Like a lot of programs America has become obsessed with – Trading Spaces, American Idol, and What Not To Wear – Dancing With The Stars came to us from our friends across the pond in England. Following the popularity of mainstream dance movies like Shall We Dance? and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Dancing With The Stars is a bonafide hit, with 15 million viewers last week (the number one watched show).
But why? What is it about C-list stars and unknown professional dancers (at least to people not on the ballroom circuit) that compels people not only to watch but to vote on the winner? And what effect will it have on dancing in America?
If you haven’t flipped on the boob tube on a Wednesday night lately, you might not know that ABC’s Dancing With The Stars pairs a half dozen stars with professional ballroom dancers, gives them five weeks to prepare, and then puts them in front of three professional judges. Each week the couples perform a different dance, and one couple is voted off based on a combination of judges’ scores and audience votes.
It’s a simple concept, really, but the results are anything but simple.
The show features all the elements the American public is clamoring for in a TV show these days – nice looking people, an element of realism (the show is live), some kind of competition, and a smidge of public humiliation. We haven’t seen dance shows on TV for a long while. Remember Dance Fever? American television needed something like this show. It’s fun, it’s beautiful to watch, and it’s good clean entertainment.
The stars are not A-listers, but they’re people we are at least interested in. They’re a nice mix of ages and backgrounds, too, from soap stars (Kelly Monaco from General Hospital) to former reality show participants (Trista Sutter, former Bachelorette). I can’t think of anybody who wasn’t curious about what heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield (?!) was going to do in a tux on a ballroom floor. Women my age will remember screaming deliriously at every New Kids on The Block song on the radio, so it’s fun to see Joey McIntyre all grown up. These stars are accessible – not too popular, but not totally obscure either.
Audiences are drawn to the mix of glamour and athleticism of the show as well. They’re wearing real ballroom clothing, which means some showy but skimpy dresses for the ladies and lots of black and spandex for the gentlemen. But it’s not all sequins and satin and twirling on your toes. Ballroom dancing is not a sissy sport. It’s physically demanding. In an age where 60% of American adults are overweight, it’s nice to see a TV program that has real people participating in a physical sport like this.
America is just gaga over reality shows these days – and Dancing counts as a reality show because it’s real people on live TV. But it offers a welcomed respite from other reality programs featuring people with mouthfuls of all manner of squirmy, slimy atrocities, or bungee jumping off bridges, and generally being pretty awful to each other. Dancing is reality done old-school, a la Solid Gold, Dance Fever, The Lawrence Welk Show, Star Search.
Unscripted television scratches that itch we have to see what other people are doing and how well they’re doing it. We’re all loathe to admit it, but Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½fess up, kids – we love to watch other people’s humiliation! That said, we also love to rejoice with our chosen favorites. In the case of Dancing With The Stars, we really wanted Evander Holyfield to do well, but we weren’t surprised to see he’s from the Frankenstein School Of Dancing – lots of stiff, heavy clomping. He’s a boxer and nobody faults him for that. My point is that it was fun to watch him try and we felt bad when he was kicked off the show.
What is this going to do for dancing in America? The show originated in Britain, where people have different attitudes about ballroom dancing than us Yankees do. In Europe, ballroom dancing is much more popular. People begin dancing careers as children and progress through adulthood. Folks in the US don’t typically begin dancing until they’re well into adulthood. Americans think of ballroom as stuffy and boring. I hate to point my dance shoe at anybody, but American men see ballroom as a sport for old ladies and gay guys, not “real” men who like football and Nascar. But let me tell you – chicks dig guys who can dance, in case you were wondering.
Maybe shows like Dancing With The Stars will entice people to take part in ballroom, even if it’s just a group class here or there. If these people can learn to dance in just a few weeks, imagine what you can do with a couple lessons. Ballroom is not only good exercise, it’s a good way to meet people. It’s a nice change to see this kind of reality show, too. Let’s hope it sticks around.
As for me, I’m off to brush up on my Cha-Cha.