Dancing With The Stars, Season Finale: And The Winner Is …
On Tuesday night’s season finale of “Dancing With The Stars,” the lights will dim, spooky music will play, and the final three contestants – Evan Lysacek, Nicole Scherzinger, and Erin Andrews – will stand on stage with their partners waiting to find out if they are winners or losers.
It’s a painful moment, one that happens to me often as a professional competitive dancer – in fact, it just happened last Saturday night, in a ballroom just outside of Philadelphia. As you stand there waiting, you tell yourself it doesn’t matter who wins, the dancing itself is all that matters. Then they start calling out the names: “In sixth place …” and you breathe a sigh. Whew! At least we’re not sixth!
Then comes the next name: “In fifth place … ” Whew! We’ll get at least fourth place – not bad!
As each name is called, you get more excited. That’s when you realize you’re a liar. You care. Of course you care! Who wouldn’t rather win than lose?
We all compete sometime – whether it’s a game of tennis or being nominated for a professional award – and we like to pretend winning isn’t important. But we’re like those actors at Oscar time who say it’s just an honor to be nominated. Maybe they really believe that at first, but then they get swept up in all the excitement. When they lose – and most of them lose – they are shattered. Why does this happen? We all know how subjective awards are, especially when it come to art. How can you say Tolstoy better than Pushkin? Mozart is better than Beethoven? And does anybody really think Sandra Bullock is a better actress than Meryl Streep?
If you need any proof of how subjective judging can be in ballroom, just look at this season of “Dancing With The Stars.” In Week 3, Nicole rocked the house with an exuberant Quickstep that was nearly perfect technically, a 9.5 in my book. But Len Goodman gave her a 6, calling it a “vaudeville” routine. Huh? Then Pamela Anderson destroyed the Rumba in Week 4, dancing off beat, knees bent instead of straight, and mostly stood around posing, and Bruno Tonioli called it “technically the best dance she’s ever done” and gives her a 9. Were we watching the same dance?
It’s tough to maintain your sanity when you are constantly being judged by standards that sometimes seem impossible to understand. Maybe you have a boss like that. When I retired from competitive dancing in 2003, the main factor was that I wanted a personal life, wanted to start a family. But I was also tired of being constantly judged. I never stopped dancing - I continued to perform in shows in the U.S. and abroad – and it was so liberating to just dance without worrying about what the judges might think.
But then a funny thing happened. I missed it. Not the judging itself – in a perfect world, I’d love to never be judged again – but I missed the way competition made me a better dancer. In a show dance, you can easily hide your weak points by creating a routine that makes you look good, throwing in some flashy tricks to please the crowd. But to be a top competitive dancer means having the whole package – emotion and charisma, beautiful lines, connecting to your partner, and great technique that ranges over the entire syllabus of steps you are required to perform – not just the moves you’re good at. You also need tremendous endurance. In a major competition, there can be five or more rounds. By the end, you are completely exhausted but must find a way to keep going.
I didn’t realized how much I missed that challenge until last summer, when Werner Figar, a 3-time Austrian amateur national champion, asked me to come back to the professional circuit with him in 2010. He had stopped competing to explore modern dance but got the itch again. I was shocked to find myself saying yes. I swore I’d never go back to competitive dancing, which can swallow you up if you don’t have a way to keep things in perspective. But now that I’m married with a family (our daughter is nearly three), I realized that losing a competition won’t devastate me the way it used to.
So there I was Saturday night at the American Star Ball, listening to the announcer call the names of the sixth place finalist for professional International Latin, then fifth place, then fourth. Thankfully, they didn’t dim the lights and play spooky music. But as they called the names, I couldn’t have been more nervous if I were on national television. “In third place … “ They still hadn’t called our names. Werner and I looked at each other. “In second place … ” Someone else got second place. That must mean … we won!
We couldn’t believe it. The American Star Ball was only our third competition together after we’d each been off the circuit for six years. It took awhile for our emotions to catch up to what had happened. There were a lot of great dancers on the floor that night and somehow we ended up on top. It felt surreal, as if all those expectations of not winning – the trick we used to keep our sanity – were colliding with the reality that we had won.
Some friends took us out to dinner to celebrate afterward. But it didn’t take long for an unsettling feeling to take over. Suddenly, I realized that everyone will expect us to win the next one, and the one after that. That’s a terrible feeling, the kind that contributed to my decision to quit six years ago – like you’ll let yourself and everybody else down if don’t come in first every time.
But then you realize else, something strange: Winning is really not all that different from sixth place. When you come in sixth, you wish you’d gotten at least fifth. And when you’re fifth, you want at least fourth. And if you’re fortunate enough to come in first, as we just did, you just want to be first again. And again. And again. It never stops.
On Thursday, Werner and I flew to Vienna for the Austrian National Championships that take place on Sunday (we qualify because Werner is Austrian). Next week we’ll fly to England for the famous Blackpool Dance Festival to go up against some of the best dancers in the world. But the night before I left, I wasn’t thinking about the Rumba or Paso Doble or even how to find a wi-fi connection for my laptop. I was worried about whether I’d remember everything to pack in my daughter’s suitcase for her trip to California with my husband on Friday.
That’s what keeps me sane. That’s what keeps things real. That’s the kind of thing that Evan, Nicole, and Erin should keep in mind on Tuesday night when the lights dim and the spooky music plays.
I hope fans of “Dancing With The Stars” will continue reading my blog after Season 10 ends on Tuesday night, when I’ll shift gears to share my experiences on the professional competitive circuit, starting with the Austrian National Championships (Sunday, 5/23) and Blackpool Dance Festival (Friday, 5/28). You can follow our results on www.tatianawerner.com, our Facebook fan page, Twitter (Tatiana here, Werner here), and watch our dance videos on Youtube. Subscribe to this blog by clicking on the RSS feed icon next to “Ballroom” in the headline above.
Okay, enough talking. Time for dancing! Here is a video of Werner and I competing in the American Star Ball’s International Latin Open Championship on Saturday night. Hope you enjoy …
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