Only a few years ago, ballroom dancing was hot. Vanessa Williams sizzled in Dance with Me; Strictly Ballroom was a cult favorite, and the Japanese film, Shall We Dance? was a surprise art house hit. PBS aired the U.S. Championship Ballroom Dancing and Oxygen the world championships. DanceSport, a Latin ballroom variation, was featured on A&E, Lifetime, GTV, and ESPN.
Today, the media fervor has cooled (see the recent fizzle of Jennifer Lopez’s remake of Shall We Dance?), but dance lessons remain popular. And so ABC has decided to combine interests: reality instruction and B-list celebrities. In Dancing with the Stars, six dance teachers are paired with former Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield; Trista Sutter (The Bachelor, Fear Factor, the noxious Trista and Ryan specials); supermodel Rachel Hunter; General Hospital‘s Kelly Monaco; former New Kid Joey McIntyre; and J. Peterman from Seinfeld (John O’Hurley).
The primary trouble with this formula is apparent immediately. Ballroom dancing makes women the competitive focal point, with male partners assigned to make them look good. So the male dance amateurs here have an automatic advantage, in that their female counterparts have much more difficult dance steps to learn. The first episode rectified this inequity, to an extent. Male celebrities and their professional partners danced the cha-cha, a dance where the woman does most of the fancy moves while the man serves as her animated dance pole. Female celebrity duos danced a waltz, which requires less of the woman and allows the man to offer her more support and direction than the cha-cha. While the dance choices evened the competition somewhat, the female celebs still had more to do in their dance than the men did.
The show faces another difficulty in its decreasing numbers. Every week, each couple dances one routine, after which a panel of dance professionals rate the performance on a scale of one to 10. Home viewers then vote on which couples to keep. (However, unlike American Idol, the judges’ votes do count here, weighed equally with audience votes.) As the number of competitors decreases, the show will have to rely on more filler, insuring a finale as bloated with excess backstage footage as the American Idol finale.
Still, I was curious to see whether any of the stars would be able to dance, and frankly, I was hoping one or two would make complete asses out of themselves. No one fell on his or face, however, either literally or figuratively. And two of the stars, McIntyre and Sutter, were somewhat impressive (they have professional dance backgrounds, McIntyre with his former band and Sutter as a former Miami Heat dancer). Only Holyfield seemed out of his element. Although he made it through his cha-cha without incident, his cautious and stiff footwork distracted from the hard work his partner was doing.
My disappointment that no one failed was mild, though, because I was not invested in any of the competitors, as I didn’t know anything about the professional dancers and didn’t know much about the B-list celebrities. And therein lies a persistent problem with reality shows populated by people we have never cared about or have long forgotten. So what if Brigette Nielsen and Flavor Flav hooked up during The Surreal Life, Kelly Preston was creeped out after being buried in bugs on Fear Factor, and Chris Judd outlasted Melissa Rivers in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here? I just don’t care about any of them.
Competitions featuring “everyday people” invite us to get to know the players, and so we can pick a Bo Bice or a Trista Sutter to support, someone who might resemble us and now has a shot at the Big Time. But because we “know” celebrities, and in particular, judge the reality show contestants as seeking yet another chance at fame. It’s unlikely that anyone, pro or amateur dancer, will receive much of a career boost from Dancing.
More than anything, Dancing with the Stars highlights the questionable use of the term “star.” Though curious viewers like me might tune in to see the rich and famous falter, this isn’t precisely an effective angle to highlight. Consider the sorts of suspense available here: Will Hunter’s inability to focus keep her from learning the steps? Are Monaco’s inner ear problems going to make her puke when she has to do a big spin? Can Holyfield finish his routine without dropping his partner and falling on her, as he did in rehearsal? Really, it doesn’t matter. Give me a chance to watch Mariah Carey fall flat on her face, and I’m there. But John O’Hurley doesn’t inspire such concern.
A variation of hit UK and Australian shows, Dancing with the Stars does offer a form of “family entertainment.” No one puts his or her life in peril, no one is asked to do anything disgusting, people aren’t hopping into the sack together, and the competitors are openly supportive of one another. And host Tom Bergeron insures that the show provides plenty of simplistic and silly humor. Still, I wound up respecting the six celebrities and their teachers, as they are actually dancing. If Dancing with the Stars featured an hour of ballroom maneuvers each week, I’d tune in. But hearing Joey McIntyre discuss the masculinity of his costume is something I can live without.
Despite the format problems, Dancing with the Stars is the hit of the summer tv season, sitting on top of the ratings for much of its run. No doubt, viewers tired of the cruelty of most reality competitions were drawn to this gentle competition. Where most reality shows feature half-nude contestants enduring hardships or well-dressed professionals backstabbing one another, Dancing featured fully clothed contestants (with the exception of Monaco’s partner, who missed no chance to show his manly chest) having fun. That element of fun made the series unique.
Equally important for the show’s success is the fact that it offered Kelly Monaco. Less “celebrity” than “little known underdog,” her first dance resulted in the lowest score given in the competition (13 out of 30), but her hard work led to remarkable improvements: her final dance received the only perfect score of the series. She also flaunted a “never say die” spirit, most evident in Week Four, when the top of her dress came undone and she completed her samba routine clutching her dress to her bosom to keep from flashing America.
Soon enough, Dancing with the Stars will be back with a new roster of “star” dancers. In the best case, format faults will be fixed. More likely, however, clones will fill up the airwaves, beginning with Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, premiering 20 July. This is always the way: whatever seems different and fun becomes formulaic and boring.