by Heather Parish
The dance competition also gives a glimpse into performance skills and human authenticity.
Dancing with the Stars opened its 12th Season on ABC this past week, and did so with a group of run-of-the-mill “celebrities” called “dull” by the press. Without a Tom Delay or Bristol Palin– or even a Cloris Leachman in all her octogenarian glory– there probably won’t be a lot of headlines written about this season to boost news circulation.
But that just makes me MORE excited for the show.
The “stars” on Dancing with the Stars rarely are. There are a few legitimate performers– usually from the 80s and 90’s– who have a recognizable name and speak to the show’s demographic of middle-aged woman (The Karate Kid’s Ralph Macchio and Cheers’ Kirstie Alley, this season). But the rest are typically rising or falling b, c or d-list entertainers who are trying to distinguish themselves from the pack such as Disney actress Chelsea Kane or talk-TV’s Wendy Williams, athletes looking to cross over into more television work as a commentator (boxing’s Sugar Ray Leonard, the Steelers’ Hinds Ward, and WWE’s Chris Jericho), music stars trying to fuel a hiccup in their career (Rap-R&B’s Romeo), a reality TV subject (Playboy bunny Kendra Wilkinson), or your resident comedian (Mike Catherwood of radio’s Loveline).
A more innocuous group of contestants I’m not sure you can find. But, really, that makes this season of Dancing with the Stars an even playing field. The contestants all have some sort of fan base to draw from, but none have the entire workings of a political movement to sustain them in audience votes. Each of them has a similar level of dance ability at the starting gate– there are no octogenarians needing to pull out their comedic antics to garner votes. And, since I have no particular partialities toward most of the contestants, this is a completely open field for me as a viewer. (I will cop to being in the show’s target demographic and therefore I lean toward Kirstie and Ralph.)
But, ultimately, this set up is perfect for why I watch Dancing with the Stars: the inherent drama.
There is nothing particularly special about these people at this point in their careers. They are all being put into a very intense and extraordinary circumstance: to train like the devil for four to 12 weeks mastering skill and techniques in which they have no background at such a level that it takes most amateurs several years of classes and coaching to conquer. And to do it in front of cameras.
Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances equals compelling drama.
Throughout the course of a season of Dancing with the Stars, each contestant will be asked to rise to a level they’ve rarely asked of themselves before. They’ll be asked to perform the dances well technically– but then they will be asked to perform the dances well AUTHENTICALLY. They’ll be asked to reveal themselves, tackle some of their insecurities, embrace parts of their personalities that have lain dormant, to connect to their partners and to the audience in a generous, open, and truthful way, to drop their guard, and to push on through when they are utterly exhausted.
Some contestants will embrace that challenge. You’ll see them falter one week, narrowly escape elimination, and then the next week they work out what was holding them back and they come roaring to life. Kelly Osbourne, daughter of rocker Ozzy, in season 9 was my favorite of these stories. Uncomfortable in her skin and suffering from a lack of real self-esteem, Kelly went back and forth between holding back in performance to showing great joy when she knew she was getting it right. When she finally came to terms with the idea that she was allowed to be lovely and talented, she blossomed to reach the finals. I believe that Dancing with the Stars taught her to value herself more thoroughly and has allowed her career as a television commentator to blossom on the E! channel.
Other contestants, however, are not up to the challenge of having to work on the dances AND work on themselves. They can find the emotional nature of the training and performing overwhelming, and the need to reveal themselves as performers daunting. Model Joanna Krupa had some issues with this in season 9– in fact, models typically go either way on this element. Their body lines and beauty are advantageous, but if they can’t make an audience feel something wonderful when watching them because they’re holding back emotionally, eventually they get the cut.
No matter which way the contestants go, several stories will begin to emerge. Which one will be the diva? Which will be the clown? Which will rise beyond anything she expected, and which will go home with the sting of the judges comments hanging over his head?
It is the human drama of people who, in this situation, are an awful lot like you and me, that keeps Dancing with the Stars so compelling to audiences. And if some great dancing entertainment happens along the way, so be it.
Each week, I’ll bring you an update of the dancing, scores and stories on Dancing with the Stars. Keep up with my thoughts during the show in real time (Pacific Time) by following me on Twitter @heatherdparish
Opening: Hosts Tom Bergeron and Brooke Burke waste no time getting into the action during the two hour season 12 premier, introducing the contestants who will perform either of the classic dances the foxtrot or the cha cha cha and then heading straight into the first dance:
The Contestant: Disney’s Chelsea Kane with partner Mark Ballas
The Taped Segment: Chelsea can’t seem to admit that the ABC owned Disney Channel called her up to increase her exposure and to serve the teen demographic. Instead, she said she’s doing Dancing with the Stars so her home school-self can make up for not having a prom. That seems like a good reason to put yourself through several weeks of grueling training.
