• Melissa McCallum

Cha-cha-challenges! Turning to face the stage

Shore stylist Melissa McCallum is juggling a punishing schedule; balancing blow waves with ballroom dancing in front of millions, as part of hit TV show Dancing with the Stars. Channel’s Heather Barker Vermeer popped in to Melissa's Shore hair salon to talk ballroom and beyond…

Behind the sequins, self-tan and smiles of ballroom dancing, lie many stories. The elegant, and some would say dated, art form has been given a modern upgrade; being thrust into the public eye via popular celebrity dancing competition, Dancing with the Stars. Each weekend for 10 weeks, well-known Kiwis pair up with professional dancers to perform routines live on television. The spotlight is on the celebrity participants as audiences follow their journeys from novice dancers, under the guidance of their well-practised partners. The pressure to perform is high and punishing schedules of daily rehearsals are an all-consuming commitment, which some juggle alongside their day jobs. One such person is Melissa McCallum, a Browns Bay born and bred hair stylist who has pushed herself to take up this intense, televised dance challenge. 

Melissa is the Dancing with the Stars partner of former children’s TV presenter Walter Neilands. By day, she is a long-standing (in both senses) stylist at Turning Heads hair salon in Forrest Hill. As well as being a much-loved hairstylist with a large and loyal clientele, Melissa is an avid and accomplished latin dance practitioner who has pushed her boundaries to take on the tv show challenge this season. It’s a gruelling ask, whilst holding down a full-time job, but the self-taught dancer is used to defying the odds. 

Melissa grew up in Browns Bay where her and sister Alivia attended Browns Bay Primary School, Northcross Intermediate and Rangitoto College. Their mum raised the girls alone, and Melissa’s Nana Joan, who lives in Devonport, has been a strong influence in Melissa’s life. By her own description, she was an overweight teenager growing up in a one parent family, without the money for a frock to dance in. Irish Nana Joan, now 90, made sure young Melissa didn’t go without. “Nana Joan has always made sure I didn’t miss out on anything. She funded my costumes and sat for hours and hours watching me dance. She flew to Wellington to see me perform in the nationals, and has always been a huge catalyst for me. Nana Joan’s the best!”

When Ucan2 dance studio opened in 1998, Melissa’s sister took up ballroom and latin dance classes and young Melissa remembers being captivated. “Alivia went along to Ucan2 with her friend, and I had to sit and watch them. I taught myself the steps from the sidelines. 

“I was already doing ballet, jazz and netball at the time, and Mum said I had to choose as I couldn’t do it all. So I went for the ballroom and Latin dance, of course!” 

It wasn’t cool, Melissa says, but she didn’t care. “I was one of those kids who danced to the beat of their own drum,” she says with a smile. “Hiphop would’ve been the cool style of dance to do. Ballroom and Latin is not cool. It wasn’t then and it’s not even cool now. But it’s all about the Latin music for me - I love it!” 

Melissa has travelled to several Latin countries, causing her to fall for the music and dance even more. “I was so happy when I discovered restaurants had flamenco dance shows. I remember saying to my boyfriend, ‘I could dance these girls under the table!’ I didn’t, as most nights I’d eaten my own body weight in tortillas, but I loved experiencing it - it was amazing.” 

For many years, Melissa has had a consistent dance partner - Jack, who lives in Mairangi Bay. The pair focuses solely on Latin dancing and have competed with much success across New Zealand, Australia and Asia. “We’ve worked our way up from the bottom to the top grade. We have achieved some very good placings in competitions with an open international playing field.”

When the opportunity arose to apply for Dancing With The Stars this year, the hairstylist of 14 years grabbed it with both hands. “I love my dancing, but this (hairdressing) is my job. I’ve been in this salon for 14 years now and I love my work and my clients. 

“I lost my Dad last year and I thought, you’ve got to put yourself out there and take on challenges. I am turning 30 this year and I knew I didn’t just want a new challenge, I needed one! I needed my feathers ruffling a little.”

So, Melissa put herself forward and was snapped up. Before she had time to give it much thought, she was facing the reality of juggling a full-time job with a gruelling training schedule and performing live on prime time television. 

At 5ft 1", Melissa is the shortest dancer in the competition. She was optimistic about being paired with one of the shorter male celebrities when the partnerships were revealed at a celebration event earlier this year. “It was like a very bizarre speed dating situation,” she explains. “There are all these people off the TV sitting on one side, and all the professional dancers on the other. I was so nervous, I was actually sick! I was sitting there, perspiring, as they were pairing us all up thinking, ‘holy heck, what have I got myself into?’ 

