Weird Science

Amber Riley, Derek Hough

Dancing With the Stars – “Week 1”

When I made the final decision to cover Dancing With the Stars, I knew I would be facing a myriad of obstacles: while I’ve enjoyed a few reality series in the past (Survivor, Project Runway, and Top Chef have all brought me pleasure at some point or another), I haven’t actively watched a reality series in six years, and I’ve never seen a single episode of Dancing With the Stars, or any of its other dance-competition brethren. Add that to my miniscule knowledge about dance, and I knew I would be in for a challenge.

While DWTS holds no hands from the outset of the season, diving in headfirst with a dance number to introduce the teams, and continuing from there at a near-breakneck pace, I had almost no problem following just what exactly was going on. I still have some questions and issues with the logistics (I’m especially torn over giving the teams three different dances to choose from each episode), but the basics are all here.

Since this is the season premiere, it was light on drama, instead giving us the broad strokes of our teams and their chemistry, both on and off the dance floor. And since I’m still figuring out just how to write about this thing, for this week (at least), we’ll be dropping in on each team, looking at both their training and their performances.

Brant Daugherty & Peta Murgatroyd (Cha-cha-cha)

Full disclosure: before checking Wikipedia just now, I had no idea what Brant Daugherty was famous for, but I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that he’s a cast member on Pretty Little Liars. Brant and Peta open their training video with a (relatively) obscene amount of flirting, and their chemistry never really develops past two attractive people being attracted to each other. Their performance–to “Blurred Lines”, no less–is unexceptional, and the ending pose, with Peta on her knees suggestively in front of Brant, made the whole thing much more unpleasant than it should have been. However, Brant does show confidence on the dance floor, and the team might be able to expand creatively outside of such a sexually charged style.

Leah Remini & Tony Dovolani (Foxtrot)

While never a fan of King of Queens, I’ve always appreciated Leah Remini as a successor to Rosanne Barr, despite being trapped in an era of television where that type of woman could never truly be a lead on a network sitcom. Leah has no dancing experience, and is hard on herself over the issues she faces with her physicality on the floor and in the public’s perception. However, Tony is very supportive in their training, and is confident in her abilities. Their performance is simple and relaxed, but charged with a subtle energy, and Tony works well with Leah’s strengths in the choreography to supplement technical abilities. While nothing groundbreaking, I hope this team can be a solid thread throughout the season.

Corbin Blue & Karina Smirnoff (Contemporary)

I’ll admit it: I’ve seen the first two High School Musical movies in full, so I was well aware of Corbin’s skills going in. Corbin and Karina both wanted to work together, and they immediately fall into an energetic back-and-forth. Corbin says he’s open to Karina’s “crazy ideas,” while Karina is amused that Corbin doesn’t push back against them. Their training video shows lots of falling, but it’s clear why once they’re on the floor. Their performance was one of the evening’s most animated, filled with lots of different ideas. It was almost too busy at times, but Corbin and Karina seem well-matched in both talent and enthusiasm, which is sure to make them a frontrunner for the season.

Jack Osborne & Cheryl Burke (Foxtrot)

Jack Osborne has been on a long road back from the lows he fell into during and after The Osbornes, and it seems to be culminating here on DWTS. Despite his multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2012, Jack is eager about being a part of the show. It’s clear that he’s inexperienced, but Cheryl is very direct with instructions, and their training video actually looks like a professional and amateur working together to achieve something better than where they started. Their performance is very upbeat, and the team makes a point of performing to the crowd, an unusual choice that pays off well. With some work, it’s not hard to imagine Jack and Cheryl being a surprise showstopper team later in the season.

Amber Riley & Derek Hough (Cha-cha-cha)

Like Leah Remini, Amber Riley is fully aware of the struggles facing her on DWTS. She also wants to make a point, that dancing’s not just for the skinny girls. As a child, she had to choose singing over dance, and is excited about the opportunity to finally explore the other avenue. She’s also worried she can’t take herself seriously enough to be successful. It’s a shocking amount of self-awareness for any reality show, and it’s a giant plus for Amber, especially in these early goings. But what makes it all work so beautifully is the performance. Derek’s choreography lets him do the heavy-lifting, but Amber’s subtle moves give the dance a depth of character. They smartly use Amber’s body to their advantage, Derek’s lithe frame bouncing around while Amber remains sultry, letting Derek orbit her in what becomes the episode’s most exhilarating performance. These two are easily one of my favorite teams already, and I’m excited to see what they can bring as the season goes.

Elizabeth Berkley Lauren & Valentin Chmerkovskiy (Contemporary)

Full disclosure: I was a huge fan of Saved by the Bell, especially Jesse Spano, so I am very excited to see what Elizabeth Berkley brings to this season of DWTS. She and Valentin are big fans of each other, which gives the team an easy chemistry. Elizabeth was a dancer as a child, but admits that she gave up dancing after Showgirls. Their performance seems overly busy for the song choice (John Lennon’s “Imagine”), but is technically stunning. The two both have a fluid style that matches their easy chemistry in training, and the choreography is smart and filled with interesting dichotomies. Hopefully, future song choices will better reflect the choreography (and I won’t pretend I’m not waiting on bated breath for an “I’m So Excited” routine), but the team are solid performers regardless.

