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Vito Is On Board For Salsa

By Tracee Hamilton
Saturday, September 19, 2009

It might be the high-waisted salsa outfit. Or the plaid suit he'll wear while doing the fox trot. Or maybe it's just the fact that he'll be doing the fox trot.

Whatever. Louie Vito knows, entering Monday night's premiere of "Dancing With the Stars," that he will be mocked by his friends and colleagues on the U.S. snowboarding team -- and possibly by millions of others watching the ABC reality show. He just doesn't care.

"I wear pretty big clothes normally and you're going to see me in, like, sleeveless, tight salsa get-ups with my pants really high or like a suit and tie and things like that," Vito said. "So obviously it's going to be pretty humorous to a lot of people, but like I said, I don't care if people watch as long as they vote. That's all I care about."

To understand just how brave Vito is, you must first understand that snowboarding is the ultimate hip sport. Snowboarders are the kids the cool kids wish they could hang out with. By virtue of not caring whether they are cool, they are uber-cool. Snowboarders actually criticize other snowboarders who eschew living in their cars for sponsorship deals with the Man -- deals for which athletes in less popular winter sports would cheerfully dance naked on national television.

Other athletes, of course, have appeared on "DWTS," as it's known to its devoted followers, of which I am not one. Michael Irvin is among the 16 contestants in this fall's show -- but Michael Irvin doesn't have to go straight from performing the rumba in a puffy shirt to the Dallas Cowboys' locker room. Boxer Floyd Mayweather -- Vito's personal favorite among past contestants -- doesn't play a team sport. Besides, would you make fun of Floyd Mayweather? Once, perhaps. Not twice. Apolo Anton Ohno won the competition, but speedskaters compete in skin-tight suits anyway; anything he wore on "DWTS" would look like a Marc Jacobs original by comparison.

None of these athletes is making the kind of leap Vito is. Boxers, football players, speedskaters -- their sports all allow them to move their feet. Vito's are usually strapped to a board. Most professional athletes range from well-groomed to fashion plate. Vito . . . doesn't fall anywhere on that scale. He's a slight kid, with straggly hair that, the morning we talked, had been styled by the previous night's pillow. Asked if he would undergo the ministrations of a beautician, Vito laughed and said: "I actually did have a haircut already. You guys can't tell?"

Well, no. But Vito doesn't intend to let the show turn him into something he's not. He'll wear the "little Latin get-up," as he calls it. But he won't cut his hair. He won't let them get near him with the spray-tan hose. And he won't take off his favorite diamond ring, the one on his right hand that he wears even when boarding.

"I'm a snowboarder," he said. "I'm supposed to be a snowboarder on the show. This is who I am, and this is what I'm going to portray on TV."

He will make a little money -- a violation of the basic tenet of snowboarding -- and give himself some exposure. He admits he might like an entertainment career when he can no longer drop it like it's hot, as the snowboarders say. (At least I think that's what they say.)

Vito also sees the show as a way to give his sport more exposure: The day after he was announced as a "DWTS" competitor, his name got 13 million hits on Google. Snowboarding was an X Games favorite long before being added to the normally staid Olympic program for the 1998 Games in Nagano. Vito hopes to earn a trip to Vancouver in February with his double corks -- that's corkscrews -- and a new move he calls the Screwy Louie ("Be on the lookout for that"). He's won the overall Grand Prix title two years in a row, and that is the Olympic qualifier this year, so he likes his chances for 2010 and says it means more to him this time around.

"The last Olympics, I was young," the grizzled 21-year-old said, "and it was sweet if I made it. if I didn't, it wasn't a big deal."

He feels much the same about "DWTS." He calls his assigned partner Chelsie Hightower, a 20-year-old from Utah -- where Vito, an Ohio native, now lives -- the best dancer on the show but admits she has her work cut out for her.

"I had zero ballroom dancing experience," Vito said of his life before he joined the show Aug. 21. "I do the wrong step, trip over her foot, stumble and lose my balance, thinking about steps, thinking about posture, thinking about what I'm doing next, thinking about how my hand is [positioned]. There are so many things you have to worry about."

He can't name his most difficult dance thus far because they've all been difficult, in different ways.

"With the salsa I have to learn how to roll my hips around" -- here he demonstrates, sort of -- "and do a little booty shakin'. And then the fox trot, you've gotta be smooth with the rise and fall and keep your posture up."

Although he admits dancing is helping him get in shape for the snowboarding season, Vito rejects the notion that anything about ballroom dancing will help him in snowboarding, mainly because of the posture issue.

"In snowboarding I'm hunched over; I'm allowed to do whatever I want," he said. "In fox trot you've got to have your shoulders back, your head up, little things like that that you don't have to think about that's really hard."

Vito won't be the first or last "DWTS" contestant to sport tattoos, although I'm guessing Tom DeLay and Donny Osmond, two of this year's competitors, won't be among that group. (Yes, that Tom DeLay and that Donny Osmond. I know. Take a moment.) Vito has two, both on his left arm: "Vito family," in Italian, on the inside of his bicep, and St. Christopher, which covers the entire inside of his lower arm. He wears a double ring on the ring and middle fingers of his left hand, white gold covered in diamonds. He won't wear that one on the show.

If he does well on "DWTS" -- or even if he doesn't -- he might reward himself with some jewelry. "That's my thing, white gold," he said. And if he does well, he'll largely have Hightower to thank. Vito said that, when the competition is over, he would like to switch places with Hightower and teach her his sport.

"I would love to do that," he said. "There's plenty of times where I just can't understand why I can't get it. She's telling me what to do; she's the boss, I have to listen to her. I'd like to take her into my element and then me tell her what to do. Snowboarding is a little less formal, so it's probably going to be a little more relaxed. But I'd definitely like to take her into my world and show her what I do on a daily basis."

But first comes the dancing, beginning Monday night at 8 p.m. So listen, flip channels during the "Monday Night Football" commercials, or use the DVR -- my weapon of choice, to ensure I never have to see Tom DeLay in a skin-tight anything -- and check out Louie Vito. One way or another, he'll put on a show.

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