“I want to have one of those moments where they go, oh my God, he really worked out on this, he really practiced! I’ve always respected the stars for what they do, now I respect them with every aching muscle and every frayed nerve ending I have.” —Tom Bergeron (host), about to perform his first and only quickstep (Dancing with the Stars Season Two)
ABC’s stalwart Dancing with the Stars has been running for 27 fun, innovative seasons, but this year—this month, this week—its unique brand of pure, guileless joy feels almost miraculous.
Partly this is because, as of Sunday night, it successfully added Dancing with the Stars: Juniors to its disco-ballroom family, and in so doing has shown that the DWTS “all good vibes and constructive criticism” reality-competition model, for reasons I’ll get to shortly, is often more effective when executed by kids.
More acutely, though, the miraculousness of this Dancing with the Stars season (season as in Spring, Summer, Decorative Gourd, etc.) stems from the fact that this year—this month, this week—there are many of us in dire need of uncomplicated joy to replenish our energy reserves, and there are just so few dependable sources for something like that. With rare exception, Dancing with the Stars—and now, Dancing with the Stars: Juniors, hosted not by the affable Tom Bergeron but by the just as affable Jordan Fisher and Frankie Muniz—is one of the most dependable, most broadly accessible sources of uncomplicated joy and energy around. And that? In the truest, most literal sense, feels miraculous.
Let me back up. It is possible that you are not a DWTS fan. It is possible that you are not even DWTS fluent. It is even possible (though I despair at the thought) that you are a DWTS skeptic. Wherever you stand outside of DWTS, let me try to win you over to the fan side with a quick Dancing with the Stars 101, using the Dancing with the Stars: Juniors premiere as a case study. There won’t be a test, but there will be a whole rogues’ gallery of exhilarating ballroom routines performed by ecstatic amateurs that will give even the most pummeled soul a moment of warmth. I am not sorry in advance. (It is more than possible that some among you are DWTS cynics and/or haters. I can’t do anything for you. I’m sorry for the gloominess of your world when something as close to pure as DWTS comes up in conversation.)
1. In the Ballroom, No One Can Hear You Scheme
In case you didn’t know: Dancing is not easy. Not just because you have to get over your nerves to go out and shake your body like millions of Americans are watching you live, week after week. Not just because there are so many steps to remember, plus smiling, plus pointing your fingers and toes, or because you need to remember to hold your frame while also keeping time while also not stepping on any toes or hems that might get in your way.
Dancing is hard because it is physical labor. Perfecting a 90-second dance with enough technical and dramatic flair to even half-expect to get voted on to the next week—as an amateur, over the course of a single week—requires hours and hours and hours of daily rehearsal. Which means when you’re on Dancing with the Stars, even though it’s a reality competition, you don’t have the energy to craft an agenda. You don’t have the energy, you don’t have the time, and—once you understand in “every aching muscle and every frayed nerve ending” just exactly how hard every single one of the stars is having to work to make it to next Monday—you don’t have the heart to dabble in any kind of “reality show” scheming, or trash talk, or even, I’d wager, negative thinking. You don’t even have time to read the news (lucky).
You have, in short, absolutely no energy left for artifice on Dancing with the Stars. It is reality television’s most positive crucible. All you have is you. Which is great, because that’s all that Dancing with the Stars wants.
Juniors case study: Kids are unlikely to be serious schemers in the first place, so I’ll make this less a case study than an example of DWTS being all-consumingly difficult, no matter your background, by focusing on 14-year old Mackenzie Ziegler (singer) and her pro partner, Sage, and pro mentor, Gleb.
As the younger sister of dancer Maddie Ziegler, Mackenzie is one of this season’s almost-ringers, but her jazz dance experience appears to translate almost not at all to the ballroom format, and while she is clearly focused on winning, it is equally clear the path won’t be without sweat and sore muscles. The crucible of the dance studio, already hard at work!
(To see #TeamGleb’s final foxtrot, go here. They earned scores of 7/7/8 from Mandy, Val and Adam, who all went beyond emotional responses to give highly technical comments in the judging segment.)