Bill Nye & Tyne Stecklein (Cha-cha-cha)

Now this, this was my biggest draw to DWTS. I was a huge fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy as a kid, and have enjoyed growing into a fan of Bill Nye, the person, as an adult. Tyne is a new member of the professionals, and the chemistry between her and Bill is awkward at first. But Bill doesn’t waste time, as he already has partner dance experience, and encourages Tyne to push him. Their performance (to “Weird Science”!!!) is a fun, high energy number, with some of Bill’s trademark kookiness thrown in. They play well off the “beauty and the geek” trope that Bill references in their training video, and while Bill is still green, he does get a chance to show off some moves of his own. I’m already a fan of what these two are doing, and I can’t wait to see what they can do later in the season, if given the opportunity. (I’ll address my issues with the judges later, but for now, I’ll just say that all of the judge’s issues about this performance seemed to come from miscategorization, and if they had gone with contemporary instead, I imagine the scores and comments would be much kinder.)

Keyshawn Johnson & Sharna Burgess (Cha-cha-cha)

Despite having never seen DWTS before, I’m aware of the controversy about professional athletes on the show. But just looking at the training video for this team, I would never imagine a pro athlete like Keyshawn Johnson having an advantage. The tension between Keyshawn and Sharna is obvious from the beginning, when he says that ballroom dancing is too “feminine,” and continues throughout, with Keyshawn being very reluctant when Sharna wants to take charge. While training, Keyshawn is leaden, barely ever seeming to make an effort at the moves Sharna is trying to teach him. Their performance is soul-inspired, and while the colors and music were exciting, the routine itself was exceedingly bland, though Keyshawn does become more engaged than in the training video. I won’t be surprised if this team becomes a hit, but don’t count me among their fans.

Christina Milian & Mark Ballas (Contemporary)

I was a fan of the song when “AM to PM” was out, and was excited to see Christina Milian among the contestants on DWTS this season. While a long-time solo performer, Christina has never danced with a partner, and is worried about people’s expectations when she’s on the floor. Mark is supportive of Christina, and while she calls his choreography “unusual,” she stays open-minded, and the two have an understated chemistry that never betrays the pro-amateur dynamic, but is also never overbearing and uneasy. Their performance is the most experimental of the night, and is very emotionally charged. It’s clear this is Mark’s wheelhouse, as he takes the lead, but he still gives Christina a chance to show off her solo skills. With lesser choreography, this team might not stick out much, but if Mark puts together routines this interesting every week, I could see them sticking around for a while.

Bill Engvall & Emma Slater (Foxtrot)

Everything about this team feels decidedly middle-of-the-road, in a way very befitting Bill Engvall. Their training video doesn’t reveal much, except that Bill is worried what his friends will think and that this is Emma’s first year as a pro. Their performance is very safe, though Emma adds flair both in her moves and her costume. Bill can probably stay in the competition for a while on personality alone, but the unremarkable nature of this first performance isn’t promising.

Valerie Harper & Tristan MacManus (Foxtrot)

If there’s one strong narrative to this season of DWTS, my early money is on Valerie Harper’s journey. Using the show as a chance to attack her cancer, Valerie has history in dance, and is excited about performing again. Tristan is concerned at first, but comes to appreciate her as a partner quickly. The two have a fun chemistry, and Valerie’s energy is palpable at all times. Their performance has a classy, old-fashioned vibe, which means that there’s nothing flashy in the moves, but a smart costuming choice in Valerie’s dress and Tristan’s choice to use the length of the stage to the fullest elevate the simple moves to a higher level. I can’t imagine a scenario where this team is out soon, and I look forward to seeing more.

Nicole Polizzi & Sasha Farber (Cha-cha-cha)

Despite having never watched Jersey Shore, I was interested to see what the infamous Snooki would bring to DWTS. Aside from a distance from her nickname, Nicole also claims a newfound maturity that she found after becoming a mother. She and Sasha are happy to be working together because they’re both physically small people, though I must admit that to see Nicole working with a much taller partner could’ve made for some interesting television. It’s clear Nicole knows how to play for the cameras, but as she insists during the training video, this isn’t the wild child Snooki anymore. Their performance is high energy and very sensual, and while it seemed to be just a handful of moves, the way those moves were repeated and rearranged made for an interesting routine. Sasha even lets Nicole take the spotlight at one point, a wise choice that lets her insert some character into the performance.

So, we’ve met the teams, but what about the judges? I’ll be upfront: I don’t know who these judges are, and frankly, I found that most of their input added almost nothing to any performance. Very rarely was there any constructive criticism, and in some cases (such as Bill Nye & Tyne), I felt the missed the point entirely. It seems that Carrie Ann Inaba is the only judge really open to personality in the routines, with Len Goodman and Bruno Tinolli praising tradition and drama, respectively. I’m not sure how I’ll deal with them or their scores going forward, but for now, I don’t feel compelled to show them much attention.

And so I begin my great adventure into Dancing With the Stars. I really hope those of you reading will be patient with me while I find my footing and figure out just how to talk about this thing. For now, consider me solidly invested, and I look forward to the drama ramping up as the teams dwindle down.

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