Last week, for example, the show’s theme was Disney Villains, and with impressive panache Rigsby carried off a Gaston get-up from “Beauty and the Beast,” complete with pompous wig and frock coat. He owned the character, if not the Viennese waltz. Rigsby delivered a whirling sense of speed — you could almost feel the wind as he and Burke whipped past the cameras — but he smudged the footwork and had trouble synchronizing his body with hers.
In Monday night’s bouncy quickstep, Rigsby matched Burke’s movements more closely, and though his steps still lacked crispness, he was light on his feet and never betrayed a blink of fatigue. Still, as he’s made clear since the season began, his performances are quite solidly basic. They ride on power, charisma and an ability to follow choreography. No surprises. Entirely predictable.
Many athletes have been cast on DWTS over its 30 seasons, but Rigsby was a dancer before he became a power-pedaler, so as we’d expect, he possesses more than a fitness enthusiast’s forceful, muscular motion. He’s swift and agile. He’s also musical, and can hit the beat drops and coordinate his limbs and gestures into a rhythmic, full-body response.
It’s telling, though, that he doesn’t convey much of a bond with Burke.
“If you closed the gap,” judge Carrie Ann Inaba told him Monday night, noting the distance between the pair in their performance, “we’d feel more connection.”
Her comment echoed a problem with his waltz: the visual, kinetic and emotional gap between him and his partner. A less-than-two-minute dance in an elaborate costume may not reveal much about a person, but it can communicate basic tendencies. And what Rigsby’s dances tell us so far is that he’s essentially a soloist. What he brings to DWTS is the entertaining, sympathetic personality he has cultivated on Peloton, where he is best friend and fantasy hunk for hundreds of thousands of strangers. This man-of-the-people quality is apparent on the dance floor, where Rigsby’s warm outgoingness to an unseen TV audience is palpable. But on the show, as in his Peloton career, for the most part his relationship is with the camera.
What we crave in a dance performance is to witness and vicariously experience a human connection, whether on DWTS or at a ballet, wedding or bar mitzvah. Rigsby isn’t yet expert in conveying this, and without it, he’s not as interesting as he could be.
He has only to look around the ballroom, though, for excellent examples of connection. Among them: Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Suni Lee, so relaxed and at ease as she winds herself around partner Sasha Farber, seeming to float in his arms.
Then there’s the electrifying chemistry between country singer Jimmie Allen and his partner, Emma Slater. He often catches air as he glides alongside her, skimming the stage with a happiness too great for gravity.
The most interesting and moving pair are Jojo Siwa, the dancer, singer and YouTube star, and her pro partner, Jenna Johnson. Last night they did the unimaginable — raised a DWTS number to the level of art. They performed a fox trot to “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Reprise)” from “Grease.” (It was “Grease” night. So many black leather jackets, so much pink.) Their dancing earned perfect 10s from the judges, and rightly so. It was technically impeccable: Their arms firmly shaped but light, and their feet carefully, weightlessly placed. A unified impulse guided them, a shared understanding of their characters, the choreography and the music. They heard the song the same way and toyed with it, slowing a sequence of steps, for instance, to underscore its poignancy.
This fox trot was an essay on enduring female friendship, with the balance of power shuttling seamlessly between the two women. It was a performance that, despite the spotlights and spinning cameras, felt like a moment of intimacy, confessional and whispered. This pair, the first same-sex dance partnership in the show’s history, has revealed something new: If you jettison the stereotypes, the expressive potential of ballroom dance is boundless. You know the stereotypes I mean — the gallant workhorse of a man and the sexualized, acrobatic woman.
Freed from those roles, the dancers can build a more authentic relationship. Something they believe in. They can explore new meanings. And we watch the formal steps and lifts anew, we glimpse something real in the dancers’ eyes. The predictable is gone.