Eight hours of practice and an utter lack of common sense have brought me here, poised to descend 19 steep steps to the ballroom floor of “Dancing With the Stars.”
I lean heavily on a backstage railing, hyperventilating, and await the cue. Outwardly, I have undergone the transformation from entertainment reporter to salsa dancer, ready to perform before a live audience in strappy heels and a zebra dress with a plunging neckline and beaded fringe that sways with every teetering step.
Inside, I am a knot of anxiety.
I ask my professional dance partner, Jonathan Roberts, whether he’d be able to carry me down the stairs should I faint. He laughs and says there’s a bucket at the bottom in case I feel sick.
As the audience begins to applaud, Roberts takes my hand and we make a grand entrance. Mercifully, the lights blind me to the 720 people seated in Studio 46 in the Fairfax district -- and to the panel of three judges who will evaluate my performance. Paddles and all.
Host Tom Bergeron greets us onstage and asks: “What possessed you to do this?”
It started as a dare.
A few months ago, an ABC network executive told me about a team-building exercise he’d gone through: a crash course in ballroom dancing similar to what the celebrity contestants on “Dancing With the Stars” endure. He challenged me to take the same test of stamina and nerves, and I quickly accepted. Having never watched the network’s top-rated show, I had no idea what I was in for.
“Dancing With the Stars,” whose ninth season concludes Tuesday, chronicles a 10-week competition between dance pairs, each consisting of a professional dancer and a celebrity. Every week, the pros teach their partners a waltz, fox trot, cha-cha or other dance routine, which they perform live on Monday nights before the judges. The couples are scored on technique, footwork, posture and overall theatricality. Then viewers vote by phone or online. The results are revealed live on Tuesday nights, when contestants with the lowest scores are eliminated.
Camera crews capture the whole stressful stew: the six- to eight-hour rehearsals, the frayed nerves and the sheer nakedness of stepping outside one’s professional comfort zone.
I agreed to five days of training over two weeks, about the amount of time the pros and their partners have to master a new routine. At the end, Roberts and I would perform before a studio audience. The only difference was that our Latin number would not be broadcast to 17 million viewers.
Like the musicians, entertainers, sports figures and others who risk their dignity on “Dancing With the Stars,” I had no ballroom training. I’m also bereft of coordination, and worse, I’m a control freak who can’t allow a partner to lead.
So it was with more qualms than confidence that I arrived at Roberts’ optimistically named You Can Dance Ballroom Studio in Hermosa Beach on a Thursday afternoon last month to start training.
Roberts, the 2008 U.S. and world smooth ballroom dance champion, is regarded as one of the show’s most talented and patient instructors. He tells me we’ll perform the same salsa routine he danced in fall 2007 with singer Marie Osmond -- “minus the fainting,” he adds, referring to the entertainer’s on-camera collapse after a dizzying samba.
It soon becomes clear that I have my own issues. My posture is rigid, my movements stiff, like the toy soldiers in Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” Balance is another challenge. I’m taking awkward giant steps, instead of the dainty ones called for, and it throws me off-balance, making me sway precariously -- and I’ve not yet strapped on my 2 1/2 -inch Latin heels.
Roberts and I spend 90 minutes walking through the opening of the dance, in which we circle one another and cast suggestive glances. Later that night, I watch Osmond’s performance on YouTube and come to a disconcerting realization: We’d spent an hour and a half learning 21 seconds of a dance that stretches on for another minute. We hadn’t gotten past the easy introductory part.
What have I gotten myself into?
I arrive at the studio at 9 a.m. Friday, over-caffeinated, eager and an hour early. Roberts greets me with the news that he’s cut the routine down to 50 seconds.
He takes me through the three major sections. Then, he adds a new element: music. We’ve been rotating around the dance floor, counting out the steps to a 1-2-3 rhythm. Adding the brisk “Mambo No. 8" -- even at a radically slowed tempo -- proves overwhelming. I lose count and forget everything we’ve just rehearsed.
Roberts talks about the importance of using mnemonic tricks to recall the segments of the dance. Typically, women construct a narrative -- you’re rejecting me here, you’re drawing me in there, you’re stopping me now -- to carry them through. Alas, I’m one of those people who learns through repetition. He says this means we’ll be dancing the routine over and over, until the salsa becomes a reflex.