“I was looking at all the male celebrities and thought, ‘well it won’t be one of those giant guys’, with me being so small. And sure enough, one by one, the shorter and average height guys were picked off. When they said Walter, I admit didn’t actually know who he was! But he stepped forward and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There’s this giant and the shortest girl in the room!” Melissa’s pairing, former children’s TV presenter Walter Neilands, is 6ft 2”. 

“One of the first things he said to me was ‘I can do a backflip!’ I thought, 'great, that’ll be a lot of help in ballroom dancing’,” she laughs. Beyond the glaring height difference, and the physiological challenges that brings, the two are opposites in many ways. Melissa says: “Walter writes everything down. He came armed with a notebook from the very start. He’s very methodical. I’m more of a wing and a prayer type of person! I tend to interpret things, including dance, my own creative way, whereas for Walt, things are more black and white. I won’t pretend it hasn’t been challenging! But then I did want - no, need - a challenge, so there you go!” 

When we meet at the Souter Road salon, Melissa is tidying up after a day’s work. Next, she’s heading to the studio for rehearsal with Walt, as she now does every day during the programme’s season, sometimes twice a day. 

The pair’s first performance, a samba, gained a lowly total of 12 points from the judges and left them at the bottom of the leaderboard. Although disappointed, she wasn’t fazed. “I went home proud as punch, even though we got a low score.” 

When we meet, Melissa is putting Walt through the paces of a Pase Doble ahead of the Easter weekend’s round of competition. “It should suit his stature, the Pase Doble. I’m hoping this week, his physique will lend itself more to the dance,” she says. More, that is, than Week One’s samba, in which Walt’s moves were dubbed ‘awkward’ by the judging panel. “This dance will also force him to be serious! He does like to lark around, but that’ll be fine, because he can act.” 

Melissa and Walt did improve their scores in Week Two, but still languished at the bottom of the results table following the live show. Despite this, the pair - dancing for Walt's chosen charity Kidney Kids - wasn’t eliminated. Public text votes combine with judges’ scores and Jude Dobson and her dance partner were sent packing. 

As we meet for our photo-shoot on Mairangi Bay beach in late April, Melissa shares that the pair's next dance to perform will be the Quick Step. "Or the Double Quick Step! Perhaps even a 'Run Step'!" She laughs as she confesses they have a fair bit of work to do in rehearsal before the live show the following weekend. She also confesses to being nervous on the first elimination round. "It's pretty crazy. I was just stood there wishing, 'don't be us, don't be us'!" Melissa looks forward to staying in the competition long enough to have a chance to perform the cha cha, her favourite dance. “Being a sassy scorpio, I do love a cheeky cha cha,” she laughs. “I also like the jive. It’s high energy and I love it!”

Who does Melissa feel has the most chance of winning the competition? “I think my friend Clint (Randell). I knew he could dance - he’s spun me around club dance floors on nights out in Auckland before! I knew he’d be one of the strongest celebrities. I think a lot of people will vote for him. Females love a bloke who can dance!

“I do think it is an advantage to be partnered with a man who is young and energetic, and also someone who has got a lot of the young vote - and that’s where I think I’m at an advantage with Walt.”

Melissa is keen to be a positive role model for young followers of the popular TV Three show. “I was an overweight kid. Being so small, when I was 15kgs heavier, it made a big difference. This meant I didn’t fit the usual mould when I would compete as a dancer. 

“I remember having to borrow this secondhand white costume for a competition I was taking part in in Australia and, trust me, it wasn’t flattering. But that was me. I worked with what I had. Me and my dance partner were among the most inexperienced in the competition, and certainly didn’t look the part, conventionally; I was not the usual dancer’s shape and size, and had by far the worst outfit out there. But, do you know what? We won!

“I want kids who are watching the show, who may think they don’t have the right ‘look’ or whatever, to be confident in who they are. 

“It’s tough, when you put yourself out there on national TV, as a female, wearing outfits that show every jiggly bit, with a third of the country watching! You’re out there for everyone to scrutinise - your body and your dance moves.  And you can’t help but be hard on yourself sometimes, but I try not to be. 

“There’s only one of everyone in this world and I want young people to realise we come in all different shapes and sizes - tall and short, big and small. Whatever I look like, there’s only one me! I want young people to know that success also comes in different forms. And by doing what you love, and being brave and putting yourself out there, you’re already succeeding!”