Surrendering to the Dance (with the Stars)

Posted by on 03.11.09 | 2 Comments
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OK. I can’t stop myself. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to ignore my inclination to surrender to this show like millions of other Americans, tried to ignore my desire to write about it. But I give in. It captivates me. I’ve been waiting for months for the new season to premiere, and even when I found I knew none of the contestants I still waited like a fan.

My neighbor Robert scoffed today when I said I had to get home in time to catch it. “You judge the show,” I told him, “though you’ve never watched it, hah!” And he agreed. “As you judge the selling of mammals,” he said, “I don’t watch network television.” I’d stopped by to pick up the dog food he bought for me at Petco, which used to sell puppies and still sells weasels. He had a valid point. Just minutes earlier I’d made a blanket value judgment as well.

“I did the same thing a few years ago,” I said. “My dearest oldest friend said ‘Dancing with the Stars’ is my favorite show,’ and I scoffed at her… Then she died.” Robert gasped. “So the next season I watched it, and within a couple of episodes I was hooked, enchanted.”

This season, the stars run the spectrum, again, of charm, talent, confidence, and sheer joy. Some of them at first dance seem obvious parallels of previous contestants. Belinda Carlisle resembles Priscilla Presley in looks as well as skill; Steve-O mirrors Adam Corolla; Steve Wozniak wears the size 13 shoes, metaphorically, of Penn Jillette, with the enthusiasm of Steve Gutenberg; Lawrence Taylor parallels any of the graceful black football stars that have made it into the finals. And the unknown actor Gilles Marini brings the sex appeal of Helio, Julio, Mario…

Tonight’s season opens with a creditable first dance from Lil’ Kim, multi-platinum rap superstar, self-proclaimed ‘black barbie,’ who dedicates her dance to “my girls at the federal pen,” gets 7’s across the board from the judges, and is a good energetic match for sexy Mormon pro Derek Hough.

Former Go-Go’s lead Belinda Carlisle reminds me of me, and this is an important component in the success of this show. There is always someone on each season that each of us can identify with or fantasize being like. In this case, she is middle-aged and once was hot and young. She lacks the physical confidence to spin without getting dizzy, and suggests to her partner, Current American Smooth Champion Jonathon Roberts, that maybe he should have a bucket handy. She needs to trust his lead but she can’t quite let go. She scores 6-6-5, not bad for her first attempt.

Lawrence Taylor, the football pro, says “The heels went on and I thought what have I got myself into?” Afraid of looking like a fool, he faces the unfamiliar sensation of feeling uncoordinated with a refreshing lack of ego. But you can see he is so inherently graceful that once he gets used to the heels he’ll do well, and likely lose a little weight in the process. He’s my early pick so far, based on my fun-o-meter, and he’s dancing with the hottest sexpot of them all, Edyta. “Seduction has always been a part of the dance,” she says. And we’ve always known she knows that. “Football players traditionally have done really well,” she says.

Bruno is often the harshest judge. He cuts to the quick while the others look for the best. But the combination of the judges’ comments usually tells the star all they need to know about what to work on in the next week. Clearly. They wanted more from Lawrence Taylor, and I can see that. They give him 6-5-5. “As long as he enjoyed himself I’m happy,” Edyta says, and clearly means it. How much more sexy can you get for a guy than that? Seriously. As far as being able to let go. And that is all the judges are asking of him.

Lacey is paired with the Jackass star, recklessness personified, the American male ego. Steve-o is his name-o. “Very caucasion, poor balance, can’t keep a beat,” he says of himself, and stiff as, stiff as… a rod… Yet he felt it when “We were so tegether!” Lacey exclaims as they come out of a spin in rehearsal. He performs with a certain dramatic quality, and the physical grace of a shy, gangly adolescent. Awkward, tight. To her grace and stretch, her line and spin. How touching, how odd, how vulnerable and genuine, for this recovering addict. “You didn’t jackass about,” Len says, “I expected much much worse, so well done.”

Carrie Ann, giver of the first score in the series of three, has mixed emotions. “I was mesmerized by the beauty, but the weirdness, the awkwardness… but it was inspiring to watch.” Herein lies another secret to the show: The man was all bluff and bluster, but honest joy. They give him 7-5-7. Technically horrible. Totally inspiring.

Gilles Marini, actor who apparently made good in a shower scene in “Sex and the City,” dances with two-time Dancing with the Stars (DWS) champ Cheryl Burke. Hot, hot. “I want people to be uncomfortable to watch us,” Cheryl says. Oh he’s so hot, cha cha, cha. Because he doesn’t have the fan base, he has to sell himself with sex appeal to stay on the show. There was just that one moment when he looked like Justin on “Ugly Betty,” but otherwise he succeeded. The judges give him the highest score of the night so far, 8-8-8.

Julianne Hough waltzes with her real life boyfriend, rising country music star, Chuck Wicks. Will this backfire, going into the relationship with her actual boyfriend, rather than seducing her partner into a love affair? It doesn’t look harmonious in rehearsal, but in performance he finally does take her seriously, he’s intimate with her, they’re trusting; their spins are lovely, their lines wide and open, their timing perfect. Yes, they enjoy loving one another. This man will get laid tonight. Bruno complains “You’re chasing her, she’s a whirlwind;” Carrie Ann disagrees, “You’re one of the most graceful men we’ve had on our show in a long time.” They garner 6-7-7.

