THEY are renowned as two of Ireland’s leading sports stars of recent times, but over the last seven weeks, Cork’s own Anna Geary and Rob Heffernan have been wowing the nation with their dance skills.
The camogie star and the Olympic race-walker are no strangers to competition. Geary has won four All-Ireland titles and Heffernan has competed in five Olympics, winning a bronze in 2012.
Both have tackled RTÉ’s weekly TV show, Dancing With The Stars, with the same gusto as if the winning glitterball trophy were an All-Ireland medal or an Olympic gold.
As they headed into last Sunday’s episode, I got the chance to visit them at their rehearsal studio and take a sneak peek at their Sunday night routines.
The building was buzzing with energy. Pro dancers and celebs alike mixed in the corridors, peeking through the glass doors of individual rehearsal rooms to catch a glimpse of their rivals in action.
It is all in good fun, however. It may be a competition but there is one thing for certain: friendships have formed and the camaraderie between the rival pairs is infectious.
Milford-born Geary is loving every minute of the experience, but admits it is much more intense than she initially anticipated.
“I am fortunate that I am self-employed and have the opportunity to put things on the backburner because this is so intense,” said Anna, who claimed the show’s first maximum marks from the judges last Sunday and is the hot favourite to win with bookies.
Days in the rehearsal studio are long and Anna and her professional dance partner Kai Widdrington have put in plenty of ten hours days.
Despite the intense schedule, Geary still finds time to present two sports shows. “When it comes to working, it’s either a feast or a famine,” she says. “When you have lots on, you learn to balance yourself.”
The presenting, however, allows Geary to have a break from the dancing, and she says it can help take her mind off “all those pivots and steps”.
Anna adds: “For me, dancing is mentally taxing rather than physically exhausting. I already have a level of fitness but trying to learn new steps all the time takes energy.”
On the fitness front, she is in top condition but admits that dancing does take its toll. “The mechanics of it are very different. After playing camogie for two decades my body is used to moving certain parts in certain ways.
“At the start of rehearsals, I wasn’t tired but I was definitely sore from using muscles I hadn’t really used before.
“I do have the advantage though that I can train for a long time. We don’t need to take too many breaks because my fitness level allows me to keep going.”
Geary has an interesting analogy for dancing, one anyone who went through the Leaving Cert can relate to. “Dancing is like learning a new language in a week and then having to do an oral at the end of every week.”
Geary and Widdrington seem to have the perfect partnership. They showcase some of their moves for the benefit of our photographer and even without the sequins and satin shirts, they cut an impressive shape.
They both have a serious work ethic and are keen to be the last pair dancing when it comes to the final.
The banter flows between the two and when tensions run high, they simply walk away from each other rather than argue.
Geary believes trust is the key to any good partnership and that is never truer than in dancing — “you have to trust that they’ll create a routine that showcases your best parts and trust that a difficult move will work.”
The camogie star refers to Widdrington as a “professional hugger and part counsellor”, qualities which are needed as “partners see you at your best and your worst”.
“It’s essential that you make a connection otherwise rehearsal days together would be very long,” she adds.
From the corner, Widdrington nods his agreement.
It would seem that Geary is her own toughest taskmaster “I get frustrated with myself when I can’t get the steps quickly. Sometimes my mind knows exactly what to do but it doesn’t always translate to my body. That’s one of the biggest challenges.”
The weeks have flown by and Geary finds it hard to believe they have made it to week 7.
“We have made it this far so now we really want to get to week 12, the final week. I am having such an amazing experience and getting to learn a new skill.
“I would recommend that all young people get involved in dancing. I would encourage parents to get their little ones into to dance classes. You learn so much, agility, balance and, how to control your body. It’s great for anyone who plays a sport.”
A dedicated Cork woman, Geary danced her first dance complete with a red hurley and a glittery sliotar and hopes that the people of Cork will get behind her and vote so she can make it to the final.
The energy when I reach dance studio five is a little different. Here, champion racewalker Rob Heffernan is preparing to start rehearsals with his professional dance partner, Emily Barker.
He has already warmed up, albeit in an unconventional way. Heffernan is staying in Dublin for the duration of rehearsals and not 15 minutes earlier he had to run home to pick something up! It is rare that you get the opportunity to see an Olympian racewalker running at full speed but despite his rushed start, he is in great humour when he gets back.
The interview does not start as expected as fellow contestant Marty Morrissey pops in for a visit.
He reminds us that he too is a Corkman, born in Mallow, and hopes that his fellow county folk look favourably on him when it comes to voting!
Morrissey heads off and, as Barker preps for photographs, Heffernan is happy to chat about the experience he has had so far.
“I wanted to do something completely different than what I have done in my athletic career,” he says. “I wanted to strip myself back down, start at the beginning and take on the one thing I was never good at: dancing.”
He admits it has been utterly terrifying but at the same time amazing — “so much goes into it, the show itself, things on the periphery that you don’t see. It’s amazing.
“Dancing with Emily has just been brilliant. There is not one negative about doing the show.”
Heffernan may have a slight frame but he has immense core strength. He demonstrates a lift, hefting Barker into his shoulder as though she weighs no more than a feather.
He admits his mobility is not great from the years of the positions his shoulders maintained for racewalking, but there are no signs of mobility issues as the couple move around the dance floor demonstrating their salsa.
A partnership is a new experience for Heffernan, who was used to competing as a solo athlete. “It’s a massive pressure,” he admits, “I don’t want to let Emily down. She is so good and understands that I need to train for a long time. We do 12 hours most days.”
Like Geary, Heffernan does not physically tire easily. But he also says: “It is mentally tiring, there is so much to take in and there are times in the day when you just can’t take in any more information.” He admits that sometimes the tiredness gets to him but when things are tough and moves go wrong he just “sucks it up”.
Heffernan has brought Emily to Cork several times now and admits that it was great to be a tourist in his own town.
“Sometimes, when you live somewhere, you don’t always see what’s there. I really enjoyed showing Emily around. Cork is such a great place, full of characters. It’s different from the rest of the country, in a good way.”
The visit to the studio ended, I left both couples hard at work, all thoughts focused on Sunday.
Sunday night came and Heffernan sizzled in the salsa, securing a place in week eight this Sunday. Geary received top marks for her tango. Receiving three tens from the judges, the highest marks of the season, she danced her way into next week.
It would seem all those rehearsals are paying off and their sporting attitude is serving them well.