Dancing With the Stars (ABC), America's favorite ballroom-dance kitsch marathon, returned last night for its 10th season. Each of the 11 teams—celebrities matched with professional hoofers—performed one of two steps. There was the cha-cha (for sexiness) and the Viennese waltz (to class up the sexiness), if you care, which I doubt. Who are you kidding? If you were serious about watching dance, you would be watching Giselle or Pilobolus or Beat Street. Context is what matters on Dancing With the Stars—the narratives around the performances, the stories of self-actualization and spiritual liberation and triumph over adversity. The show wouldn't lose much if it were Romping With the Stars or Flirting Hard With the Stars or Being and Nothingness With the Stars, maybe.
We began with the NFL's Chad Ochocinco, whose appeal to the libido was hardly limited to when his shirt was open. (Part of the show's suspense concerns if and when we'll glimpse the men's navels and the women's coin slots.) Trying to seduce both the camera and his partner (in that order), Ochocinco relied on a Jamie Foxx-style ironic-but-not slow-jam technique. His trick was to tease his own preening—comically puckering his lips at his own reflection, for instance. He was spoofing himself as a pretty boy while accentuating his prettiness. And yet, on the dance floor, Ochocinco, despite his hip-switching moves, shared little chemistry with his partner, whose name is Cheryl. It was not precisely erotic when he pressed his face into her sternum.
This anti-eroticism didn't quite matter to Bruno Tonioli, one of the show's judges, a spicy little fellow given to ribald humor. There must a specific term for Bruno's go-to rhetorical move, which is maybe a cousin of paralipis. Five or six times per episode, he serves up a double entendre or potentially saucy comment, and then, having incited in-studio titters, declares something like: No, no, no, that's not what I meant, you naughty, naughty things. Bruno told Ochocinco that he had "a huge, huge, huge … talent yet untapped." Ochocinco played along: "I still got a long way to go. She's gotta keep on drillin' me hard," leaving us with a vision of Cheryl and Ochocinco attempting maneuvers including the sesenta y nueve.
Next came shy, coy, attractively modest Shannen Doherty, this season's heartstring-tugging sweetheart. She told us that she would be dancing for her father, who recently suffered a massive stroke. Given the tenor of the show, it seemed for a moment likely that Shannen was announcing an effort at euthanasia. But, no, it was a tribute, with the actress and her partner dancing to "The Killing Moon"—an Echo and the Bunnymen classic also wonderfully covered by Pavement—but here done with chirping woodwinds. Dad smiled in the audience. Shannen wiped tears from her pale gray eyes as she discussed her anxiety about excelling in a field other than acting—or even in the field of acting itself, for that matter, "because, please, come on." Luv you, Shannen!
Here was ESPN's Erin Andrews talking with the familiar nasal flatness that heightens her girl-next-door appeal. "I'm a perfectionist," she said, as if B.S.-ing through the what's-your-greatest-weakness ritual in a job interview. Here was Jake Pavelka, who had done his part for the sanctity of marriage on The Bachelor. Jake's wife sat in the audience. His dance partner wore a pink dress—blinding salmon, actually—of an innocent Disney-princess cut but with some tight narrow laces across the back in a Jean-Paul Gaultier mode, kinda kinky. Her crooked smile gave her an aspect of nasty mischief, which gave her subtext as a potential temptress. Here, also, was the comic actress Niecy Nash. In an interesting twist on the trope of the sassy black click, she portrayed herself as the zany black chick, horseplaying in rehearsals and such. Her eyelashes, as long as platform boards, indicated that she was sort of performing in drag. Here was figure skater Evan Lysacek wearing a suspect chunk of bling on his wedding-ring finger and earning an inflated score.
I was watching all this in my living room. The wife got home, rather harried after coming in from the rain. She looked at the screen and saw a gentleman who looked like Hugh Hefner from some angles, but no, not quite. "Wait, what's he from?" she asked. I answered, "The moon." Here was 80-year-old Buzz Aldrin. It is a long way from piloting a lunar module to Dancing With the Stars—about a quarter-million miles and just as many levels of dignity. Imagine Charles Lindbergh wandering into They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Asked about his dance experience, Buzz mentioned having attended "hops at West Point," where I assume they imported girls from Vassar and Sarah Lawrence and danced a time-honored step called evade-the-chaperones. On-stage, Buzz was stiff. He didn't risk moving around too much. In order to patronize him thoroughly, the audience members gave him an ovation while standing up, essentially clapping at his ability to do the same.
Then we said hello to Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls, a gyrating pop group. With Nicole having made her name as the most prominent of a pack of well-oiled skanks, her Dancing narrative requires that she do little but class herself up. (The host at one point referred to her and her partner as "Sir Derek and Lady Nicole.") Told that she would be dancing the Viennese waltz, Nicole sputtered with bafflement: "What is that?" Her tone suggested that she'd never heard of Vienna.
Some guy from a soap opera danced with some woman named Edyta. She wore a flapper-appropriate fringe dress, but with the fringe on the diagonal and no dress underneath. Their accompaniment was "Hungry Like the Wolf." They weren't really ballroom dancing. It was more like he was all up in her business in the club, meeting with some success.
We got around to Kate Gosselin, a tabloid creation famous for exploits regarding the issue of her capacious womb. I recently saw Kate in the flesh, if you can call it that, at the premiere screening of the Discovery Channel's Life,a nature documentary series. Among the flaws of Life is the heavy stress it puts on the point that mothers of very many species will go to extraordinary lengths to give their young the very best care possible; no duh. But I suppose that Discovery invited Kate to the Life party to offer a counterexample. Last night, she wore a powder-pink dress with a horribly crystal-flecked bosom. "To all the moms out there, this one is for you," she announced. I need to call my mother anyway, and Kate inspired me to get on the horn and undo that dedication.
We ended with Pamela Anderson, awesome as usual. Pam wore a micro-mini-dress of Schiaparelli pink, tousled hair bigger than Tawny Kitaen's, and an expression communicating that she understood far better than any of the other contestants how to put bad taste to good use. Before her performance, she would let the camera see mock sneers on her face—sneers inspired by her competitors that melted into mock-insincere smiles when she made eye contact them. She was vividly sultry on the dance floor, treating her partner as a mere prop and the audience as a source of energy. Her command of glitzy kitch is intellectual, instinctual, complete. She short-circuited Bruno's double-entendre mechanism such that he could only splutter single-mindedly: "I can only think of sex, sex, and more sex—the dirtier the better." I believe that the number to reach to vote for Pam is 1-800-868-3411. Standard sext-messaging charges apply.
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