“Some people learn really, really quickly, and forget about it tomorrow,” Roberts said. “Other people take a really long time to learn, but once they learn it, they’ve got it, no problem. People that do the best are people that can, like cramming for a test, just memorize . . . and forget by tomorrow.”
My quick course resumes the following Tuesday with a trip to wardrobe, where costume designer Randall Christensen conjures the show’s rhinestone and jewel-encrusted creations under the constant pressure of the clock.
After each Tuesday show, Christensen meets with the remaining pairs to discuss the next week’s routines. The pros describe their visions for the choreography while he furiously sketches costumes to fit the mood.
Wednesday mornings, Christensen scours the downtown garment district. Hours later, the silks and satins are delivered to cutter-fitters who translate Christensen’s sketches into performance pieces. The costumes are sewn at a breakneck pace, in time for fittings Friday and Saturday. The garments are beaded, stoned and feathered overnight Sunday.
Often, the glue’s still wet when the dancers don their costumes for dress rehearsal Monday.
I’m getting a more off-the-rack experience. Christensen hangs six dresses in a fitting room that range, in terms of body exposure, from “oh my” to “no way.”
One orange-and-red fringe micro-dress, worn on the show by Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson, is cut out at the sides. A blue-sequined dress boasts a lightning-bolt cutout that extends from neckline to navel. I opt for the relative cover of a body-gripping, backless black-and-white dress with a revealing neckline.
Christensen says former Spice Girl Melanie Brown once performed in this costume -- although I’m apparently not spicy enough. He hands me some padding to fill out the garment.
When training resumes Wednesday, I have the singular focus that only raw panic can produce. With just three rehearsals left, I worry that the only authentic aspect of my salsa will be Mel B’s sultry dress.
In the predawn hours, one of my neighbors spies me in my driveway, camcorder in hand, counting aloud as I try to follow along with a video of Roberts stepping through my half of the routine.
Roberts arrives for our 10 a.m. lesson exhausted from the night before, when he and his wife, dancer Anna Trebunskaya, did a fox trot on the show while Taylor Swift sang “Love Story.”
We begin adding arm movements to our routine. He asks me to incorporate a shimmy with a series of sidesteps. I tell him Catholic girls don’t grow up shaking it in front of the bedroom mirror. He laughs and says Marie Osmond didn’t know how either. He demonstrates the technique -- which I playfully re-create for my husband over breakfast the next morning, prompting my 17-year-old son, Alex, to cover his eyes and wail, “Warn me before you do something like that.”
On Friday, Roberts and I tackle the part that continues to bedevil me -- the “partner” section, in which he guides me through three sweeping backward dips and a series of drops. I keep missing transitions and flirting with a face plant. And my shimmy has all the sexiness of a convulsion.
I promise to hone the move at home, but Roberts says there’s not enough time. He substitutes a bit of modest shoulder-rocking.
By now, my performance anxiety is high. I wake in the middle of the night and mentally rehearse the dance steps. I practice in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning.
A video crew arrives at Roberts’ studio at 11 a.m. Saturday to capture our final rehearsal. My 10-year-old daughter, Madison, accompanies me. I stand poised to begin -- hands on my hips, right leg bent jauntily, my right heel resting on my left foot. “Mambo No. 8" opens with the familiar “uno, dos, tres.”
It’s good this has happened now, Roberts assures me. He explains that adrenaline or stage fright can make a dancer’s mind go blank. He advises doing whatever I can -- running, jumping, screaming -- to expend nervous energy in the 20 minutes before we reach the ballroom floor.
Madison volunteers that she can’t tell I’ve missed a step unless I make “that face.” Roberts nods and emphasizes the need to smile and project the impression that I’m having fun.
Sunday afternoon, I’m at the McCadden Rehearsal Space in West Hollywood, the setting for the video vignettes that document each week’s rehearsal sessions.
“Iron Chef America” star Mark Dacascos, whose pro partner Lacey Schwimmer has the flu, is in the main rehearsal room, nervously going over his routine with Trebunskaya. Across the hall, pro dancer Dmitry Chaplin lies prone on the dance floor, waiting for his partner, Grammy winner Mya, to emerge from her black Escalade. He frets aloud about the upcoming group dance, a pasodoble, which he says looks like “a mess.”
