It may have been short-lived, but my experience on DWTS was intense. Every single person I come across, friends and strangers alike, start with their own assumption: “It must have been SO MUCH FUN!!” Actually, fun is not the word for my particular adventure. It was intense.
After minor knee surgery end of December, I started getting this swimmer’s body prepped for dance immersion. And, from the moment I met my partner, the sublime Henry Byalilov, it was total immersion indeed. That month is what I take with me. Like most people, I have always loved to dance. And what is perhaps a laughable statement now (lol), I have all my life been considered a pretty good dancer by my peer group. Yet I found the steps of the dances I got to take to the DWTS Ballroom (Foxtrot and ChaChaCha) challenging. To watch Henry demonstrate the roll of hips, the precision of footwork, the balance of frame was to spend many hours a day with a master of any art or sport. I was riveted to learn about transfer of movement, forward lean in Latin dances, flexed legs in ballroom, along with a hundred other dance and body details. Henry was delightfully articulate as he taught. He would sing and count and use his rhythm phrases (tic y tak y tak y tak). Now a mere 28, he started dancing seriously in his native Australia at the age of 8. So here he is, a veteran of Broadway (Burn the Floor), an elegant ballet dancer, with his first chance to be a principal dancer on DWTS. He took me as far as I could go in both dances. Absurd, and obvious, to say I don’t have the ability of Meryl or James or Danica. But Henry was masterful, as both teacher and choreographer, to make sure I tackled the highest level I could personally achieve in the time we had to rehearse.
Both nights, Henry declared I did the dances the best I ever did them. Neither of us could ask any more of me. I will admit to you that while I shined a big smile and held my head high that night of elimination, my pride was wounded. One, I so very much wanted to continue at least a few more weeks so that the country could get to know Henry the way I know him. If only his partner next season has the potential to go far in the competition! Two, I of course had to be prepared for possible elimination. Optimism and confidence are to be admired, but realism and the grace of acceptance are also part of chasing any dream. Henry and I were lauded for our class upon announcement of our departure. Neither of us would behave in any other way. But I ask you….was it fair, was it right, was it class for the show to point-blank tell us we’re out and not even accord us the respect of hearing the judges’ opinions and scores? Is not the raison d’etre of the show to work and improve? Henry and I spent a disciplined, ardent, devoted week prepping that Cha Cha. Why were we not allowed to dance it, along all the other competitors, and learn our fate the way the other eliminated couple did that night, after a video of our week in the studio, after the judges’ comments?
What good does it do to nit-pick some of the production decisions? It is after all a Reality Television show, not an athletic paradigm of justice. As I do with everything in my life, I threw myself into my month with passion and unbridled commitment. I have long been a fan of the show, always wanted to participate. That dream has come to pass and I’m terribly grateful for the privilege.
Again, it’s not really the show itself, nor even the people involved (although those friendships no doubt would have deepened with more time on the show)….but rather the concentrated time with Henry that meant something to my life. I embraced the eccentricities of a dancer for a full month. Nothing else. The stretching, the recovery, the eating, the music, the memorizing of the choreography, going to sleep watching Henry’s instructions over and over on the ipad, the steep learning curve, the heels. I started to take prescription patches of Lidocaine pain medicine, cut strips for the balls of my feet….those heels were yet another challenge for me…but I was dealing!
I can’t speak for the other couples but in our short month together, along with the physicality of the dance rehearsals, Henry and I opened to each other. This is a young man with a razor-sharp intelligence, a gentlemanly charm, and a vibrant sense of delight. He speaks so fondly of his father, a man of many artistic talents but unfortunately faced with financial pressures and thus never got to pursue his dreams. And now he’s Henry’s biggest fan, so proud of his son who is throwing all his energy and focus into his flourishing dance career. Henry and I ate meals together, went to Cirque du Soleil to garner even more inspiration. We talked in the abstract about the differences between the male and female body, about my vision to do a one-woman stage show, about his refreshing view of America as a land of ambition and realizing one’s potential. And, by the way, I joked a few times about not suffering through the time of being locked in a dance studio with Henry, our warm bodies pressed up against each other for hours on end. So the gay community says: Say, what? We thought you were gay! Yes, I’m gay. I’m not dead.
I found each and every pro and celebrity warm and caring and embracing of the moment, as were Henry and I. Most of us would practice at the same location. We’d help each other with both emotional stuff going on….and with our actual routines. Sean Avery said to me one day: “I suck at this!” Sean’s an athlete. Intense. Demanding of himself. And I said to him: “OK, let’s say you do suck. So why don’t you go out there and suck double time?” And Sean had similar advice for me. He appeared sullen to some. I really liked him.
