Magazine article The New Yorker

Mambo!

Magazine article The New Yorker

Mambo!

Article excerpt

"Dancing with the Stars" is back, for its sixth season. The women have dusted off their sequinned bras, the men have reassumed their matador poses, and the whole big diamante cheese ball is rolling down the highway again, into your living room. Professional ballroom dancing is an oddity, because for the most part it is done not in theatres but at competitions. Therefore, every millisecond of phrasing, every chin tilt and fanny wag, has been decided upon beforehand and rehearsed for days on end. The resulting artificiality is compounded by ballroom's unashamedly retro character. What do we know, today, of ballrooms? Is there one in your neighborhood?

Nevertheless, many people adore ballroom dancing--"Dancing with the Stars" has more than twenty million viewers--and its passe-ness is probably part of its appeal. The form grew up in England during the First World War, a time, we know, when old manners were being discarded, to the grief of many. Ballroom, however weirdly, restored the lost treasures--romance, glamour, a world of ladies and gentlemen. The U.K., forever after, has been the capital of ballroom. In 1949, the BBC launched a show, "Come Dancing," which lasted for almost fifty years, and when it was finally cancelled, there must have been protests, because a few years later the BBC came up with "Strictly Come Dancing," which is still running. "Dancing with the Stars" is the American edition of that program.

But "Dancing with the Stars," like "Strictly Come Dancing," is different from the standard ballroom contest. Only half the competitors are real dancers. Their partners are celebrities, usually from sports or entertainment. This gives the television audience the pleasure of looking at stars--and more. The stars are seen under duress, competing in a realm where they have no skill. They have to sweat through rehearsals, then go out on live TV and do what they can, then stand in front of a panel of judges to be told what is wrong with them, and then get thrown out or not. In other words, "Dancing with the Stars" is a reality show, with all the sadism and sentimentality endemic to the genre.

The new season kicked off last month with twelve stars: the comedian and magician Penn Jillette; the tennis champion Monica Seles; the rhythm-and-blues singer Mario; Jason Taylor, the Miami Dolphins' defensive end; Kristi Yamaguchi, the gold-medal figure skater; Priscilla Presley, who appeared in the "Naked Gun" films (but who, as she herself pointed out, is best known for having been the wife of Elvis); and various other actors--Marissa Jaret Winokur, Shannon Elizabeth, Steve Guttenberg, Marlee Matlin, Adam Carolla, and Cristian de la Fuente. If you don't recognize some of these names, don't feel bad. Most of the people who appear on "Dancing with the Stars" are not currently big stars. They are medium-level stars, or older stars. Roger Federer doesn't have time to go on the show; Monica Seles does.

What can you learn from "Dancing with the Stars"? First, the difference between a dancer and a non-dancer. The people who partner the stars on the show are not just professional ballroom dancers; in their field they are bigger stars than their partners are in their fields. I don't know why they're up there, dragging those klutzes around--the pay must be good--but when you watch them dancing with non-professionals you will see what makes a person a dancer. Contrary to widespread belief, the main difference is not in the feet but in the upper body--the neck, the shoulders, the arms, which are stiff in the amateur and relaxed and eloquent in the professional. The other giveaway is in "line." You may think you don't know what that is, but, as with consonance in music, you do know. It is the carriage of the body in a way that seems harmonious and natural, as opposed to awkward and forced. Poor Monica Seles, with every step she took, ended in a position that no human being has ever willingly assumed. She was eliminated in the first round. …

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