I’m here for something far less arduous: a spray-tan.
I have never been so exposed for a story.
On show day -- Monday, Nov. 2 -- a morning traffic jam makes me a half-hour late for my 8 a.m. call time.
I’m fussed over like a bride on her wedding day, spending three hours in hair and makeup. I’m seated among the authentic stars, 20 professional dancers and celebrities awaiting the show’s 5 p.m. start. Kelly Osbourne shows off photos of her and fiance Luke Worrall at model Heidi Klum’s Halloween party, dressed as bacon and eggs.
Melanie Mills, head of the makeup department, sits me in front of a mirror and says: “We’re going to sex you out, big time.”
She’s aiming for a smoky look with double sets of false eyelashes and enough bronze and silver color on my eyelids to make my eyes “pop” for those seated in the balconies.
Before we start, Mills sends me off for an additional layer of liquid tanning solution. I spend the morning covered in a thick maroon bathrobe and a deepening tan. Looking like Hugh Hefner in drag -- with my shoulders bared so Mills and an assistant can apply red-and-black body art and rhinestones to my upper left arm -- I’m introduced to Donny Osmond, who confides that a season on “Dancing With the Stars” has been more physically demanding than he expected.
Chief hairstylist Mary Guerrero works a traditional Latin theme with my hair, going for a flowing, voluptuous look. She creates rows of tight pin curls in preparation for a sweeping wave in front, hair extensions to add length and giant red flowers to add interest.
By noon, my nerves are wound as tightly as the locks on my head. The show’s publicist, Amy Astley, leads me to the lunch trailer and encourages me to eat, although I have zero appetite.
At 1 p.m., Roberts meets me on the ballroom floor for our dress rehearsal. He has the flu but insists he’s well enough to perform. We do the routine three times, trying to move in sync with the faint strains from a boombox. I continue to miss steps as I make the transition to our big spin move. “Something always goes wrong,” he says, advising me not to worry. He’ll get me through it.
I make a final, frantic swing through hair and makeup for hair extensions and another coat of lipstick and eye makeup. Next stop: wardrobe, for quick repairs to a shoulder strap. At 4 p.m., I arrive backstage in the “red room,” familiar to viewers of the show as the place where the celebrities and their pro partners lounge on overstuffed couches.
Roberts and I will perform before the start of the broadcast. I compulsively step through the dance, trying to keep the flight instinct at bay and tune out the sounds of the audience members taking their seats.
“Make some noise for Dawn Chmielewski,” announces the show’s warm-up host, Cory Almeida, and the audience responds with riotous applause.
I take my mark on the dance floor, back turned to the judges and crowd, and stare fixedly at Roberts, who is beaming a confident smile.
Roberts says some people don’t remember their performances afterward. I can recall each 1-2-3 step (and misstep) with clarity, although it seemed as though we were moving at twice our usual pace, propelled by applause-fueled adrenaline.
As we complete the number, Roberts hugs me and escorts me to the judges’ table. I hold my breath.
“Dawn, like the rising sun, you were very, very lovely,” says judge Len Goodman. “You did a marvelous job.”
Clearly, the judges have been nipping at flu medicine backstage.
“I didn’t know such a prestigious newspaper would have such slutty, slutty girls,” says judge Bruno Tonioli, by way of compliment.
Carrie Ann Inaba, a former fly girl from the variety show “In Living Color,” nicely sums up my off-kilter salsa.
“It’s not as easy as it looks, is it? I think the hard part for the women are the heels, am I right?” she says. “You were a little wobbly out there, but I think you did your thing.”
We receive a score of 21 out of a possible 30. Not bad for a beginner.
My husband, daughter and some friends come backstage to congratulate me. I’m talking too loud and too fast, hugging anyone within reach, juiced on the thrill of live performance. Suddenly, I understand why stars subject themselves to such a stressful, body-punishing ordeal.
The show’s executive producer, Conrad Green, says he admires my guts.
“You couldn’t have got me out there for love nor money.”