Dancing Stars Legit

Hosted by

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Shawn Johnson was a star of the Beijing Olympics last August. As of Tuesday night, with her upset win on Dancing with the Stars, Johnson's a much bigger star. It's a hard-hitting sign of our times that the trophy of a reality television show, a mirrored disco ball, carries more weight than an Olympic gold medal but even the hype and summer dominance of the Olympics can't compete with the sustained huge audiences that tune in by the many millions every week for almost three months to Dancing with the Stars.

Johnson is the third Olympic athlete to win the mirrored ball in the show's eight seasons. Short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi were the other two. And in each of the cases, I found myself following the season of mambos and waltzes with the possibility of ballroom dancing as an Olympic sport in mind. The idea has been bandied about for more than a decade now. Ballroom dancing was even performed as an exhibition sport at the Sydney Games back in 2000. Since then, both the International Olympic Committee and the International Federation of Sport have formally included ballroom dancing on their lists of legitimate sports, although they use the name DanceSport, instead of Ballroom Dance. There is a study floating around from a team of exercise physiologists executed in 1986. They took output measurements from Olympic swimmers and half-mile runners and ballroom dancers over a two-minute period and found that the dancers exerted as many work calories, processed as much oxygen, and produced as much lactic acid as the swimmers and runners.

You can simply eyeball a body and appreciate what athletic work it's been doing to be carved as it is. Those professional dancers on the popular television show, both the men and the women, are as close to perfect lean body mass and highly cut definition as any athletes in the sports arena. The eleven-week Dancing with the Stars format gives the audience a chance not only to respond to the various personalities of the contestants, but you truly understand and appreciate the athleticism required.

The practice sessions in the rehearsal studios for Dancing with the Stars are grueling, sometimes overwhelming. Shawn Johnson had never seen a samba, much less danced one, three months ago. Each week, she was faced with the daunting task of learning the intricate footwork, the body language and specific body part positions, the rhythm and personality, and the complex choreography of a brand new, completely different dance. In this one, the chin should always be high. In this one, you've got to work off the toes, not the heels. In this one, the bodies shouldn't separate. A hundred new details every week. Sometimes two new dances in one week.

I watched Shawn Johnson last summer in Beijing. She was not only a champion on the floor, etc, but she was admired for her beaming positive spirit even when she finished with some silver instead of her projected many golds. Yet, frankly, watching her through these weeks of Dancing with the Stars has presented her athletic virtuosity in much more clear and dramatic light than her gymnastic performances.

I can think of a dozen or so sports I would drop from the Olympic calendar. Rhythmic gymnastics comes immediately to mind. And I can't think of a sport on the potential future docket more in keeping with the Olympic parameters than Ballroom Dancing.

Who knows? Olympic ice skating has forever been embroiled in controversy over unfair results due to judges' subjective voting. Maybe Ballroom Dancing will become the ultimate “peoples'” sport and continue the Dancing with the Stars format of determining the gold medal champion by a combination of expert judges and worldwide, real-time, text voting.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Banner image: Shawn Johnson and partner Mark Ballas perform a winning paso doble to win this season's championship on Dancing with the Stars. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC



Diana Nyad