in serious work and time if they want to perform seamless 90-second numbers each week, Mallet said.
“You don’t learn the cha-cha by coming once a week to rehearsal,” the producer said.
The job for the dance instructors is no walk in the park either. MTV has brought in three huge European names in dance to give the Lebanese instructors their own classes on teaching and fine-tuning their moves.
Darren Bennett from “Strictly Come Dancing,” award-winning Ivana Ostrowski and Ian Banham, a choreographer working with the BBC, will coach the Lebanese instructors, as the country has few dancers professionally versed in every form of ballroom dance from samba to the waltz.
“In England or in France professional dancers make their living from dancing, but that’s not the case here in Lebanon. They might do something else as a job and dance on the side, so the dance teachers are here to back them up,” Mallet said.
The crew will tape the pilot – the only pre-shot episode – this weekend, featuring introductions to the show, its celebrity cast and its lineup of dance instructors.
The first elimination round will take place Dec. 21, when the dancers perform for a panel of judges tasked with cutting one celebrity-dancer team each week.
The best part of working with this particular group of celebrities: the unusually large number of attractive men.
“It’s rare on Lebanese TV to have so many handsome men on one show,” Mallet said, with a laugh.
Mallet predicted there will be more reasons than cute guys to keep audiences following the series.
“There will be great music,” Mallet said. “And the costumes are just breath-taking. I’ll never get to wear them, but I keep going back into the closet to look at them again.”