I was having dinner at a neighborhood restaurant when I overheard two Boomer-age women talking about the premiere of season 14 of "Dancing With the Stars." They obviously loved the show and they were especially taken with music legend Gladys Knight, the oldest contestant of the evening at 68. Their enthusiasm piqued my interest although I've resisted watching DWTS until now. I'm far from a ballet snob and I teach some social dancing from around the world in my own arts-in-education company, but dance competitions of any sort have never appealed to me.
In the classical ballet world, the increasing emphasis on show-off tricks in such events as Youth America Grand Prix has spawned a generation of amazing technicians who generally lack essential artistry. Also, the lucrative touring competition industry that pits students from local dance schools against one another often simply allows studio owners to display plastic trophies as proof of prowess that is in fact lacking. As for ballroom competitions, that's more of a tradition, yet I've always thought the judging is so subjective as to be pretty much meaningless.
Even so, I couldn't help finally checking out DWTS to see why those women at the next table in the restaurant were enthralled with it. Because ABC makes full episodes available online, I was able to watch the March 19th show on my computer.
Verdict: The dancing was terrific, far better than I had anticipated! Even the snarkiest of the judges, Len, proclaimed this to be the best season opener ever. I have nothing with which to compare it, but I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw. If you want to read the kind of barbs the gossip columnists write about DWTS, you'll have to go find them. I'm not at all inclined to put any of these contestants down! I was totally charmed when Gladys Knight, a vision in red, said the Pips never let her dance but that she was getting her turn at last. Then she stepped out there and looked great on the dance floor! I also thought Martina Navratilova at 55 was positively endearing as she did her best to make the transition from tennis great to dancer. Sherri Shepherd, almost 45 and weighing in at a self-confessed 168 pounds, won my heart when she fairly floated through her dance with an infectious smile on her face the whole time. How sweet was it that her song was "Sherry Baby"? Oh, and the pros weren't half bad either! Two thumbs up for all of them.
What's so funny is that I now realize that the mission of my own company, which is to give underserved school kids the chance to dance, is not unlike the point of the show. I'm all for getting everybody up and dancing regardless of experience or skill level. Watching the stars' initial hesitant steps in the dance studios and then seeing them pull off surprisingly polished routines in the ballroom after only a few weeks of lessons was delightful, and very similar to what happens with the children and teens I teach in the schools.
That said, I'm still not thrilled about the hopefuls being "voted off" one by one. My mission in the schools is about teamwork, personal best, and building self-esteem -- and not about winning or losing. I understand that the contest format of DWTS is what keeps viewers coming back week after week to see the results, and I even get it that having the judges criticize the dancers is part of what fuels interest, especially when the adoring crowd boos the remarks. But, sorry, I'll never enjoy those aspects of the show.
I did tune in again on Monday, March 26th for the second episode of the season to watch the contestants strut their stuff in the jive and the quick step. In spite of what I just said about last week's show and my desire not to put anyone down, I do have to admit that this week the quality was generally not as high. That's simply because the dance forms are so much harder than the cha cha and the fox trot. The Boomers fared the worst this time around as they tried valiantly to execute the devilishly fast and demanding routines. There's a reason dancers (and athletes) retire at an age when people in other careers are just getting on a roll. Requiring non-dancers who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to do the physically challenging numbers that were on the roster for the second show is unrealistic and spoiled the fun for me.
Will I turn the show on Tuesday night to see who gets eliminated? Nope. I'll skip that, thank you very much. A real audition in the dance world, à la "A Chorus Line," I appreciate. But seeing amateur dancers who happen to be celebrities getting cut from a TV show doesn't interest me – especially if they're Boomers who are being pushed beyond what they (or even retired professional dancers their age) could reasonably be expected to accomplish.
But will I tune in to DWTS in the future? Yes. I named my company Ballet Ambassadors because I wanted to be an ambassador who spreads goodwill about the joy of dancing, and I wanted to build audiences for dance. DWTS is for the most part doing exactly that. And a lot of the time, if these two weeks are any indication, it's just plain a pleasure to watch!
Sondra Forsyth is a Senior Editor at ThirdAge and the Founder and Artistic Director of Ballet Ambassadors.