2. I Didn’t Come Here to Not Make a Dozen New Friends
Because it’s so much work, and because everyone participating at every level of the competition understands how much work it is, everyone is equally ready to be blown away by the success of each dance they see, and to swarm the dancers with love and praise the moment they are done. Who knows if these friendships last beyond any star’s final night in the ballroom—I mean, they almost certainly don’t, because that’s how Hollywood (and summer camp, and vacation friendships) work—but in the ballroom, during the competition, everyone on Dancing with the Stars appears to genuinely be rooting for everyone else to do their absolute best, and to genuinely worry when any one of their competitors gets injured or has a dance-ruining fall.
It’s too early in the Dancing with the Stars: Juniors season to see any of these intra-cast bonds form, but here is the first place where the Juniors take on the DWTS model as a visible edge: #Teams.
On Dancing with the Stars, each star is paired up with a pro dancer who doubles as both coach and choreographer. On Dancing with the Stars: Juniors, the “pro” dancers are also kids, and so each dance pair is also paired up with an adult pro from DWTS who, under the title of mentor, serves as coach and choreographer for the kids. What this effectively means is that each dance pair gets to build a friendship outside of the pro/amateur tension, which bond-forming we did get to see glimmers of in this weekend’s premiere.
Juniors case study: black-ish’s Miles Brown, whose mentor, Lindsay, exhorted him and pro partner Rylee to “just become friends with your partner, and you guys are going to be very good.”
I mean, I think they are friends, with a dance like that! It will be so exciting to see them extend that friendship to other teams.
3. I Came Out to Have a Good Time and Honestly, I’m Feeling So Supported Right Now
I came to the DWTS fandom in Season Nine, which was Kelly Osbourne’s season. She went in, like many of each season’s “stars,” as a person known only from her narrowly constructed reality television persona—hers narrower than many, as she was an insecure teenager, and her participation in her parents’ weird, gothy show wasn’t strictly something she chose. Whatever expectation she had for herself going into DWTS, though, and whatever expectations the audience had, were smashed the moment she put on that blue and pink gown for her iconic debut Viennese Waltz. She got to that point because her pro partner supported her, and because her family supported her. And when she reached the judges table at the end of the dance, they were so blown away, and so gracefully effusive—as I would come to learn was their trademark—that Kelly was buoyed through to that season’s Finals. She was a revelation.
She was a revelation, but every season there is a revelation. Every season there are many, across the season as a whole, and in weekly moments, and the pros and judges and hosts (and fellow competitors!) are there every time to support those revelations’ successes and urge them past their failures. Most of the time, when you hear someone say something like, “Well, you were clearly having fun,” it’s a feather-padded insult. Not here. When the judges say that, they mean it. They know that half the dance is enjoying watching how much the stars are enjoying themselves (see: Bobby Bones’ immediately iconic energetic debut from the Season 27 premiere). Maybe these revelations won’t make the Finals, but maybe they will! They can only ever get better, and the DWTS philosophy is that you get better through love, and through criticism that comes from love.
Juniors case study: Akash Vukoti, youngest boy to participate in the National Spelling Bee, his pro partner Kamri, and their pro mentor, Witney.
Akash is young, and brand new not just to dancing, but to even thinking about holding hands with a girl outside of his family (this is not meant to be taken in the slightly uncomfortable, romantic way the show frames it, but just to give context about his starting point). He scored 7s across the board, and is clearly not the most technical or natural dancer, but the judges quickly and rightly praised him for his poise, and his sweetness, and how he performed from the heart. At the same time, they didn’t let the team forget about the content of the foxtrot, which was given real praise by Mandy, but accompanied by the reminder to keep working on technique in the future.
Back on DWTS, Harry Potter’s Evanna Lynch was given constructive criticism in the first episode, and she came back with this knockout. When the will is there, the DWTS model just works.
4. You Had One Job… And You Did It Already in Week One? WHO ARE YOU?!
“What a long week today has been,” we all say, thanks to the ever-widening gyre that is the 2018 news cycle. Time seems long ago to have ceased holding meaning, as the speed at which incompetence and failure occur gets faster by the day.
