I did something unusually frivolous the other day — I went to see the live stage show of Dancing With The Stars. I’ve always loved ballroom dancing (I can recite by heart some of the dialog from Fred & Ginger movies), so I guess it was pretty predictable that I would come to enjoy DWTS.
My delight in the show comes about, in no small part, because of its “getting it right” format. I love entertainment (books, movies, and, apparently, TV shows) that have as their trajectory people who, through hard work, instructive mistakes, enthusiasm, heart, heroism, etc., start at the bottom and work their way to the top.
On DWTS, many of the “stars” (B-listers, athletes, musicians, and “personalities”) who come on the show have never danced before. Some of them never do learn how to dance, but others prove to have previously untapped talents and it’s a delight to see them go from stumbling around to impressive dance chops. And always — always! — the ones who stay the course are the ones who work hard and cheerfully. The lazy ones and the whiny ones flame out quickly. It’s a good life metaphor.
The show also appeals to me because the professional dancers are genuinely talented people. They bring a lifetime of experience and hard work, plus healthy doses of natural talent, to some really beautiful dancing.
My daughter and I are therefore always sad when the season ends. This year, we decided to extend the season a little by indulging in the live show. We ended up having a lovely evening — and that’s despite a long drive, given that the show wasn’t being held anywhere near us.
The show’s format was surprisingly simple. The cast was relatively small. There were seven “name” professionals, three other professional dancers to fill out the numbers, and the host Alfonso Ribeiro, who was last season’s winner.
The set was simple: a back wall made up of large white squares that could flash different colors, two staircases leading down on either side of the wall, an elegant draped curtain at the back of the stage, and lots of lights, in many colors, that could strobe at will. The music came from a recording that was played too loud most of the time.
Ribeiro did a bit of shtick which, in its timing and pauses for laugh lines, betrayed his sitcom background. He was also more “black” than he showed himself to be during the DWTS season. I wonder how many others found it a bit disconcerting to watch him use mild Ebonics when, during the DWTS season, he often spoke as if he was winding down from a Shakespeare performance.
The show had really great professional dancing (waltz, paso doble, hip hop, freestyle, jive, etc.), live music, and talking. The live music came from Mark Ballas, whose father was a flamenco dancer and guitarist, and who is trying to shape a non-dancing career as a compose/singer, and from Val Chmerkovskiy, who turns out to be a very talented violinist.
Mark Ballas’ first song, which he performed with Dylan Chambers, a fellow-guitarist, didn’t work for me. It was a combination of howls, yowls, and almost tuneless, frantic guitar strumming. I despaired of him having a viable post-dancing career. Later in the show, though, Mark, Dylan, and Val performed a purely instrumental piece that was enjoyable. It was kind of gypsy fusion music and one could see that these guys will be able to make it when their backs and knees finally give out. Mark and Dylan than played a ballad, to which two of the pros danced, and it was quite lovely.
The talking part of the show was interesting too. Because the audience has a personal investment in the dancers thanks to the show, they want to hear from them. At various times throughout the evening, the dancers would come out in groups or individually to talk to the audience. Val and Kym Johnson, who is returning to the pro dancing after a hiatus as a judge for Australia’s DWTS, did the bulk of the talking, but everyone got some time in there.
Val was definitely the most amusing speaker. He’s a Russian Jew* from Brooklyn and he’s got the mordant, sarcastic wit one would expect from that background. He described Brooklyn as a place where swear words are “emotional punctuation”; explained that, thanks to his wonderful career, he’s finally forgiven his parents for making him, as a little kid in Brooklyn, learn violin and dancing; and told the audience that the real reason he always rips his shirt off isn’t to titillate the fans but is, instead, because he sweats a lot, pointing to drops of sweat festooning the stage as proof. He added that he’s encouraged in this mild exhibitionism by producers who want him to take off his shirt to help ratings. That must work, too, because I learned that that DWTS is a top-rated show.
I have to admit that almost the most fascinating part of the show was the audience. It was roughly 75% female, tilting to the 50 and over crowd. Coincidentally, while we were making our way to the theater, I had been telling my daughter about Tom Jones’ fans, who were famous for hurling underpants at the stage — something that became increasingly unnerving as the fans aged. Watching the audience response to Val and Mark, I got worried that, at any moment, we were going to see the granny panties flying through the air. It was a most enthusiastic, vocal, involved audience. The dancers had a lot of love heading their way.
And what about the dancing? Well, as I said, it was really great professional dancing and, to the dancer’s credit, there was lots of it. We saw Alfonso and Whitney reprise some of their best dances from the past season. Remember this one?
It opened the show, while this one — their winning freestyle — was the penultimate dance:
In between, it was all pros all the time, and one could really see that, no matter how good Alfonso is, he’s not a pro (all of whom are significantly younger than Alfsonso). When the pros danced, every movement was perfect from beginning to end, the speed was incredible, and the choreography was imaginative and fun. It was the kind of dancing that just makes you feel good to watch:
This was not a classy evening. Mr. Bookworm is an opera lover and couldn’t resist pointing out that he’s highbrow while I’m lowbrow. Well, lowbrow I may be, but that doesn’t change one whit how fun it was to spend an evening watching great dancing, listening to fun music, and getting a little insight into some of the stars behind a very enjoyable hit “getting it right” TV show.
* Apropos Val’s Jewishness, Sasha Farber is also a Russian Jew — and they’re both part of a trend in modern ballroom dancing.