The Enduring, Shiny Appeal of Dancing With the Stars

The show, after 10 years and 20 seasons, is as delightful as ever—not just as sequin-laden entertainment, but as a celebration of hard work.

“We made it!” Erin Andrews, the co-host of Dancing With the Stars, exclaimed Monday night. There was a slight note of surprise in her voice. The show—now entering its 20th season, and having given rise to a fitness DVD series, a companion book, and a nearly inevitable spinoff named Skating With the Stars—is one of those rare phenomena that manage to be simultaneously ahead of its time and behind it. Launched in 2005 as an American version of the British hit Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing With the Stars has always been something of an outlier within the genre of reality TV: more earnest, more self-aware, more charming, and more spray-tanned than its fellow shows combined.

DWTS, as its fans know it, hasn’t changed much in premise over its decade on the air: 12 celebrities (or, more often, “celebrities”) are paired with professional ballroom dancers. The pros teach the newbies how to dance; they choreograph routines and coordinate themes and costumes and otherwise prepare the stars for the physical and psychological demands that comes with performing a samba on live TV.

The show airs twice weekly. The Monday night episode, broadcast live, features the competition itself: the stars and their partners fox-trotting through routines and getting judgment from a panel of four dance experts. (Think American Idol, only with exhortations to stick one’s turns.) The Tuesday night episode, which also airs live, is known as the “results show.” It features polished performances from the show’s in-house dance troupe, but its main point is to inform the couples whether they will be moving on to another week of competition. (Eliminations are based on a combination of the judges’ scores and, as the show like to emphasize, “your votes, America.”) Both nights of DWTS are studded with mixed-genre dance performances, interviews with the celebrities and the pros, and behind-the-scenes presentations of the training the stars endure to prepare their routines for mass consumption.

All of this makes for a straightforward premise that belies a more complicated one. DWTS is easy to dismiss—all those sequins! All those spray-tans! All of them brought together in a studio whose design probably doubles as a glimpse into Richard Simmons’ soul!—but the show is much more, in the end, than a simple dance competition. Which I say, sure, partially to justify my own ongoing fandom of it. But I also say it because the show really does do something unique—not just for reality TV, but for TV in general: It celebrates the merits of good, old-fashioned hard work. The people on the show aren’t just working it; they’re also just plain working. “What I’m lacking in limbs,” the double amputee Noah Galloway said, solemnly, before competing last night, “I will make up for in determination and hard work.”

Last night’s show (among the stars this season: Patti LaBelle, Suzanne Somers, Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec, the Sideshow Bob-haired guy from LFMAO) began as most season openers will: with little montages depicting the stars’ introduction to their partners; with the stars awkwardly learning the basics of ballroom; with the quick establishment of the stars’ talents to be exploited (often: charisma! sometimes: good lines!) and problems to be overcome (usually: no natural dancing ability whatsoever!). All of this builds up to the performances themselves, all glittered skin and snapping limbs and slapped-on smiles, set to music both contemporary and not at all, and which the judges tend to greet with a mix of effusive praise (“You’ve expanded my idea of what dance can be,” a weepy Carrie Ann Inaba told Galloway last night) and sharp criticism. The scores last night were, as they always are in the season opener, relatively low. This is based on the assumption, head judge Len Goodman explained, that the stars—and the pairings along with them, as artistic and athletic units—will get better. “We want to see these couples,” he informed viewers last night, “to grow and go.”

This promise—the self-betterment that comes with time and hard work—is a crucial component of DWTS. And it makes it relatively unique among its peers. Among the skills-based reality shows—from Iron Chef to Top Chef, from Project Runway to American Idol to America’s Next Top Model—the skills are there, for the most part, from the beginning. Reality TV’s typical take on talent mostly involves taking a bunch of people who are at the top of their game and pitting them against each other. DWTS, though, takes the opposite tack. The competition is about tenacity as much as anything else; the skill here must be learned. And every participant, crucially, is starting from the same basic place. There’s something immensely appealing about seeing Super Bowl winners and Olympic athletes and pop stars and journalists and astronauts being told, for the first time, about the importance of “sharp legs.” There is also something gratifying about seeing education play out as entertainment. As Mark Ballas, son of ballroom legends Corky and Shirley Ballas, said of his latest protégé, 14-year-old Hunger Games star Willow Shields, last night: “I think she’s gonna be a great student.”

