Dancing Through Life

Julian Benson has always been a fighter. We’re sitting in a quiet corner of Dublin’s InterContinental hotel and he’s telling me about his life, his role as a judge on Dancing with the Stars, his battle with cystic fibrosis and what he hopes to achieve with the CF foundation he’s set up.

But throughout the conversation, he’s at his most animated describing his attitude to adversity. “I hate to be beaten. I absolutely hate it. I remember an audition I really desperately wanted when I was a young dancer – it was a massive TV advertising campaign being cast by a big star choreographer, and I only found out about it after it was booked. Nobody had told me about it,” he says. “I was young and desperate, but maybe I thought I had a bit of talent. To be honest I felt really hard done by, but I wouldn’t let it go. I rang up the choreographer and said: ‘You don’t know me but my name is Julian. Please give me a chance. Meet me and give me 10 minutes of your time.’

“She said, ‘Darling come to the studio at 10am tomorrow morning’ and it was like something straight out of Flashdance. She was standing there with her stick in her hand and she said, ‘What have you got for me?’ I gave it everything. I danced, I pirouetted, I jumped, I spun, I sold it with everything I had. She booked me and I haven’t looked back. That’s how driven I was. There I was with my leg warmers and my little bag, and it meant everything to me.”

Today the 47-year-old has a career that would be the envy of that young man. Born in Adelaide, he did his formative dance training at the Performing Arts School in Western Australia, before moving to Ireland at the age of 12.

He did a degree in UCD, moved to Paris for two years for more training and eventually ended up head of the dance department in Trinity College Dublin. In his career to date, he’s choreographed big shows for stage and screen – The Nutcracker with the Scottish Ballet, the Smash Hits Roadshow, Celtic Fusion and more.

In person, Benson is exactly as he appears on TV. He’s smartly turned out in a designer jacket and patterned shirt, and his hair is perfectly coiffed. He’s a naturally animated person who talks with his hands, and his voice is deep and booming. “That’s me. What you see is what you get. People often tell me that I’m just like I am on TV but that’s who I am. I’m thrilled by the success of Dancing with the Stars. It’s been on the go for three seasons and each year it gets more and more popular,” he says. “It’s been a magical rollercoaster and to be honest I’m just delighted to be part of the team. It grabs the imagination of the public. There’s something for everyone in it, from age six to 60. Children love the spectacle of it, the glitz and the glamour, and older people love the element of jeopardy, watching someone start out from nothing and progress into something impressive. It’s like the story of the swan. It’s one of the rare TV shows that the entire family will sit down to watch together. They’ll all find something there for them.”

As reality TV goes, this particular format seems to be immune to the downward trajectory of other formula-driven shows. While comparable TV talent shows struggle to maintain their appeal, Dancing with the Stars – and its British iteration, Strictly Come Dancing – seem to have no such issue.

The final of the last season of Dancing with the Stars Ireland was watched by 576,000 people, or 48pc of the entire TV viewing public here at the time. Benson, along with his co-judges Loraine Barry and Brian Redmond, are a regular fixture on the show, with the third series set to premiere on January 6 on RTÉ One. “People perceive these reality shows to be in competition but I don’t see it that way. I think there’s room for all of them. Dance shows are different to singing shows – they’re different disciplines. Entertainment shows evolve over time and there are cycles, but I think dance will always be in a lot of people’s hearts,” Benson says.

There’s a theory that when it comes to people who achieve high levels of ability – be that in dance, sports, music or any other discipline – that there’s no such thing as talent. Instead there is only skill. Scratch the surface of any famous person who is perceived as being talented, and you’ll find that they have put enormous amounts of time and energy into practising their skill. Does Benson ascribe to this theory? Does he believe anyone can be a top dancer or do you need to be born with the right genes for it?

“I think you initially have to have talent. If you want to be a star and you want to make a career out of it, you do need that little bit of magic in the way you move. But I also think that everybody can actually dance if they take the time to practise it,” he says. “Dance is fundamentally about moving the body and about having confidence. You need to believe in who you are and be confident about moving your body, and that will get you to the next piece of the puzzle. After that it’s down to practise, practise, practise.

“It’s about dance, more dance and more dance. Don’t just leave it to weddings and the odd party; dancing should be part of your everyday life. It’s good for you, keeps you fit and makes you happy. It keeps your mind alert – there’s even research which shows that dancing can slow down the progression of dementia. There’s basically nothing that isn’t good about it.”

Benson says he is a prime example of that. “Dance has been incredibly beneficial to me. I do go to the gym – I’m a big advocate of healthy body and healthy mind – but dance is a huge part of my life. It helps my cardiovascular system and it keeps me young looking. To be honest I don’t know anything else. I’ve been dancing since I was a child.”

