Dancing with the Stars - Cheek to Cheek (and Tongue-in-Cheek)

The New York Times / Dance / April 20, 2010


In the realm of popular culture, there are few more terrifying circumstances than dancing on live television. On an episode of “Dancing With the Stars” this season, Aiden Turner, a chiseled soap-opera actor who was recently voted off the competition, threw up backstage.

The ABC show, which made its debut in the sleepy summer of 2005, is now in its 10th season (it runs on Monday and Tuesday nights) and, remarkably, continues to grow in popularity, even on occasion posting higher ratings than “American Idol.”

That probably has more to do with “Idol” sputtering than with any improvement in “Stars,” with its hoary ballroom competition pairing professional dancers with mainly C-list celebrities. But it might also be related to age: the banal fantasy of turning young people into pop stars is losing its shimmer.

“Dancing With the Stars,” on the other hand, is for grown-ups who know they’re slumming. It’s slightly bawdy, from the showgirl costumes to the way the host Tom Bergeron, with a wicked twinkle, looks as if he were trying not to laugh. Last week he greeted America with, “Welcome to the world of fabric remnants!”

Given that self-mocking approach, dancing on television clearly isn’t about career resuscitation; it’s more about self-improvement. The actress Pamela Anderson, with her uninhibited willingness to go for it, gets that. The professional mother Kate Gosselin, whose excuses and tantrums only impede her potential, could stand to learn it. Dancing is work.

The show isn’t buffing dance’s image, either. “Stars” has become what the public latches onto whenever the word “dance” comes up. The attitude of those in the concert dance world, at first bemused, has shifted to something along the lines of, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Last Tuesday Tiler Peck, a principal with New York City Ballet, appeared to perform a piece by Travis Wall with 12 other dancers (a word used lightly, especially in Ms. Peck’s company) and the violin duo Nuttin’ but Stringz. It didn’t do much for ballet, good or bad: Ms. Peck was only intermittently visible.

Actually, watching dance isn’t the point of “Dancing With the Stars.” It’s watching so-called stars dance; failure reveals as much as success. This bizarre world of fabric remnants does offer a kind of realism: on a dance floor, nerves fray enough to show a glimpse of what the celebrity contestants are like in everyday life: insecure, lazy, smart, vapid, vulnerable, graceful, clumsy, humorous.

Think of “Stars” as a tale of two shows: the reality is the performance, while the actual melodrama of dance is captured during rehearsals. Here, Ms. Gosselin is the leading light, showing her skill at eliciting sympathy by acting like a spoiled brat. (At one point she complained to her partner, Tony Dovolani, that he wasn’t teaching her what she needed to know.)

“I’m addicted and I’m totally going to cry if it’s over,” she said on the show recently. While Ms. Gosselin lacks any semblance of rhythm, she does have a certain car-wreck appeal. The comedian George Lopez has started an online campaign devoted to making sure that she stays on the show (lopeztonight.com/keepkate), which would be mildly amusing if I hated all that dancing stood for and if Howard Stern hadn’t already pulled off a similar, wittier stunt with Sanjaya on “American Idol.”

Realism is Buzz Aldrin, who was voted off in Week 3. How could someone so stiff ever have walked on the Moon? Despite his age (80), didn’t some small part of his body recall the sensation of floating? Didn’t he, after all, sort of dance in the stars?

As the competition gets tougher, and more celebrities drift away, those remaining begin to transform into something else, even off the dance floor. The contestants get in touch with their bodies and quiet down.

Chad Ochocinco, Evan Lysacek, Erin Andrews, Jake Pavelka, Nicole Scherzinger, Niecy Nash, Ms. Anderson and Ms. Gosselin are still in the running this week. Even with two broken toes, Mr. Lysacek, the Olympic-winning figure skater, is a favorite, but given his background, this is obvious. (Seriously, if he had lost to Mr. Aldrin, his gold medal should have been revoked.)

Last week the show instituted a one-time-only scoring system with points for technique and performance, and Mr. Lysacek, dancing the tango, was in his zone. He dances as he skates. Mr. Lysacek is a task-based performer (tell him what to do and in what order, and he’ll deliver) with a beautiful instrument (his body), but his approach, while initially satisfying, loses its gloss because it’s mostly about following rules.

Another strong contender, Ms. Scherzinger, is best known as the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls. She has dance training, although, as the rules insist, not in ballroom. Like Mr. Lysacek, she possesses great line and muscular logic but seems to be gradually losing her luster. After a disappointing rumba, she dabbed tears away. “This is me,” Ms. Scherzinger said. “I’m an artist. I’m not like other people.”

As a dancer, Ms. Anderson isn’t like other people, either: apart from being an actual celebrity, which is increasingly rare on “Dancing With the Stars,” she’s the only imaginative dancer in the bunch.

The sight of Ms. Anderson is liberating after a night of Ms. Nash’s hammy duets with Louis Van Amstel (he is steering her in the wrong, overly sentimental direction), Ms. Gosselin’s stuttering walks and the mere sight of Mr. Pavelka (the eager-to-please former “Bachelor” who treats the show like dance camp and seems to be more in awe of Mr. Ochocinco than of his partner).

Buxom, blond and full of saucy insouciance, Ms. Anderson has said that she had never had a dance lesson in her life. Even so, she is a natural performer, with rhythm, an understanding of when to be subtle or fierce and a sense of how movements connect to create a story. And that’s all accomplished with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

She’s flexible, has great legs and even in high heels could probably run the length of a football field. For a ballroom dancer, that’s key; just as a point shoe creates an extension of the foot, Ms. Anderson’s stilettos achieve the same sensation on the dance floor.

In her mesmerizing rumba last week she floated along so smoothly, lingering in each pose a millisecond too long — this was genius — that her partner, Damian Whitewood, eyes flashing like a desperate Broadway dancer, was the one trying too hard to please. Ms. Anderson may be sexual, but that doesn’t mean that she is cheap. She doesn’t flaunt her sexuality; it’s simply a part of her. Bob Fosse would have loved that.