This focus on the potential of hard work, on the one hand, gives the show a moral grounding that makes it unusual (beyond the fact that it features regular explosions of glitter and confetti). One of the most common reasons the stars cite for participating in the show (besides paychecks, the need to revitalize troubled careers, etc.) is their ability to Inspire Through Dance. As Suzanne Somers put it last night, “I’m here to show women over 60 that age is just a number—and prove that blondes have more fun.” Patti LaBelle had a similar explanation. “I’m 70 years young,” the singer said in a sit-down segment. “And I wanted to do what so many people said I wouldn’t do.”

Work ethic also determines the taxonomies the show’s celebrities inevitably come to populate. There are the perfectionists who get frustrated when their routines don’t come out perfectly on the first try. (“I’m such a perfectionist that I put so much pressure on myself to do well,” Rumer Willis—daughter of Bruce and Demi, who were seated, very separately, in the audience last night—mourned.) There are the charmers who hope to get by on their charisma. (They never do.) There are the couples who have so much chemistry that they spur rumors of romance. There are also the couples who only barely disguise their animosity for each other.

The most successful couples, however, are inevitably the ones who recognize that ballroom dancing, despite its sequins and sassy heels, is a sport. Injuries are common on the show, as are the kind of mishaps that bring anticipation to each show. (Marie Osmond, infamously, fainted after one of her performances.) And for some celebrities, DWTS has doubled as a weight-loss show. Osmond slimmed down over the course of the show; show did Kelly Osbourne. Michael Sam, who is a free agent in the NFL after being cut from the Cowboys in October, said last night, “I’m doing Dancing With the Stars to get myself in shape for football.” The show’s format requires the dancers, immediately following their performances, to move to an on-floor interview with host Tom Bergeron; these interviews are usually conducted while they’re gasping for break, often with sweat breaking layers of pancake makeup. (Sometimes the stars will acknowledge the awkwardness: “Sorry, I’m out of breath!” a panting Rumer Willis told Bergeron last night.)

Added to all this is the fact that dancing, at this level, is extremely hard to do well. It is detailed and precise. It has rules. And while the judges have their fun with the whole thing—“it rang my bell, I’ll tell you,” Goodman told LaBelle after her foxtrot to “Lady Marmalade”—they also convey a respect for ballroom as an athletic enterprise. They talk about extensions and toe angles and the need to “really attack it.” Julianne Hough, a former pro on the show who recently became a judge, gushed to one contestant last night, “I loved your bevel.”

Things, of course, are not all athleticism and rule-monitoring. DWTS also embraces cheeriness and cheesiness. Its prize, the “Mirror Ball Trophy,” is an enormous disco ball. (This season, to celebrate its 10 years, the thing has been painted gold.) The show’s hosts often make jokes at each other’s expense. (When Goodman gave his “it rang my bell” critique to LaBelle last night, Bergeron quipped, without missing a beat: “And that’s a rusty bell.”) Last night, the judges, returning from a commercial break, did a kick line in celebration of Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin’s foxtrot to “New York, New York.” Later, they shimmied, in unison, to “Shake Your Tail Feather.” As Hough told a contestant, charitably, after a non-technically-adept performance: “You looked like you were having fun. And that’s what this competition is all about.”

It is also, however, about the idea that fun can actually be a function of hard work. Almost invariably, it’s the couples who are most nervous before their performances who end up seeming to have the best time on the dance floor. After Rumer Willis and her partner, Valentin Chmerkovskiy, danced last night’s highest-scoring dance of the evening, a graceful foxtrot, the actress and singer seemed almost surprised at the raves her performance received. Then again, not that surprised. As Willis said of herself and her fellow contestants, explaining a night full of dances that we weird and glittery and delightful: “We all worked so hard.”