But there is something else that has been Benson’s constant companion since he was a child, and that’s cystic fibrosis (CF). This is an inherited genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs but also the pancreas, liver, kidneys and intestines. The most prevalent symptom sufferers have to manage is difficult breathing, frequent lung infections and sinus infections. There’s no known cure for it and it’s treated with antibiotics. Benson was diagnosed with it as a two-year-old and given a life expectancy of just 13 years. He has managed the condition through a combination of mediation and positive thinking.

He attributes a huge amount of his success in navigating the condition to his mother, who died just over a year ago from lung cancer. She gave him a mental attitude that has helped him through the hard times. “Every case of CF is different and different people are affected by it to a different degree – that’s important to say. I have a regime that I follow. I wake up in the morning, take my medications, do 25 to 30 minutes of physiotherapy to clear my lungs, and get my day started. In the evening you do it again, taking antibiotics before bed. It’s like having a permanent chest infection or a smoker’s cough without the smoking. It takes a lot of effort to manage it and a lot of people like me have CF-related diabetes as well, so I have to inject with insulin on top of the other things I do to manage it.”

Benson has to be very careful about what he eats, counting calories and carefully monitoring his food intake. But he is adamant that it’s manageable, and insists it has never held him back from doing what he wanted to do in life.

“I don’t see it as life-limiting. To me, your mindset and how you think about it is crucial. You adapt and work around it. There is modern medicine to manage it but it’s also about your mind. It’s been proven that there is a massive connection between the mind and the body so if you can keep yourself in the right headspace, that will help you go a long way,” he says.

On paper, Benson admits he shouldn’t be where he is. He shouldn’t have a career in dance under his belt, and the authority to carry off being a judge on a dance show on TV. He shouldn’t have a successful career in managing actors, singers and dancers through his own company, Julian Benson Management. But the fight has always been in him, and he credits his mother for normalising his ambitions and making him feel like whatever he had to do to compete was whatever he had to do.

“From day one, I was driven. I knew I wanted to dance from a very early age and was taking classes at age four and five, and that kept me going. I went through all the standard dance training and for years I would say to the doctors that it was my fitness and my good health which was helping me power through the CF. You have to keep your lungs and your body moving, and increasingly the medical consensus is that physio and physical training is becoming more important in treating CF. But I was doing that 20 or 30 years ago – I was an outlier.”

He believes that others with CF can use physical activity to make the best of their situation. “It doesn’t have to be dancing, it’s anything that gets the heart beating and the blood moving. It could be football, it could be cycling, it could be swimming or even trampolining. That’s something I’ve gotten into recently and it’s fantastic. I do boogie bounce training and it’s great for the body and easy on the joints. Perfect.”

He has established The Julian Benson CF Foundation to provide support and services to people suffering from CF. In particular, the foundation has two goals. The first is to establish an accommodation facility in Dublin to be used by CF sufferers and their families who must travel to the capital for treatment and often incur significant expense in the process. “We want to build an accommodation facility where parents and carers can stay whilst their loved ones are receiving treatment in hospital. People with CF can be hospitalised for long extended periods, with many families doing a round-trip daily commute from all over Ireland to St Vincent’s in Dublin, which is the national referral hospital for cystic fibrosis in Ireland,” says Benson. “If you’re based in Donegal you have to drive up and down, or face hotel and parking bills which can be extortionate.”

It’s hoped that this facility will be a 12- to 15-en-suite bedroom guesthouse, located within a 20-minute drive of the hospital, with its own garden. The second, longer term, goal of the Foundation is to fund a wellness respite and retreat resort for people with CF and their families. “We’d like this to be a state-of-the-art medically equipped resort development providing a new lease of life for patients in their treatment and recovery from CF. Ideally the resort should be located close to the sea, as the influence of salt water in the air coupled with outdoor tranquil garden space has been proven to provide multiple benefits for CF patients.”

The resort will create an atmosphere that allows patients and guests to breathe deeply, safely and easily, with around 15 to 20 three-room units, each custom-built to a high medical specification to guard against cross-contamination. “I want to do something really worthwhile and practical, and the Foundation is the vehicle for that. There’s amazing medical research being done into cystic fibrosis and that’s fantastic for the future. But I want to do something to help people here and now, people dealing with the disease. We need to raise a lot of money to do it. We’ve started with a fantastic ball that raised €150,000 but we’re going to be rolling out a calendar of events and reaching out to corporate Ireland and to philanthropists to help us out. This is my everything. It’s something I promised my mother I’d do when I could, and the stars are aligning now. It’s literally the most important thing I’ll ever do.”

For information on Julian’s Foundation, visit jbcff.com

Photographs by Barry McCall

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