Back in September 2006, I was flipping channels and stumbled upon a third season episode of Dancing With the Stars. Harry Hamlin, formerly Perseus and currently Mr. Lisa Rinna, had just been eliminated from the competition, and he and ballroom pro Ashly DelGrosso, were taking their final bows. Asked if he had any special words for his partner, Hamlin squeezed her tenderly and said, “I can’t tell you how much I love this little girl right here.” DelRosso, tears streaming down her lovely, heavily lacquered face, tried to speak but was too overcome with emotion. And in one of the most humbling moments of my life up to that point, I reacted by breaking down into uncontrollable body-racking sobs. I cried for everything Hamlin had said and for everything DelRosso couldn’t say. It was as if there were a Dancing With the Stars button deep in my heart that had just been pushed—hard.
I knew I would never be the same.
I’m only half-kidding. My fandom was sealed in that moment. I’ll even admit that I once attended a performance of the Dancing With the Stars traveling tour: a dear friend and I brought our mothers along as beards and braved asthma attacks to climb the stairs to our seats at the tippy-top of the Meadowlands arena. We sat through pointless video-clip packages, unfunny banter, and the relentless flash of migraine-inducing disco lights. Even more agonizing, we endured New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre singing a laughably tone-deaf version of “The Way You Look Tonight” to a 10-year-old girl whom he’d dragged onstage with him. The way she looked that night? Absolutely terrified.
But some ordeals pay off: we watched the man himself, Harry Hamlin (so dashing in his tuxedo and tails), dance the Quickstep to “Lust for Life.” If Iggy Pop had a grave, he’d be rolling in it, but the inherent wrongness of the musical selection made the routine that much more entertaining. And even better, we lived to see Joey Lawrence, wearing only tight pants and leather vest, twirling around multiple sequined partners to the strains of “Mambo No. 5.” It was so cheesy. So sweaty. So right.
Such is the lure of Dancing With the Stars, which wrapped up its 10th season this week. I feel less alone in my unfettered love these days: according to Nielsen, the series was the third highest-rated of the 2009–2010 television season, pulling in an average of almost 20 million viewers a week. The frequent pronouncements that this season was the “most talked about one ever!” may have more a grain of truth to them.
The inclusion of Pamela Anderson, possibly the most famous star to strut in DWTS cha-cha heels, was one reason for the hubbub. In the first few episodes, she was so loopy in her post-dance interviews that she didn’t seem—how to say this kindly?—quite all there. And during her performances, her partner registered as little more than a living, breathing stripper pole. But as the season wore on, she grew more focused and even received a lesson on how to shake her “maracas” from coochie-cooer Charo. (If I had died after watching that, I would have gone to the other side completely satisfied.)
In the “I so wish they hadn’t gone there” department, the show played up a possible backstage romance between contestant Chad Ochochinco and his partner, Cheryl Burke. Every mention of it was a sleazy, cringe-inducing distraction. Two other contestants came to the show with heavy baggage from the outside world. ESPN anchor and eventual third-placer Erin Andrews had a stalking nightmare to contend with, as well as a misguided and mean-spirited attack from The View‘s Elizabeth Hasselbeck.
And of course, there was Kate Gosselin, who managed to suck the fun from the proceedings every time she appeared. Unlike many of the contestants, she was not a trained theatrical performer, so it feels unkind to judge her so harshly. But during her dances, she looked so pained and so unpracticed, we began to dread her routines. Luckily, Niecy Nash was on board to provide comic relief. The gloriously zaftig comedienne dedicated her bits to the “thick girls in the audience” and openly fretted that the rigorous rehearsal schedule would rid her of her beloved “jiggly parts.” After she performed to “Bootylicious” in the finale, she cracked, “I feel like a weave on a stick.”
There were a few tweaks to the show’s formula this season, most notably the replacement of notoriously awkward co-host Samantha Harris by the only slightly less stiff Brooke Burke, a former DWTS champion. But the best parts remained: the beads, the mesh, the spray tans—not to mention flamboyant judge Bruno Tonioli and crackerjack host Tom Bergeron. The studio audience had trouble containing its glee when the irrepressible Tonioli became excited about a performance. In his signature move, he’d jump to his feet, lean forward on the judges’ desk, and praise the performers in a string of mixed metaphors that usually involved the mention of a jungle cat or a sexy enchantress. Bergeron is quick on his feet with ad-libbed zingers, and although the perpetual twinkle in his eye lets on that he knows how over-the-top and ridiculous it all is, when he is impressed by a routine, he says it, and means it.
Several dazzling performances this time around earned his respect. Almost every season brings a ringer (see: past winners Kristi Yamaguchi and Apolo Anton Ohno), but this one boasted two: Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and Olympic gold medal-winner Evan Lysacek. From the beginning of the season, it was clear those two were the contestants to beat, so it was no surprise that they competed against each other in the finals. Scherzinger eventually took the “coveted disco ball trophy.” While the finale wasn’t the most suspenseful in the series’ history, it was entirely entertaining. My personal favorite moment involved Pamela Anderson descending from the ceiling, seated inside a giant sparkly globe. Perfection!
The highlight was watching Scherzinger and her partner, Derek Hough, dance the Argentine tango, a repeat performance from earlier in the season. The footwork was dazzlingly intricate, the lifts thrillingly inventive, and their pace was sexy and mesmerizing. That’s the reason to watch DWTS, for the chance to catch a performance like this, one whose beauty, grace, and complexity fill you with vicarious and unadulterated joy.