long journey DWTS judge Arthur Gourounlian was almost conscripted into Armenian army
"This is where we belong, it just feels right"
When Arthur Gourounlian escaped the war in Armenia in the early 1990s as a 12-year-old boy, on an epic train journey across the plains of Russia and eastern Europe, he could never have imagined he would one day dance on stage with Beyonce and the Spice Girls.
In the months before they fled, Kalashnikov fire would sound in the streets of Yerevan city at night, but after he was almost conscripted to fight against the Azerbaijan forces as he was tall for his age, his parents made the decision to leave the capital city.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an ongoing ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a disputed region which is inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians.
Decades on from walking out the front door of his childhood home with just a few belongings, the renowned choreographer has become a household name in Ireland for his passionate turn of phrase and flamboyant style on RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars.
His journey to that seat on the glittering set began in a small Belgian village where his family eventually settled as refugees after travelling for thousands of miles by rail. Four years later, his father passed away.
The creative director, who is now living with his husband, former Big Brother winner Brian Dowling, in Kildare, said he wasn’t always such an exuberant personality.
“I don’t take my life too serious. Obviously coming from a refugee background, so much happened when I was young,” he said.
“When my dad passed away my life completely changed. I was a very shy boy. I was 16 years old, and literally, it’s like a switch went on in my back. I said: ‘You know what? Life is too short.’ I’d been through so much. I’d seen everything you can imagine, whatever has just happened with Russia and Ukraine. I’ve seen that experience first-hand.
“I said: ‘We’re in Belgium, I’m going to live my life to the fullest, I’m going to be happy and I’m going to make it.’”
Arriving in Belgium was the first time he would land in a new country without speaking a word of their language, although it would be repeated years later when he moved to London.
“I left Armenia when I was 12, 13; we just locked the door as normal and left. I remember we got train after train, we stayed with my mom’s friend, then her sister in Moscow, then going and going until we got to Belgium, where my dad’s brother was.”
The TV judge had ambitions to be a dancer, but initially trained as a barber as dancing wasn’t considered to be a career. However, on a podium stage in a nightclub in Antwerp, the 19-year-old was spotted and hired as a stage dancer.
“Then I started doing TV shows in Belgium. I was just very quick at picking up routines, I didn’t have any training.”
As he was still awaiting a Belgian passport he couldn’t cross the border, but when it finally came through in 1998 he started dancing all over Europe before landing in London in February 2000.
“When I arrived there I couldn’t speak English, it was a mess.”
However, after shining in auditions, he was cast as a back-up dancer in the TV show, Stars in Their Eyes, before going on to perform alongside the likes of Kylie Minogue and the Spice Girls in the next decade. He also worked with Beyoncé in the UK.
“I’ve done a few little things with Miss B, I’ve done a private party — and when the Americans come to the UK they always need extra dancers, so I was one of the boys,” he said.
“She is the most professional human being on this earth, she is busting a move bigger than the dancers in rehearsals. It was just surreal working with Beyoncé.
“I was never star struck, because to me it was work. I was loving life. Meeting all these celebrities, they are humans like us.”
He remembers dancing on the first Strictly Come Dancing with Emma Bunton when she performed a set on the show in 2004, and later speaking to judge Bruno Tonioli about working on the programme.
“I was like: ‘Who will watch ballroom?’ Who would have thought it was going to be a phenomenal show around the world? Two years later I met Bruno again and I said: ‘My God, you have an amazing career.’ He said: ‘Darling, that’s what you want in life, when you’ve done it... just go and be fabulous.’
“Who would have thought years later, I’d be sitting in that chair. I wanted to do something like that, but I never thought I’ll be sitting on national TV in an English-speaking country.”
He has been “absolutely gobsmacked” by the four finalists, former jockey Nina Carberry, rugby star Jordan Conroy, singer-songwriter Erica Cody and Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane. “I know dancers who can’t do some of the lifts or some of the steps that these four finalists have done,” Arthur said.
No one is more excited than his husband Brian. They first met in a club in Soho, London, on December 27, 2002, before finally tying the knot in 2015.
“When I got the job, he was jumping because, you know, he sees me working so hard all my life. He’s the biggest support to me.”
Nearly 30 years on from leaving his childhood home in Armenia, he feels the Kildare property he shares with his TV star husband is home.
“This is where we belong. Brian has his family here and my family can always come. It just feels right.”
‘Dancing with the Stars’ is on RTÉ One tonight at 6.30pm
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