Monday night's Dancing With the Stars marked Bristol Palin's debut and cemented her role, in a field of the usual B-list entertainers and athletes, as the contestant who brings real-life baggage to the dance floor. In other words, the contestant we will gossip about.
The big question about Palin going into the competition was how the abstinence advocate would navigate between the sultry, crackling sensuality demanded by ballroom dance—especially Latin styles—and the trashiness quotient of the show. Could she or couldn't she, in her words, "bring sexy to the cha-cha and not embarrass her mom"?
Bristol toed the line by teasing the audience with a little ruse: She emerged on the floor to the song "Mama Told Me Not To Come" in a dowdy gray suit coat and shapeless skirt, which her partner yanked off to reveal ... a pretty-short-but-otherwise-prom-appropriate red dress. Was the intent to say, "Take that, Mom! I'm America's next top maverick!"? Of course not. One can imagine Sarah beaming with pride at the hokey gimmick. It was an attempt to create the excitement of scandal while not actually being scandalous. In the world of ballroom dance—and especially within the tawdry Dancing With the Stars dress code—the outfit was hardly shocking.
What about her dancing? I should pause here to say that, while I have no background in interpreting the mysterious ways of the Palin clan, I have quite a bit in ballroom dance. I took lessons from a terrific instructor—whom I married—and we do armchair ballroom-dance commentary while watching professional competitions on PBS. But fairly critiquing the performances by dance novices on Dancing with the Stars is totally different. It's hard to separate Bristol, the dancer, from Bristol, the conservative abstinence-rallying daughter. Physically she was well-prepared for the dance: That short dress showed off well-sculpted legs that could execute the rapid footwork of the cha-cha. But you dance the cha-cha with your whole body, not just your legs. With the exception of a few fun hip thrusts, her torso was stiff, each snap and turn tentative. I wondered whether she was holding back, in an attempt to tone down the sexiness that puts the Latin in Latin dance. (This may have proved especially difficult with her over-amorous dance partner, Mark, who during the judging couldn't keep his hands off Bristol despite her constant wriggling—a show of abstinence if there ever was one.) Overall she demonstrated the effects of good training and a sincere effort, but it's not clear that Bristol has the talent to become a fluid, commanding dancer.
The judges were kind in their critiques , seeming to sympathize with the fact that Palin doesn't have the show biz background that gives most other contestants an advantage. (Judge Bruno Trolioli couldn't resist a tacky, unfunny double-entendre in his remarks: "For you, this is virgin territory.") But their scores—straight sixes—were harsh when compared with those awarded other contestants: The frail, boring performance by Florence Henderson earned the same marks, and non-dances by Margaret Cho and Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino were judged just one point below that level.
In future rounds, Bristol may reach a comfort zone that will enable her to separate herself from this bottom of the barrel. Will her conservative dignity win her points when she performs the waltz? Or will she continue to dance around the issue of faux-sexuality?