Sure, they can act or sing or play sports, but can they dance?
That remains the overriding question as more celebrities learn and display fancy footwork on "Dancing With the Stars," the ABC series that starts its third season Tuesday, Sept. 12. The weekly results program resumes the following night, revealing which couple is eliminated for receiving the fewest of viewers' votes cast online or by phone. Len Goodman, Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli return as judges.
Based on the European hit "Strictly Come Dancing," the show has sired other series that have put famous faces to such tests as skating, cooking and singing. Regardless, strong second-season ratings indicated viewers haven't lost their taste for "Dancing."
Tom Bergeron -- who continues his dual duty for ABC when "America's Funniest Home Videos" resumes Oct. 1 -- is back as host, along with Samantha Harris ("E! News"). The new competitors represent another wide range of backgrounds, from talk show host Jerry Springer and former NFL great Emmitt Smith to MSNBC personality Tucker Carlson and actor Harry Hamlin (whose wife, actress Lisa Rinna, was a previous "Dancing" contestant).
Also on board for the latest round: actresses Vivica A. Fox ("Independence Day") and Monique Coleman ("High School Musical"); actors Mario Lopez and Joe (formerly Joey) Lawrence; singers Sara Evans and Willa Ford; and actress-model Shanna Moakler, a staple of headlines lately for her divorce from musician Travis Barker, with whom she made the unscripted MTV series "Meet the Barkers."
They'll all vie to succeed previous "Dancing" winners Kelly Monaco ("General Hospital") and Drew Lachey, and Bergeron emphasizes the lure that the potential "bragging rights" represent for the stars.
"They're not doing this to become professional dancers," he says, "and they're not doing it for a million dollars or for charity. They're just doing it for our goofy little trophy. There's a certain purity to that, which I find charming."
If new contender Fox feels the same way, she's working up plenty of sweat for the sake of charm. While also making two movies, she is training regularly with "Dancing" partner Nick Kosovich -- who was teamed with Tatum O'Neal last season -- for the challenge.
"I love to dance and to have a good time with it," she says, "but this is all technical dancing. The fox trot, the waltz, the tango ... the people who are professionals have been doing it so long, they make it look easy. Believe me, it is not! The bottoms of my feet tell me that every day."
Also known for getting physical from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies, Fox spent two years as a star and producer of the Lifetime drama series "Missing," and she recognizes the significance of the "Dancing" audience.
"That's one of the main reasons I decided to do it," she says. "Almost 30 million viewers? OK! Some of the competitors from last season were like, 'Train, whatever you do, make sure you practice, and take it seriously. If you don't, it'll show.' With each rehearsal, it becomes more comfortable for me. It's like you start understanding and digesting it a little more."
To prep for each season of "Dancing," Bergeron does Internet research on the celebrities involved, "just to get little background stuff. I have a certain level of familiarity with them anyway, but it's always fun to read up on things at my leisure. With Sara and Willa, I've listened to some more of their music. I know some of the people really well, like Harry; I had been pushing him to do the show, and having Lisa continue to be a presence in the show (by rooting for her spouse as an audience member) is a real dividend."
Bergeron believes his former role as host of the syndicated "Hollywood Squares," for which he won a Daytime Emmy Award, gave him a good basis for "Dancing With the Stars." He reflects, "When you have those nine boxes to fill, you have people from film and music and sports. In this case, it's also political commentary and wacky talk shows, so you cover the gamut and hit more fan bases. That's one of the things we always tried to do on 'Squares,' and you can certainly see it in this new lineup."
Fox comes into "Dancing" having met some of her fellow amateurs previously. "I know Mario," she reports, "and I know Emmitt, who is just awesome. The fact that he's going to step totally out of his genre is courageous." As friendly as the novice dancers may be on the sidelines, all bets will be off once the contest begins in earnest. "The sense of competition definitely creeps in," Fox says. "You don't want to lose."
If some "Dancing With the Stars" entrants start slowly, Bergeron cautions viewers not to judge too hastily. "You never know," he says from experience. "The first season was good, but I think the second season was even more of a phenomenon. You look at these people as familiar names on a piece of paper, then you see the camaraderie and the rivalries that develop and the real passion that these people put into this."