Stepping in to fill the dancing shoes of injured Jewell, glorified playboy bunny Holly Madison has had only five days to learn her dance with new pro Dmitry. Nervous about “totally winging it in front of 20 million people,” she pulls it off with three 6’s from the judges. “There was no time to teach her technique,” says her partner; what she lacks in precision she makes up for with her inherent ability to move beautifully, to surrender and seduce.

All-Around Rodeo Champion Ty Murray approaches the cha-cha-cha “just like bullriding: you’re never completely ready, it just becomes your turn.” He’s got agility and athleticism, but he’s a touch awkward, a little stiff. Does he have the charm? Bruno is hard on him, “Is it the bull, is it the cow? I don’t know.” Len says, “Part of the charm of this show is that people go far beyond their comfort level to come out and try… you did.” Carrie Ann says “You are one cute cowboy. I really like the fact that you let go and you had a great time, and that is contagious to watch.” And it is. The thrill some of these stars find in facing this challenge brings tears to my eyes. But this couple will be the first to go. They are not at ease together, and they receive the lowest judges’ score so far, 5-4-5. “I think they judged it fair,” says the cowboy, “but I had fun.”

It’s almost as though the producers pick the stars to fill particular niches, then pair them with appropriate pros. Youngest gold medalist ever and youngest DWS competitior, Shawn Johnson, with the build and the sparkle of the Cheetah Girl who got cheated out of her crown (or mirror ball trophy) two years ago, is paired with the same partner, Mark Ballas, who brought out the star in Sabrina. She’s the one I want to see go far. “It’s the trying to be serious that makes me laugh,” she says, “with gymnastics you’re taught not to show emotion.” Though only 17, she can do it, she has the strength, the stretch, the grace, the balance and ability to spin. She is easy in herself, light of spirit, not attached to winning this or to how she will be perceived, ego-free. She’ll be great at the cha-cha, the jitterbug, all those perky dances. Nice boobs, too. It’s odd to see them after her flattening outfits in China. Carrie Ann exclaims “For a young little one, you have the power to move people with your dance. Beautiful. Excellent job, Mark,” she adds. Bruno calls her “surprisingly refined,” and Len says simply, “Fantastic.” 8-8-7 puts her in second place.

Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, the man who made possible me writing on this MacBook pro, says “Dancing is left brain but analog… I’m going to prove that nerds can dance.” Pro Karina says “His mind can remember the steps, I just hope his body can pull it off. He’s got a lot to pull off.” He starts with a comic element, wearing a boa. For his pear-shape and for sheer pleasure he does a terrific job. “Take that Bill Gates,” says host Tom Bergeron. Len says “It held my attention throughout, I was fascinated by it. If you’re not a great dancer you have to go for the fun element of it, good job on the knee spin… but overall it was a disaster!” Bruno either admonishes or compliments or both, “It was like a gay pride parade!” Carrie Ann says “You are what this competiton is all about. Out on a limb and going full out. You make us want to cheer for you. Unfazed by his score of 5-4-4, Wozniak beams, “This is the most incredible fun thing I’ve ever done.”

Comedian David Allen Grier says he hopes for sexual favors from doing the show. You can see his partner Kym’s confusion at their first meeting, but once she gets his humor she laughs. “He’s a natural dancer,” she says, herself an Australian champion. I am a fan. He’s not the best but he will be lovely to watch, and fun just to see his comedy. Len tells him “There was far more good in that performance than bad, but your bum sticks out a bit. Very very commendable,” and they receive 6-7-6.

Former Bond Girl Denise Richards is happy to find herself paired with Maksim, because “I like bad boys.” In rehearsal she loses her composure, she is too self critical, as I would no doubt be “making the same mistakes over and over again.” Though they pull it together, she lacks confidence. She oughtn’t. She’s got the bod, the face, the hair, she simply lacks strength. She appears terrified to hear the judges, but they’re not too hard on her, giving three 6’s. “Could have been worse,” she says. She’s too atatched to outcome, too tense, not having enough fun. She won’t go too far unless she gets over that. This may be the first couple to go next week.

The final star of the night has had only 48 hours to prepare for her performance. Replacing injured TV host Nancy O’Dell, the rejected fiancée from “The Bachelor” just last week on live TV, Melissa Rycroft pulls off a stunning dance debut with her partner Tony Dovolani. She’s easy about it, she’s got nothing left to lose. Her balance, her poise, are fantastic. With some ballet experience, she’s got the potential to go all the way. Barely knowing the steps, she’s letting herself be led, trusting Tony. At the end of the dance she’s weeping with joy. And rightfully so. “I’m overwhelmed, relieved, I feel good about it,” she says. Tony says “I took all the ballet moves I could and put some waltz around it.” The judges reward her courage and grace with 8-7-8, a well deserved terrific score. “That’s 23 points highter than I thought I’d get,” she laughs.

Why do I like this show? All of the above. All these new people, only some of whom I’ve heard of, I will get to know a little bit in the coming months. They’re all stepping out of their comfort zones in so many different ways. I can identify with the struggles of some of them to balance, to spin, to move in ways they’ve never moved. Their determination to dance, and the joy that bubbles up in them from the pure fun they are having, inspires and delights me. The judges, though harsh from time to time, encourage and educate, and really want them to succeed. As the stars grow in skill and meld with their partners, the dances become more lovely to watch each week, and one wants to cheer for all the dancers. Television at its best entertains, educates and inspires, and “Dancing with the Stars” does all that, with glitter.

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