As a professional competitive ballroom dancer, I’m often asked what I think of the television show “Dancing With The Stars,” which starts its new season on September 20. The show isn’t really about dancing, I say; it’s about teaching. And what the celebrity students are learning isn’t really the cha-cha, rumba, and waltz, since most of them will forget the steps once the show is over anyway. What they are really learning is how to be responsible.
That may sound like a strange word to apply to a glitzy reality series. But ballroom dancing is a great test of character. Just think about why the show is so popular: We get to see celebrities for who they really are as they struggle to learn complex dance routines in just one week. Often it’s not a pretty sight. Last season, the biggest train wrecks were octuplet mom Kate Gosselin, soap-opera star Aiden Turner, and Jake Pavelka of “The Bachelor,” who were all defensive, irritable, bossy, whiny, and refused to admit their own failures. Instead, they blamed their teachers. Some angrily walked off the set.
It’s a dynamic I’m very familiar with. Like most competitive dancers, I also teach. “Dancing With The Stars” is a Hollywood version of a standard ballroom event, the “pro/am” contest that pairs professionals with amateurs. After entering many such competitions over the years, I know how difficult the process can be: Students feel awkward trying to make their bodies move in unfamiliar ways and often take their frustrations out on the teacher, who can become impatient and sarcastic, forgetting what it feels like to be a beginner. And when the amateur becomes romantically involved with the professional— as both NFL star Chad Ochocinco and TV sports reporter Erin Andrews did with their partners last season— the situation can become even more combustible (though the lovers’ quarrels make for great TV).
There is a way out, however. The solution lies in taking charge of yourself instead of blaming your partner— and what’s true on the dance floor also holds in life. The first question ballroom dancers face is, “Who’s in charge?” Both men and women often start out with the assumption that the man must “lead” the woman. Not true. The man simply initiates the step. The woman must know how to perform her part properly so she doesn’t look like a rag doll being dragged across the floor (yes, Kate Gosselin, I’m talking about you).
Meanwhile, if the man hasn’t learned his steps, the woman often has no choice but to “back lead,” which means pulling him across the floor while smiling sweetly and trying to make it seem that he’s the one in charge. No matter how well the couple tries to cover up, it’s always pretty obvious what’s going on.
The best path to a harmonious relationship is to forget about dominance and submission. Instead, you must thoroughly learn and practice your own steps so you have something to give your partner. Doing so also allows you to be true to the technique and character of the dance itself. Whether you are performing a slow, sensuous rumba or an energetic, high-stepping jive, you aren’t just dancing: you are inheriting a tradition. One of the great privileges of becoming a teacher is the feeling of passing along that tradition to the next generation.
When all these obligations are met—to yourself, your partner, and to the dance itself—magic happens. This is how I feel with my partner, Werner Figar, who never makes excuses for his own mistakes and shares with me a highly disciplined work ethic that we each inherited from our parents. The result is pure ecstasy on the dance floor.
That’s a feeling I want my teenage students to achieve. They came to me from Pierre Dulaine’s Dancing Classrooms program in New York City (made famous by the film “Mad Hot Ballroom”). Like most adolescent boys and girls, my students would much rather fool around than study, so I always stress the importance of showing up on time, dressing properly, paying attention, taking notes, and practicing in one’s free time. Some will keep dancing and competing in college and beyond. But even if they don’t, I want them to learn that to be successful in anything, one must be responsible— and watching famous people struggle with all the same problems on live television is a great way to learn that lesson in a fun, pop-culture way.
Of course, seeing celebrities act like spoiled children is part of the appeal of “Dancing With The Stars”—and why it’s all the more rewarding when they finally see the light. Last season, after barking at his teacher early, Pavelka showed up two weeks later with a T-shirt that said, “Turn Up, Keep Up, Shut Up.” Gosselin looked inward to find a solution to her problems, finally admitting tearfully, “I don’t believe in myself.” And Turner stopped threatening to walk out and got down to work. As soon as they dropped their guard, they all began turning in far more competent, emotionally rich performances.
None of them won the competition; they were all voted off the show by Week 6. But the irony of being a competitive dancer is realizing that winning is never really the point. We all want to win—most of us are driven by a fierce competitive streak—but we also know that, win or lose, we are better people for having gone through the humbling process of trying to perfect an art form that can never really be perfected. Along the way, we have learned not only about responsibility, but what comes from achieving it: The inexpressible freedom and joy of moving through space in harmony with another human being.
Tatiana Keegan, who won the U.S. Ballroom Championship with Tony Dovolani of “Dancing With The Stars,” will be competing in the International Latin World Championship in Germany with her partner Werner Figar in November. She also writes the Ballroom blog for The Faster Times online newspaper.