The Dance: Foxtrot. It is young, nicely formed and well executed. Surprisingly good.
My Comment: Mark Ballas is a strong teacher, especially to the young women contestants on the show. He creates good chemistry with his partners, even if he can overwhelm them with this dancing style at times. Chelsea stands to do respectably at this point.
The Contestant: Talk TV’s Wendy Williams with partner Tony Dovolani
The Taped Segment: Wendy is known for being “too big and too loud”. . . and for being a bit of a diva. Unable to spot her dance partner in an empty room, she asks the gentlemanly world-dance champion Tony Dovolani, “Who are you?” and he takes it on the chin. She also reveals herself to be a bit of a leaky faucet, crying at the drop of a hat. Oh, Tony. . .Why do you always get the hot messes?
The Dance: The Cha Cha Cha. William’s delivery is timid and childlike, a 180 turn from her public persona, which results in a confusing and awkward watching experience.
My comment: Williams seems to have a number of excuses for her lack of performance technique. We know the dancing comes slowly for some, but the ability to perform, to show personality, well that should come naturally. Hopefully, Williams will learn to use her big personality instead of hiding behind it.
The Contestant: Steelers Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward with partner Kym Johnson
The Taped Segment: Ward says he’s making up for the Super Bowl loss with the DWTS mirror ball trophy. Dare to dream, my man.
The Dance: The Cha Cha Cha. Like previous football players on the show, the crowd loved him. Ward shows a lot of strength in partnering and some musicality. Nice surprise.
The Judging: Here’s where the first bits of weirdness happen at the judging table. Len Goodman, the panel’s crusty traditionalist tells Ward that his “bottom’s the tops” and Bruno Tonioli, the panel’s resident Tourette’s victim, over exaggerates a sample of hip action for Ward to follow. Never a dull moment.
My Comment: Most football players do well on Dancing with the Stars, so I can see Ward making it to the middle rounds– and further if he lets his personality shine a bit more.
The Contestant: Supermodel Petra Nemcova with partner Dmitry Chaplin (returning this season and battling with dancer Maxim for resident heartthrob/sleaze bucket).
The Taped Segment: Petra, who is a survivor of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2007, reveals that she has broken her pelvis in four places and still struggles with movement in that area. When news of the Japanese Tsunami reaches her, she pushes through a rehearsal in tears.
The Dance: The Foxtrot. Very pretty and elegant with good lines, if a little strained.
The Judging: The judges universally admire her grace and inner beauty, but encourage her to work further on her posture and hold.
My comment: Her hip limitations will limit her ability to go too far in the competition unless she manages to push her own limitations further than she ever has before. Petra also seems a little too serene, a little too placid, to make for too many really explosive dance performances. We’ll see.
The Contestant: Rapper/R&B artist Romeo with partner Chelsea Hightower
The Taped Segment: We revisit an earlier season when Romeo’s father, rapper Master P, earned the lowest score ever in the history of DWTS (a total of 6/30). So Romeo feels he has to restore the family honor. He balks, however, at a number of the essential ballroom moves, afraid of looking “stupid”.
The Dance: The Cha Cha Cha. Romeo started out sharp, high energy, and he can certainly perform, but it sort of broke down into a mess in several places.
My comment: He could contend into the semi-finals IF he gets over himself a little bit in the rehearsal room. After twelve seasons, you shouldn’t be shocked that it is ballroom dancing. And, newsflash, learning these techniques will make you a better, more versatile dancer in your own act. Drop the ‘tude and give some respect to the pros who are willing to teach you. Getting over his fear of looking stupid may just be his most compelling storyline.
The Contestant: Boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard with partner Anna Trebunskaya
The Taped Segment: Leonard inherently knows that he’ll have to translate some of that famous footwork inside the ring onto a dance floor. Not going to be easy.
The Dance: The Foxtrot. Leonard worked hard to do everything he knew how and that earnestness was endearing in performance.
The Judging: Judge Carrie Ann Inaba nailed it when she said she saw little moments of song-and-dance man Ben Vereen in Leonard’s performance. Judge Bruno Tonioli embarrassed Leonard by asking, “Can I call you SUGAR? “– a reference to the Marilyn Monroe character in “Some Like It Hot”. Oh, Bruno and your inappropriate comments! You cad! All judges nail him on his posture.
My Comment: Yes, his posture was admittedly BAD. But he hit his marks and had a little fun in the process. That could make him a fan favorite.
The Contestant: Kendra Wilkinson, reality TV subject and Playboy Playmate, with partner Louis Van Amstel.
The Taped Segment: Louis Van Amstel is another one of DWTS gentlemanly professionals. He took Kendra’s claims that “she’s got some moves” and that “she can really shake her ass” with a discreet smile. The taped segment, however, shows that Kendra’s moves are from the club scene and stripper poles and are lacking in any real ability.
