Emmitt Smith, Undefeated By Satin Shirts

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

The Wednesday night victory of Super Bowl champion Emmitt Smith on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" is a testament to the former football player's ability to make sleeveless green satin shirts, sparkly gold vests and gilded dance shoes look macho. The difficulty of that achievement should not be underestimated.

The show's contestants devoted extensive rehearsal time to learning various ballroom techniques. All the while, the participants were subjected to some of the most cornball costumes on prime-time television. (Putting actor Joey Lawrence in a navy sailor suit was an unpardonable offense.) To say that the wardrobe was a homage to Las Vegas does a disservice to that city, which despite an abundance of luxury hotels and designer boutiques still has a tendency to define glamour as directly proportional to the number of sequins glued onto a frock.

The dancing women -- both the amateurs and the professionals -- often performed wearing one-armed dresses that were not so much sexy as disconcertingly lopsided. The problems caused by the missing sleeves were exacerbated by cut-out sides, plunging backs and extreme decolletage. The costumes often looked as though someone had been gnawing on them backstage. For the women, the goal of their wardrobe appeared to be to reveal as much thigh, midriff and bosom as possible before a brass pole and acrylic heels became apt accessories.

For the men, satin was the official fabric of "Dancing With the Stars." Everything they wore looked highly flammable. The men did not appear to be dressed with an eye toward sex appeal but rather humiliation. Was satin their cross to bear while the women had to endure having their faces painted with so much makeup they aged 20 years between the rehearsal studio and the stage?

The average man should never have to wear a satin shirt. It demands too much of him. (It is a garment best left to professionals: models, stylists, rock stars.) If the shirt is loose and full, it makes a gentleman look as though he is wearing a blouse. If a man is going to wear a blouse, he must own its billowing, feminine silhouette. He must swagger. He must reach deep down inside himself to find every bit of he-man confidence. He must have so much testosterone coursing through him that it flies from his body like sweat when he dances. Rare is the man who sprays testosterone like spittle.

Careful, though. Too much swagger makes a man look like a polyester pimp. Huggy Bear on the dance floor? Not a way to accumulate viewer votes.

If the satin shirt is fitted, a man resembles an extra from "Zoolander." He becomes a caricature of a male model. He's judged a primper and the sort of fellow who would hog a full-length mirror, frost his tips and be unable to resist a coat of clear gloss with his manicure when a subdued buffing would do. A tight satin shirt makes one wonder if the guy is wearing breakaway pants and a rhinestone G-string.

This is the aesthetic minefield Smith had to navigate.

Joey Lawrence and Edyta Sliwinska were costume victims, with Lawrence foolishly wearing a Navy outfit and Sliwinska, a dress with a back that was pretty nonexistent.
Joey Lawrence and Edyta Sliwinska were costume victims, with Lawrence foolishly wearing a Navy outfit and Sliwinska, a dress with a back that was pretty nonexistent.(Adam Larkey - ABC)
All too often Smith had to walk onto the dance floor, with his partner Cheryl Burke, in black trousers and a jewel-toned satin shirt. For the love of Liberace, Siegfried & Roy and all the Chippendale dancers, how did Smith make it work?

The biceps helped. They are the size of cantaloupes. And toward the end of the competition Smith took to wearing sleeveless shirts. A little satin ribbon would be tied around his arms as though they were miniature oak trees. He would swivel his hips, not in that technically perfect ballroom way, but as if he were listening to his own personal soundtrack. It was playing Barry White.

Smith also had the style legacy of men such as Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Deion Sanders and a significant portion of the NBA to lean on. They served as subconscious reminders -- to himself, to the viewer -- that black men seem to have more leeway to wear flamboyant shapes and pretty shades of satin and silk without being perceived as any less masculine.

Contestant Jerry Springer, with Kym Johnson, took his steps and  satin in good humor at least.
Contestant Jerry Springer, with Kym Johnson, took his steps and satin in good humor at least.(James Sorenson - ABC)
All of the contestants had challenges. The most significant, however, was winning over the audience. Jerry Springer did it for a while with good humor. Mario Lopez had the viewers' affection through the finals thanks to technique and dimples. Joey Lawrence came on as an earnest hard worker.

Smith offered an especially graceful waltz and a shoulder-shaking mambo over the course of the competition. And he had that charismatic smile as well as the right balance of cool understatement and charm. He was a big man who was light on his feet. He was the athlete whose self-possessed body language overcame the worst that fashion had to offer. He survived MC Hammer pants. He machismo-ed his way through gold dance shoes. And he managed to swagger just enough in the face of raspberry-colored satin.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company