Randall Christensen: From farm to ballroom designer to the stars

BURBANK, Los Angeles, CA–How did a shy farm boy from South Carolina become the guy behind the gorgeous and sometimes gaudy gowns you see each Monday night on “Dancing with the Stars”? It all began with “Saturday Night Fever.”

Yes, it was the dance doctor that current contestant Kirstie Alley called on, John Travolta, that set Randall Christensen on the road away from classical piano to the ballrooms and eventually the ABC DWTS studios and costume rooms. There instead of tinkling ivory, he’s make stars and professional dancers twinkle before studio lights and millions of viewers.

Raised Mormon, BYU was the best university to attend and he wanted to train as a classical pianist and was enrolled in the music program for performance and pedagogy. Yet like many young men away from home, he was lonely and had the chance to re-invent himself.

“I wanted to learn the hustle,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I hated dancing growing up,” he confessed. “It was mainly a confidence thing.” But in college at BYU in the 1970s, “Saturday Night Fever” was the hottest thing and he decided to take social dancing classes. “Contact dancing is a total different, wonderful experience. There’s an electric energy touching another partner and dancing.”

And he also confided what many dancing men already know: “It didn’t hurt that all the girls liked to dance with you. You don’t have to be a great partner; you just have to want to dance.” Without changing his eating habits at all, he also lost 35 pounds.

“I was the invisible kid in school, a shy guy who evaporated when you walked into a room,” but that changed, he said that he didn’t become cocky, but comfortable with himself. “My family was extremely proud.”

At BYU, he became part of the dance team. All the girls knew how to sew and the guys just got helped, but Christensen taught himself how to sew. When a family illness forced him to return home, he didn’t give up dancing. He began working as an instructor at the local Fred Astaire dance studio and eventually transferred to the Phoenix branch in 1979.

And during that time, he began “making costumes they way that I wanted them to look. There were no patterns back then. I draped fabric on my students and laid it out on butcher paper….I was ignorant…I was passionate and didn’t know it was difficult.”

Christensen began working with many fabrics that beginners find challenging: chiffons, silks and satins and in his ignorance, he wasn’t deterred. He learned by his mistakes. “Being ignorant and passionate is great. Many things ended up in the garbage.” But other things helped him build up a reputation. He had worked his way up teaching and begun to sell dresses at competitions and eventually he had more business selling dresses. In 1986, he incorporated.

“Life of a dancer isn’t very long,” he explained. Every dancer has to look for another career for their future. “The fun part is dressing everyone up. I design from a male dancer’s perspective. I know that from being a dancer , that the man’s hand needs to be unencumbered on the shoulder blade on the left side. There are other little tricks for functionality.” Not just dancers asked for dresses, skaters, pageant contestants also came calling.

Partnering with a fellow dancer, Christensen kept sewing while his partner handled the business end. He surrounded himself with people who were experts. He hired a European-trained tailor and learned pattern-making from her.

Then came his big break in season 2 of DWTS. The producers had used ready-made and rentals for the first season, but were looking for something different. Professional dancer Ashly DelGrosso-Costa, then Ashly Del Grosso mentioned that Christensen was sponsoring her and her five sisters, telling the producer that “he listens to you and gets you what you want.”

Christensen got the job, an Emmy and enough stress that he thought he was having a stroke. “I was sleeping on the fitting room floor. I had to design on Tuesday, and get them ready to be shot. I didn’t get to bed until Saturday or Sunday. I wasn’t physically or emotionally prepared. I didn’t have the team I needed.”

Instead of rental costumes, Christensen gave DWTS custom-made gowns, but he owned the gowns. He originally had 3 seamstresses and 1 trimmer/beader.

By season 3, he moved his company to Burbank. By season 4, the workroom was right in the studio and had 12-14 seamstresses with 2 cutter/fitters.

Christensen has “the same seamstress dedicated to that one woman’s body and when she’s eliminated, the seamstress goes and helps with the stoning and sewing of other garments.” When the stars are two dances, that means 24 costumes in 4 days.

The men go to a tailor who’s been in the dance industry for 20 years and knows all about keeping that shoulder line clean.

For the women, there are design sessions on Tuesday nights after they received their music and dance assignments. The professional dance partner might come in with tearsheets and videos and the whole session might run 15-20 minutes. Most pros come to the session with an open mind, but they also have to be like a director and have some theme in mind. The pros can call Christensen up on Wednesday when he’s shopping in case they change their mind.

Christensen tries to be diplomatic when an idea doesn’t suit the woman’s body type, but he also  watches the woman’s body language. The first fitting is on Friday and the neckline will be higher and the skirts will all be longer and the slits will be lower. Then Christensen and his team get to snipping on the body and waits until he sees “a grin on her face” and then he knows he’s made the woman feel confident. “It’s a wonderful thing to watch.”

The last fitting is on Sunday. Then there’s Monday’s dress rehearsal.

The women only get to dance in their costume during dress rehearsal–that means with the additional adrenaline of live performance, they might kick a little higher and step a little longer and then ballroom catastrophe.

As for the cut of the gowns, Christensen explained, he only makes dresses that “show what they want to show” because the celebrity has “got to own their looks….The costume shouldn’t distract them.”

If you’re looking for a souvenir or a chance to live out your own DWTS fantasy, you can buy some of the dresses used in DWTS. Fans of Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson and Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi will be disappointed. Those two stars bought all their gowns.  You’ll have to be willing to spend a few thousand.

Christensen never thought a farm boy who grew up with chicken and pigs would end up dressing up stars for one of TV’s most popular reality shows.

As he recalls, “I was an ordinary kid, dreading to be ordinary and didn’t want to work for the local factory. I created my future. I was training for the perfect job for 25 years.” His advice? “Dream big and don’t be afraid to work hard.”

Randall Christensen Designs are regular vendors at Los Angeles’ own Emerald Ball. You can also browse their ready-made catalog as well as their DWTS gowns online.

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About Jana J. Monji

I've written for the Rafu Shimpo, LA Weekly, LA Times, Examiner.com and, more recently, the Pasadena Weekly and RogerEbert.com. I formerly worked for a dot-com more interested in yodeling than its customers.

Posted on May 23, 2011, in Dancing with the Stars (past seasons) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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