Keeping the Stars on Their Toes

By Kathy Blumenstock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

They've quick-stepped and cha-cha'd for nine weeks in lavish costumes and detailed production numbers. They've dropped pounds, gained confidence and drawn viewers' votes -- or not. Twelve celebrities began the fifth season of "Dancing With the Stars" in September, and on Tuesday one will become the latest winner on the show that has turned ballroom dancing into can't-miss TV.

What prompts millions to watch the waltzing?

"It's a combination of a great sporting event and beautiful, glamorous, all-time family entertainment," said Bruno Tonioli, one of three judges, all former dancers, who grade the performers on their footwork. "Every dance number has the same warm, embracing feeling of those classic Hollywood movies, and people love that."

Hosted by Tom Bergeron and Samantha Harris, the show pairs celebrities with professional dancers who coach them in dance floor basics. It began as a surprise summertime hit in 2005, and the dance partners' weekly performances of new routines for studio and TV audiences have brought consistently high ratings for ABC. Now a regular-season staple, the show has featured an eclectic mix of rap stars, athletes, political commentators, actors, singers and, yes, Jerry Springer -- all newbies in the realm of ballroom dancing.

Judge Carrie Ann Inaba said the participants need a combination of qualities to succeed.

"You don't have to start out as a fantastic dancer," she said. "It's all about giving your heart and soul to learning to dance."

Inaba, a longtime choreographer who will team up with Tonioli for a new dance competition show on ABC slated for January, said the most successful competitors are "people who are dedicated and make an incredible transformation. . . . What really gets the audience to vote for you is that 'X-factor.' People root for people who are genuine."

Judge Len Goodman agreed that a contestant stands the best chance to win if it's "somebody who appeals to the judges and the viewers, for whatever reason -- for their uphill battle, or their celebrity, or the way we see them grow."

He said the participants are nervous the first week but improve from there. Even career entertainers accustomed to the spotlight "can't believe how scared they are," Goodman said. "Then they get used to the show, and you can see they get more coordinated. They realize what is necessary to succeed."

Goodman and Tonioli are co-judges on the British version of the show, which Goodman likened to a tea party -- "no standing ovations, just polite clapping." While the judges offer pointers, and often pointed criticism, Tonioli said when he's watching the dancers, he feels as though he's part of the audience.

"Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse made [dancing] look easy and natural, as if they were living every performance," he said. "We are not there to humiliate the celebrities, but we're very passionate about wanting them to do better. And the response from the audience is immediate. There is no 'Take 2,' there is just this kind of adrenaline flying."

Tonioli said athletes have an advantage because "they are used to taking criticism. They never say, 'Oh, I'm no good'; they say, 'What can I do to make it better?'"

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