Dancing with the Stars 8: Are they asking too much of the celebs?

March 6, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Posted in ballroom dance, Dancing with the Stars, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Hey Everyone,

Something has been nagging at the back of my mind since I heard about the withdrawal of Jewel and Nancy O’Dell yesterday,and I thought it merited some discussion. Is the show asking too much of the celebrities that join Dancing with the Stars? Specifically, is the 4 week training period putting too much pressure on any contestant that wants to win?

In season 1, we don’t know how long before the show began airing that the contestants were allowed to start training because ABC did not know they had a hit on their hands. Dancing with the Stars was originally meant to be a one time summer filler show, and people fell in love with the concept. In seasons 2-3, contestants had 6 weeks to learn one dance routine, and fundamentals for others as their pros had time to teach them. Starting with season 4, however, that window for instruction was cut to 4 weeks, and the competition among the contestants has intensified every year. No one wants to go out on the floor looking less than their best, and if there are 2 fewer weeks to learn the same amount of ballroom dance steps, then it stands to reason that the practice hours would have to get longer to cover the material. In their drive to win, are contestants now practicing too many hours because they don’t have enough time?

Following this theory, we spoke with Jerry Bowman and Tonya Plank and asked what the usual time frame is with a pro/am couple to learn a dance for a competition. Jerry is an active pro/am competitor, and Tonya has experience there as well as blogging about ballroom dance at Swan Lake Samba Girl. As with the show, the amount of time a student puts in is a choice. Keep in mind that with an amateur wanting to try for a trophy, they have had as much time as they wanted to learn the fundamentals, working up to the competition level.

Tonya made the following comments when we talked about what level the celebs would likely be at and how this works in the ballroom world:

I guess after four weeks of full-time training, they’d
be at the open gold level (since that’s what the show is aiming for —
they don’t want them doing basics, even on the first night, because
basics are really boring to watch). That is the highest level and the
level that the average beginner honestly would be at after about two
years — at least two years, probably three or four for most people. I
danced for four years and I never competed in open gold. I just never
felt ready.
I mean, for the average serious beginner, you’d probably take two
hours of intense private lessons per week, then about 10-15 hours of
less intense, more social-dance-oriented group classes, and about
three or four hours a week on your own. So, they are basically
spending about a quarter of the time each day training that these DWTS
competitors are.
And, also, one thing I forgot: the vast majority of people specialize
in either Latin or Standard — not both! So, they are only training in
one set of dances, half of what these competitors are training in! If
you’re going to compete in both Standard and Latin (which very few
people do), then double the number of years required for everything I
just said! I really don’t know how they do it.

When Jerry Bowman and I discussed this, here were his thoughts. Keep in mind that Jerry has a competition coming up in a week, and has competed in 2 others with the Fred Astaire program. Jerry dances with the Fred Astaire in Memphis, Tennessee.

…we have two kinds of dance routines – closed and open. Most of the pro/am dancers dance in the closed routines. This means that they are basically non-choreographed routines that simply use the patterns and steps the student is supposed to have learned up to that point in time from the FADS training syllabus. Most students and their teacher will start about a month or so before the comp and pick out which of the patterns they want to use in the comp and just work the heck out of those to really make them clean and sharp. Then the dancing is all ad-hoc, the male simply leading the female in the patterns they have agreed to. So it really more simulates a social dancing environment, just with really well rehearsed elements and patterns.

The open routines are ones that are choreographed. There are two types of these. Those that are danced with a group like normal. This is what you most often see when you watch the TV comps. We usually spend about 10 sessions on an open routine danced this way. Each session is 45 minutes. Now, me personally, I will spend that much more time on my own just working the routine. Not all the students do that.

The other type of open routine is called a showcase routine. This is danced with just you and the pro taking the whole floor and being judged on a graded scale with judges comments. This is a choreographed routine that usually has been put together for an exhibition show hosted by the local studio. It then gives an opportunity for the student and teacher to get feedback on the routine. Because these are done for a exhibition/recital type program and are usually more involved then about 20 sessions are used to prepare the routine.

After talking with Tonya and Jerry, I have to say that I think it is very likely that the celebs are over training in their desire to win, and show producer Conrad Green made such comments to People magazine. Jerry also pointed out that because ballroom dance is much more physical than people realize, there is a very good chance that any existing ailments or old injuries could easily flare up again.

So how does the show handle the training schedule from here? Should they go back to the 6 week timetable? Limit the number of hours a couple can dedicate to practice? Simply line up alternates in case of injury? There are a number of solutions, if you produced the show, what would you do? Leave us your comments below, and we hope you will join us at Ballroom Dance Channel Social to discuss the show. For a dance fix over the weekend, why not give our lessons a try? With the All Access Pass, you can try our lessons at your pace for less than $10 a month.

Keep Dancing,
Ballroom Dance Channel

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  1. As was pointed out, most dancers take years to build a strong foundation for competing or high-level performance in dance (ballroom or otherwise). Skipping over these foundational years, is a bit like teaching to a test. Inevitably, important things are neglected in an effort to learn what is needed for the final product. In dance, this means injuries.

    Although in a format like DWTS it may not do away with injuries altogether, allowing the stars of this show more time in their preparation could certainly reduce the number or extent of the injuries sustained. Because the stars may not know they’re overdoing it until too late, because their instructors/choreographers/partners may also have incentive to push the stars beyond their limit (not that they would intentionally put them in harms way, but in such a competitive environment it happens), perhaps the show needs to provide closer monitoring of the physical health of the dancers (evaluations or sessions with a physiotherapist, perhaps) so that each individual and pair can have better awareness of the star’s limitations and potential for injury throughout the process.


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