The Dance: The Cha Cha Cha. Kendra has alright hip action, but mostly it looks like Louis is tossing around a rag-doll. Very little control or tension in her upper body, no footwork and arms flying everywhere. The crowd is not behind her–probably due to her whining about how hard she’s worked for “three whole weeks” in her taped segment.
The Judging: When getting some minor criticism about stretching her legs, Kendra’s impulse is the blame it on the three inch heels. They know you’re wearing heals, my dear. All of the women are.
My comment: Oy, where do I go with this girl? Complaining about how hard she’s trained in the first few weeks? You have no idea, my friend! She’s “got moves for a white girl”– which entail “shaking her butt and flicking her hair”? Oh, Louis. . . Louis, Louis, Louis. I pray you’ve got a Henry Higgins deep down inside for this girl. Eliza Doolittle her soon, otherwise, kiss that mirror ball goodbye.
The Contestant: Actor Ralph Macchio and partner Karina Smirnoff
The Taped Segment: Karina is a little firecracker who seems to work well with the baby faced-but-49-year-old Ralph. She immediately gets him into a posture bar and sends him to town with essential technique.
The Dance: The Foxtrot. A classic, high energy, high theatricality number. It was the only number of the night that made me exclaim “Woooohooo!” out-loud after Macchio completed a double spin effectively.
The Judging: All judges called it the “Best Foxtrot Tonight“. Bruno Tonioli wants to go on with some niggling criticisms about Macchio’s hands, but that’s a sign that he really liked the number. He wants to keep giving notes because he knows the number can be perfect
My comment: Macchio surprised everyone with his debut performance. But frankly, the older, more experienced actors-singers often have a leg up on the younger or less experienced (reality or talk show) performers. The sense of discipline required to do good work has been developed and they’ve had time to get over themselves in life and thus are often more willing to put themselves out there (Susan Lucci in season 7, excepted!)
Video highlights on YouTube
The Contestant: Chris Jericho (WWE star) and Cheryl Burke
The Taped Segment: Jericho says, “not much difference between wrestling and dancing” which gives me pause, but the way sections of the audience screamed through the segment, he’s got some fans voting for him.
The Dance: The Cha Cha Cha. Cheryl seems to have choreographed to her partner’s performing strengths and left out the cha cha cha.
My comment: Good energy but not enough content.
The Contestant: Radio personality Mike Catherwood with partner Lacey Schwimmer.
The Taped Segment: Mike brings the full force of his boyish charm and razor sharp wit to deal with the fact that he is decidedly out of his comfort zone.
The Dance: The Foxtrot. He hit all of his steps– if inelegantly– but he kept a smile on his face and made me giggle a few times.
The Judging: Mike was marked down on his lack of coordination and took some pot shots for his form and inexperience
My comment: I felt he was scored too low– especially compared to Chris Jericho and Kendra Wilkinson. But here is where one of those storylines may develop. I often think that the judges are as swayed by the taped segment as much as by the dance, and they often give comedians lower scores because of their tendency to be flippant about their experience on DWTS. And this can be the danger of the judges: they see someone funny, deflecting their feelings with a sharp sense of humor and they think they can take anything. So they don’t hold back on them. But those comics are extremely sensitive and already hard on themselves. I’d like to see the judges look past Catherwood’s sharp, self-effacing humor and find his potential. Next week he does the jive, though, and he may get a little more comfy in his skin there.
The Contestant: Actress Kirstie Alley and partner Maxim Chmerkovsky
The Taped Segment: One of Kirstie’s assets as a performer is her unyielding openness and transparency. Her weight, Scientology, and general wackiness are part of who she is and she doesn’t apologize for it. Her training sessions showed some of her trademark self-deprecating humor and off-beat point of view. She openly admits that she’s on DWTS to “find out how far she can push herself *snort*.”
The Dance: A show stopping Cha Cha Cha. She had high energy, confidence, sizzle and even some great technique.
My comment: At the age of 60 and around the size of the average American woman who struggles with her weight, Kristie could be the breakout story on this season. Sexy and capable at any size and age.
Video highlights on YouTube
And so the top and bottom of the leader board look like this:
1. Ralph Macchio with 24 points.
2. Kirstie Alley with 23 points.
10. Wendy Williams with 14 points.
11. Mike Catherwood with 13 points.
There were no eliminations this week as next week all 11 contestants will do a Latin-dance routine, their scores combined and public voting will commence.
Dancing with the Stars airs on ABC Monday nights at 8 p.m. Eliminations occur Tuesday nights at 8 p.m.
Check back here Wednesday evenings each week beginning this coming Wednesday, for more of Heather’s thoughts and an overview of the week’s episode!