Unlikely partners

Times Staff Writer

IT'S easy to dis the ABC reality series "Dancing With the Stars." The nondancing C-list celebrities training to compete for the ugliest trophy on Earth. The backless, sideless and sometimes nearly frontless dresses that make red-carpet fashion excess look comparatively tasteful. The rock hits used to update hoary ballroom dances that must be respected, chapter and verse, lest the judges denounce the offender with apocalyptic fury.

Except for the judges, all the hallmarks of this unlikely TV hit were on view Thursday when "Dancing With the Stars: The Tour" came to Staples Center: the sixth stop on a virtually sold-out 38-city itinerary. Most of the leading lights of Season 3 were missing (champion Emmitt Smith and runner-up Mario Lopez, for starters), but the show and its response confirmed the obvious:

At a time when even PBS' "Great Performances" series has turned its back on dance, such network series as "Dancing With the Stars" and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" represent a new beginning for dance as a popular art, an affirmation of the work ethic, self-affirmation and above all, the sheer pleasure involved with dancing and watching others dance.

When Season 2 champ Drew Lachey clawed the air on Thursday while performing to "Thriller," it generated a recognition-ovation like nothing else in dance these days other than the upward group reaches in the opening section of Alvin Ailey's "Revelations" or the ballerina's floor-skimming entrance in Mikhail Fokine's "The Dying Swan."

Like any dance audience, Lachey's public remembers what it sees, and its knowledge is enhanced by an educational component in the TV series and the live tour that teaches everyone what to watch for in the quickstep, pasodoble or cha-cha-cha, and how to measure a dancer's strengths as performer and technician. That's dance literacy, folks, limited in scope but genuine. And a place to start from.

As directed by Carrie Ann Inaba (a judge on the TV show) and choreographed by Louis Van Amstel, the stage show recycled successful dances, partnerships and formats from the program but also had its problems. On a telecast, with everyone watching the clock, you can understand that songs have to be drastically edited -- but why on a live tour? And why insist that Latin dances be performed to anything but Latin music -- a policy that pretty much destroyed every rumba on the program and reached its most bizarre expression in a group pasodoble to the opening of Carl Orff's cantata "Carmina Burana."

On TV, "Dancing With the Stars" was a contest, and competition brought out the best in the celebrities. On the tour, they're faced with the task of keeping their routines fresh, city after city, something their professional partners easily managed on Thursday but left Lachey, in particular, looking effortful compared with the video clips of him on view. Moreover, he seemed to have lost pliancy.

Of the other "Stars," Joey Lawrence (Season 3) and Lisa Rinna (Season 2) proved the most successful at matching the pros, delivering a level of speed, precision and flexibility that could scarcely be bettered in these choreographies. However, Joey McIntyre (Season 1) looked stylish only when strolling down a staircase while singing excerpts from his new CD; on the dance floor, he proved lazy-legged, leaving the real dancing to his overworked partner. And Harry Hamlin (Season 3) needed someone to shape his growing skills and instinct for elegant simplicity into a genuine style; on Thursday even his waltz with Rinna (his wife) made little impact.

The pros assigned to the celebs -- Van Amstel, Cheryl Burke, Edyta Sliwinska, Kym Johnson and Karina Smirnoff- -- not only provided ideal support but also excelled in specialty dances created for the tour. An additional cadre of dancers plus fine tour musicians and singers added to the luster of an evening that also included a dance contest (voted on by the audience) for 11 local couples -- one won by the cha-cha-ing Martin Barthold and Sophia Venable.


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