As BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing hots up, Stephanie Smith talks to dancewear and occasion specialist designer Kay Heeley (who also creates costumes for Jane McDonald) about helping the show’s contestants to sparkle and shine.
It takes many special ingredients to make the perfect Strictly Come Dancing champion. Talent, practice, confidence, perseverance, a supportive and dynamic professional partner, fabulous choreography – these are, of course, all essential. Do not, however, underestimate the importance of costume, because the wrong one can curdle those ingredients within a fleckerl.
A winning dance costume should feel like a second skin, says Kay Heeley, a former Strictly dancewear maker who now creates show-stopping numbers for private clients through her company Angel Couture by Kay Heeley, at Thurlstone, near Penistone.
“The dresses have got to have movement. The fit is fundamental,” she says. “One of the main considerations is the colour of the floor. For example, some dance floors are a very, very pale wood, so white or pale dresses don’t stand out. Whenever I have a customer, I say ‘where are you dancing in it?’
Kay knows all the tricks. Fringing can work wonders with Latin, adding the illusion of extra hip swish and sway. “With hemlines, you’ve got to be able to see the feet, particularly in ballroom, because they need to see the footwork. There are things you can do with a design that are very clever and can help the dancer achieve better marks,” she says.
Most dance dresses are based on a Lycra leotard, rather like a swimsuit, with layers built on top in chiffon or georgette. “They have to flow,” Kay says. “They can’t be heavy, but they need to be really, really full. I’m doing a dress at the moment that has 49 metres of crinoline. You have two or three underskirts and maybe a couple of top skirts.”
This particular dress is for one of Kay’s private clients who has been dancing for about 12 months but is already entering international pro-am competitions as a senior lady (over 50s) with a professional partner.
It’s actually thanks to Kay’s most famous client, Wakefield singer and TV star Jane McDonald, that she stepped into the world of dancewear. Now 36, Kay, from Millhouse Green, near Penistone, became interested in dressmaking because of her aunts, Freda, who was a sample machinist, and Dorothy, a tailoress. After Penistone Grammar School, she went to Barnsley College to study fashion and started making dresses on request before becoming a seamstress at bridal specialist Hoops A Daisy, which has boutiques in Wakefield and Huddersfield.
“I found that I actually learned more doing alterations than I did at college,” she says. “Taking dresses to pieces, seeing how they were made, carved the way that I make now.”
In 2007, Hoops A Daisy’s owner introduced Jane McDonald to Kay, who has made her stage costumes ever since. “She’ll have up to five costumes for one show,” Kay says. “It can be anything from a massive diva gown to a trouser suit and little fringe dresses, whatever she wants for the look of the show. Jane likes a certain style. She loves what she calls her ‘diva moment’, when she comes out and she’s got the massive gown.
“The shows are getting bigger, going now into arenas, so she has to have that big stage presence.”
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Kay founded her own business, Angel Couture, in 2004, inspired by her grandmother Annie Sidaway, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2003. “She was always my angel,” she says. Kay makes bridal and special occasion wear as well as dance wear and has a production studio, fitting room and showroom at her Thurlstone HQ, with two seamstresses to help out when it gets busy. Many clients, especially the dance ones, are in London, so Kay travels quite a bit. For creating Jane’s stage wear, Kay began to buy fabric from DSI London which makes the costumes for Strictly Come Dancing. Curious to see how it all worked, she asked if she could visit the company’s Croydon HQ and found herself offered a job managing production.
She worked there from 2011 to 2016 for the core market of dancewear customers outside of Strictly and also alongside Strictly’s head designer Vicky Gill, all the while keeping her own business going, making costumes for Jane through DSI London.
Kay worked for four seasons of UK Strictly, running the production room that Vicky Gill provided the designs for. “It was very hands on,” she says. “Everybody had to muck in. The deadlines was so tight.
“I remember the year that Lisa Riley did it, seeing her weight loss through the show and she had some really, really good costumes. I worked on the show when it was Nancy Dell’Olio. It was Halloween week and she came out of a coffin in a white rumba dress. Craig Revel Horwood said ‘I wish you’d stayed in the coffin’.”
The Austrian version of Strictly Come Dancing became Kay’s own project, working with costume designer Stephanie Hofer and travelling to Vienna for weeks at a time. “It was an amazing experience, working for a company like that, and I only really chose to leave because I just missed running my business. I did miss the bridal side as well. It was a tough decision to give it up but I do think that it really benefited my career.”
Kay is still a Strictly fan and is enjoying the current crop, with Kelvin her favourite contestant and Janette and Aljaz her favourite pros. “This year, it’s really, really strong,” she says. “It’s hard to say who’s going to win. Vicky does an amazing job, pulling the show together. Every year her style changes. She’s so talented.”
Although making dancewear is highly specialist, as a market it has grown, especially over the last five years, as interest in dance continues to increase, says Kay. Many of her clients come from personal recommendations, for example, from dance teachers. Her youngest client is 14 and the oldest one is about 68.
Kay danced as a child, but gave it up. “It’s one of my biggest regrets because I do love dancing and I would love to learn again, but unfortunately I don’t have the time,” she says. “It is literally full-on, nonstop and I think sometimes people don’t always realise how long it takes to make a dress – everything from 40 hours up to nearly 250 hours.” Kay’s Latin dresses cost from £1,500 to £2,500 and ballroom dresses up to £4,000. Large companies like DSI London sponsor some professionals but Kay’s clients pay for their own. There’s also Angel Couture’s bridal and special occasion work. With party season approaching, Kay hires out gowns, which helps keep costs down for customers. And, if you ever need a sparkly, clever dancing dress, Kay is your woman. “With dancewear, the possibilities are endless. There are no limits,” she says. “The dresses are all singing, all dancing and they’ve got the most amount of crystals – between eight and 10 packets of stones on each dress and each packet has 1,500 stones, and they’re all hand-applied. It allows your creativity to go absolutely wild, because everything goes.”
Angel Couture by Kay Heeley is at Hoyle Mill Lane, Thurlstone, Sheffield. www.angel-couture.co.uk, Tel 07507 595 263