Derek Hough showed me a great deal of respect. He took the time to watch The Other Shore documentary and welled up with tears in telling me how much the story moved him. I have read several tweets saying too bad I’m not still on the show because, after Derek constantly having talented partners, it would be some kind of poetic justice to wind up with me on the switch week….finally a true challenge for him. Sorry to disappoint, Derek….lol.
Who can doubt that Meryl Davis is arguably the most talented dancer ever to perform on the show? She is simply dazzling. She and Maks make their complex routines appear effortless. I am in awe. Whenever one of the stars can allow the pro partner to show off, then you’ve got magic working on the floor. As a matter of fact, as an unabashed fan, I can safely declare this to be the highest level of talent among the stars in the history of the show. Along with Meryl, James is smooth as butter. Charlie is light as air, so very debonaire. Danica executes such a high technical and artistic level every time she steps on the floor. Candace has body control and expression in spades. And Amy Purdy is nothing short of miraculous.
Henry and I pretty much knew the depth of the field our very first morning together, for the first Good Morning America announcement of the cast. We were in the make-up trailer at 1:30am. Charlie and pro Tony Dovolani were kidding around doing some triple spins on the toes of their sneakers, landing with a sharp staccato pose for cameras at the end of the spins. Henry and I needed no words. Then, Meryl came over to take a piece of fruit from the buffet table. She just can’t help her grace. She lightly spun, lifted a pointed toe toward the ceiling as she took a slice of cantaloupe. Again, no need for words between me and Henry. Just then, in humorous relief, Billy Dee struggled by with a cane. Surely, we thought, there’s one we can beat. But we were soon to learn none of that mattered. All we could do is live our time together, Henry and I, in fierce and utter conviction. And so we did.
I had wonderful connections with all the cast…and the pros as well. Maks exudes his Russian, passionate roots. Henry actually is also of Russian descent, both parents from there. I loved hearing Henry chat in Russian with Maks, Val, Karina. Meryl shared with me the insular world of skating, where she has lived since age two, literally. She told me, aside from her mother, with whom she has a close relationship, she had never had the kinds of conversations she and I had with other women. Too much cutthroat competition in the skating world. We would hang in the make-up trailer a bit, talking about creativity….her face alive with joy at the chance to throw her whole self into these dances. I found young Cody Simpson incredibly kind and curious and polite. If he’s on his way to taking Justin Bieber’s place as a pop star, I’ll be in the front row. James Maslow also is about as sweet as they come. He and Charlie, as far out of my league as could be, always asked how I was coming along, gave me encouragement. Candace actually came to me in tears after my Foxtrot the first week. She knew how hard it was for me and was proud that I actually got through it….I won’t forget her kindness that night. Especially the horribly unflattering dress…that was a tough night for me…and my ego.
But back to the positive and that was the extraordinary level of engagement with Henry. I wound up unpacking my dance bag at home each night, to air out my dance shoes, soak my stockings….much as I would unpack my swim bag at the end of each training day. I loved the body dancing produces. I was proud that I never felt any soreness to speak of but I surely felt my body tightening and leaning out. And I started eating like Henry and the other dancers. There isn’t much fat, not to mention carbs, consumed in that group. But, far as I’m concerned, they are exquisitely beautiful bodies. The women are not in the least anorexic. They eat plenty. They train hard. They work. They’re both muscular and feminine. I have covered all kinds of sports over the last 35 years. And I’m profoundly admiring of all kinds of athletes’ discipline and body development. Make no mistake, these dancers are world-class athletes. It was a privilege to observe them….and try in my remedial way to mimic them.
I actually felt strong withdrawal pains the week following my elimination. Yes, I wanted to be out there to compete. Wanted to work hard and prove I could markedly improve. Wanted to have my chance, once Billy Dee bowed out. But the withdrawal pains, in keeping with what I treasured about my time on the show, were due to missing the zealous sessions with Henry. I miss the rehearsals, the total dedication, the fanaticism.
This for me was akin to any of you getting to leave your work, your families, for a month and give over to a passion of yours….with a world-class teacher all your own. It might be chess….or golf….or oil painting. I got to dive full throttle into the world of dance with one very talented, noble, well-spoken Henry Byalikov. It was a magnificent month. One I shall never forget.
So much has come my way since achieving my lifelong Dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida last Labor Day. I have signed a major book deal. I’ve met President Obama, Oprah, and many others I sincerely admire. I spread my word of living an inspired, gutsy, bold life in speaking engagements all over the world. So, at first blush, competing on DWTS would seem a frivolous blip on the radar screen for me. But, au contraire, it was yet another chance for me to live out loud my philosophy of tackling every challenge with no room for regrets. I didn’t “win” on DWTS, but I lived out loud. No regrets.
Thank you, Henry. I cherish our time together and all you taught me.