On Dancing with the Stars, the gyre turns the other way. Time in the ballroom also regularly ceases to have meaning, but there it is because the dancers, ringers and unknown quantities alike, manage to so frequently astound the judges with their abilities.
On DWTS, it’s judge Carrie Ann Inaba who’s usually the one to exclaim “WEEK TWO! It’s WEEK TWO!” when being wowed by dancers. On Juniors, that role seems to have fallen to professional choreographer Mandy Moore—who is, incidentally, sitting in Carrie Ann’s chair—but fellow judges Val Chmerkovskiy and Adam Rippon also showed moments of genuine, gleeful astonishment at various points throughout the Juniors premiere.
Juniors case study: Mandla Morris, fashion designer and son of Stevie Wonder with no apparent dance background, who came out with pro partner Brightyn and pro mentor Cheryl to do a jive to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” that blew all three new judges clean away. “Who are you?! That was professional level!” Mandy exclaimed. “You came alive,” said Val. “A different person. For me, the performance of the night.” For Adam, too: “I didn’t know what to expect, but that was absolutely unbelievable, performance of the night.”
Week one, and Juniors already has a surprise standout. It’s the DWTS way!
Extra Credit: Juniors Edition
Of course, while I will brook no arguments to the good intentions of this franchise and the joy it creates, I will admit that there are some hiccups as DWTS tries to bend its model to fit a younger set. Ballroom dancing, in the way that Dancing with the Stars stages it for maximum spectacle, often relies on skimpy, curve-hugging costumes for the women, and “stories” in the choreography that suggest romance (and a very narrow heterosexual variety of it, at that). Neither of these elements belong in a kids’ competition, but while Disney/ABC seems to have figured out as a general rule that sex, in this case, cannot sell, they don’t seem to have cottoned on to how to consistently dress the girls in the age-appropriate costumes, or to ensure that the choreography doesn’t lean into some weird places. Most costumes and dances were perfectly lovely, but the opening number of the night hit both sour notes in one, as the pro girl dancer came in wearing short suit shorts and leaned over the desk of the “boss” boy partner in a way that was athletically artful, but which played as uncomfortably suggestive. Plus, all but one of the comments in the intro packages about the stars being “cute,” or pointed insinuations about dating, were made by the adult mentors to their kid mentees, in moments where it did not appear as though the mentee had any interest in (or even thought of) pursuing that line of talk.
On the other side of the ballroom, there are aspects of having a cast of kids that makes the DWTS set-up stronger. The point of the dances is the technical and artistic execution of the dances, and so having kids who can never be a legitimate part of a ‘shipping frame by the editors makes that point easier to focus on. Also helping this is the fact that, at the ages at least half of the competitors are, the girls are taller than their boy partners, which, regardless of what the choreography might try to force, automatically obstructs much of the subconscious heteronormative interpretation our brains might be trying to force on us. It forces us in the audience, and the dancers on the floor, to be more creative with our reading of this particular form of art, and that is pretty thrilling!
Also: Kids are very, very bendy.
Now, I don’t anticipate that I will have convinced all staunch Dancing with the Stars skeptics to give the show a shot—and even if you are convinced about DWTS in general, your interest in the Juniors offshoot will obviously depend on your tolerance for the “cute” antics of children and the cognitive dissonance of knowing how much work is required for a show like this, and how they are all still just kids—but in a time when so much about every day is hard, when so much feels like being repeatedly punched in the face, the pure, hard-working, mutually supportive joy at the heart of the Dancing with the Stars ethos is something I am personally grateful for.
Of course, I may change my mind when Juniors has the kids dance to “songs from the year they were born” next Sunday, and I am made to feel exactly as old as I am.
Dancing with the Stars: Junior airs live Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Dancing with the Stars airs live Mondays at 8 p.m., with a results show on Tuesdays. There are some planned crossovers this season, as well as the traditional Disney and Halloween theme nights.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.