The Critic’s Notebook

The dancing on Dancing With the Stars isn’t that bad.

For a dance critic like me to offer a professional opinion about what happens on Dancing With the Stars could be considered cruel. Despite its celebrity angle, ABC’s hit show, which airs this season’s final results tonight, is a true amateur contest. While albums by the winners of American Idol cross the desks of pop-music critics, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever see one of the Dancing With the Stars contestants on my rounds of New York dance venues like the Joyce Theatre. Even the professional dancers who are paired up with the C-list celebrities inhabit a different world from that of concert dance—the international subculture of ballroom competitions where dance is called a sport. The program’s judges hail from that sporting world, too, or else from the land of music videos and Madonna tours. Dancing With the Stars is not Baryshnikov on PBS.    

Still, just as figure-skating competitions have an aesthetic component, Dancing With the Stars has one as well. So here goes: The dancing is pretty good. Particularly that of the finalists who competed last night. Unlike many reality shows, the program doesn’t aim at humiliating the participants. Very rarely is anyone awful. In the first week, TV pundit Tucker Carlson spent the first third of his number sitting in a chair as his partner danced around him. When he finally began stumbling around, the strategy behind the sedentary opening became quite plain. Neither the viewers nor the judges were fooled, and the combination of their respective votes and scores justly gave Carlson the boot.  

Later episodes were less of a clear triumph for art, as Jerry Springer held on to fourth place while much better dancers were voted off. You could chalk up his success to the blind devotion of his fans, but Springer more likely earned his votes with self-deprecating charm and showmanship. If Dancing With the Stars were a comedy dance competition, he’d have won: His samba looked like Jack Lemmon shaking his maracas in Some Like It Hot. When he repeatedly suggested that the field should be left to better dancers, one didn’t have to be a dance critic to see the justice of his proposal. Nevertheless, as a TV viewer, I was sorry to see him go.

Of course, the show is largely a popularity contest. We watch “behind the scenes” footage of rehearsals and note who’s working the hardest. We hear the celebrities talk about their goals, what they think about their opponents, and how they feel about their scores. These character-revealing vignettes are designed to help viewers pick their favorites. And try I as might to stay exclusively focused on the dance floor, Springer’s unexpected likeability—his decency—worked as well on me as it did on anyone else.

At the same time, though, the show is, to a remarkable degree, about dance. Justifying their scores with commentary, the judges often resort to quips (“Do you have extra batteries in your pants?”; “You are a weapon of mass seduction”). Yet cumulatively, both the contestants and the audience come away learning something about ballroom dance. Many of the negative criticisms—invariably booed by the studio audience—respond to rule-breaking. This season, an entire subplot developed in which dimpled former teen heartthrob Mario Lopez, who could win the championship tonight and was one of the best dancers from the start, was repeatedly scolded and penalized for introducing incongruous elements (splits and Michael Jackson imitations during his cha-cha) as he played to the crowd. (The show’s most egregious lapses in taste—the truly incongruous pop hits the producers regularly chose as accompaniment for waltzes or rumbas, in total disregard of appropriate rhythm and tone—these the judges never discussed.)

Raising these objections, the judges sounded schoolmarmish, nitpicky. But the underlying point was one of stylistic integrity, and when the dancers took it to heart, their dancing improved. Lopez became more of a partner and (a little) less of a showoff, channeling his irrepressible energy in the samba and the pasodoble last night, saving all of the moves from high-school dances (watch that backspin!) for the freestyle segment.

And as much as the judges harped on technical flaws, they kept emphasizing that technique was not all. There was also the spirit of the dance and enjoying yourself— remembering that social dancing is supposed to be fun. Thus it didn’t matter much that football legend Emmitt Smith sometimes looked as though he was stiff-arming an outside linebacker. The awkward touches added to Smith’s naturalness, to the sense that he was a regular guy dancing. Light on his feet and fluid for a big fella, Smith the Super Bowl champion knew how to practice hard enough to look at ease, then let his devastating smile seal the deal. Throughout the season, his dancing has given me the most pleasure.

But my greatest admiration goes to the show’s phantoms—the professional dancers. Each one is teacher, coach, and choreographer, as well as performer and competitor. While the best celebrity amateurs certainly work hard—during last night’s finals, it was announced that Lopez and Smith had logged a combined total of 645 rehearsal hours over four months—their seasoned partners are the key factor. During the judging and interview sections, the professionals are often treated as if they aren’t there, as if they are merely part of the celebrity’s costume, but their choreography is the main strategic device—emphasizing the amateur’s strengths, hiding the flaws, placating the judges while playing to the viewers at home.

Smith’s partner, 22-year-old Cheryl Burke, called Emmitt’s smile their secret weapon. But there’s nothing secret about that glorious smile. The secret is Cheryl Burke, who brought boy-band singer Drew Lachey to victory last year over a better dancer (Stacy Keibler) and bigger celebrity (football hero Jerry Rice). She’s also the best dancer on the show and the most original choreographer. As a television viewer, I’m hoping Emmitt will win the disco-ball trophy tonight. As a dance critic, I’m hoping to see Cheryl Burke again.